After the long break without games, the Cardinals picked up where they left off, and now O’Neill and Thomas have a short time to maximize the opportunity given them. The Cards spent most of the offseason and spring insisting they would give their young outfielders the first crack at the opening in left field, and they have maintained that thinking into summer. President of baseball operations John Mozeliak has often said that St. Louis wants to see what it has with the two outfielders after not giving them much Major League playing time the past few years.
“I think just to take advantage of what he’s saying,” Thomas said. “I feel like not many people get that opportunity, so I feel like how I went about it last year and this year is just not taking those situations for granted and kind of going about it the right way and doing what’s best for the team.”
The two outfielders are looking to pick up where they left off in spring, with the added bonus of the work they put in during almost four months away.
O’Neill remained in West Palm Beach, Fla., during the break instead of returning home to British Columbia. He worked with Cardinals hitting coach Jeff Albert three times a week, and he spent the time he wasn’t hitting focusing on his diet, approach and stretching. O’Neill said he worked on “little things” mechanically while also reflecting on his swing and his identity as a hitter. He knows he’s a power hitter -- he’s a year removed from hitting 18 homers for the organization, including five in the Majors -- but he also struck out 53 times and walked just 10 in 141 Major League at-bats. With better balance and more time to see the ball, O’Neill hopes to cut down on those strikeouts.
“It comes back to knowing yourself,” O’Neill said. “It comes back to knowing what you can do with pitches you can handle, and I think we’ve been working really good there. We’ve been working tirelessly.”
With his power, O’Neill is an appealing designated-hitter candidate this season if the Cardinals want Thomas and O’Neill in the same game. But O’Neill has worked on his defense with Cardinals coach Willie McGee dating back to last season, and since returning to Busch Stadium, the two have spent time in the outfield working on O’Neill’s footwork, transfers and throwing position. The attention to detail in the field, on the bases and at the plate has not gone unnoticed.
“We know his offense is going to carry him by and large to be an everyday player,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “But that being said, there’s so many other skill sets that he can do to help us win baseball games and create value for himself and for us.”
Thomas returned to Knoxville, Tenn., and had access to a high school field to get work in. He worked out with two of his best friends, Reds center fielder Nick Senzel and Astros Minor League pitcher Kyle Serrano. One of the pitchers Thomas faced consistently was Rangers left-hander Mike Minor.
After a breakout Minor League season in 2018, when he hit a career-high 27 homers, Thomas made a splash by homering in his first Major League start in ’19. He made the most of a small sample size last year, hitting .316 in 38 at-bats with a 1.093 OPS. His combination of speed, defense and occasional power makes the Cardinals eager to see how he does with more playing time, and the 24-year-old is eager to show them during Summer Camp and into the season.
“It feels good to do good things with the team and perform in front of people who actually make those decisions,” Thomas said Sunday.
The Cardinals have yet to publicly discuss roles this season, and they feel both players are “in a good spot," Shildt said. O’Neill and Thomas could have different roles throughout 2020 -- O’Neill could move from left field to designated hitter, and Thomas could move around the outfield, filling in for Harrison Bader in center field or Dexter Fowler in right.
Regardless of role, now is the opportunity to make the most of the playing time.
“I’ve thought about it more like, 'How do I get myself ready?'” Thomas said. “Not going to go out and trying to outplay everybody kind of way. For me, it’s, 'How do I get myself locked in for when these at-bats start to matter?'”