Unpacking nuts and bolts of O'Neill trade

December 11th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Ian Browne’s Red Sox Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

BOSTON -- Coming off an interesting week for the Red Sox, in which they subtracted one outfielder (Alex Verdugo) who could benefit from a change of scenery and added another in the same boat (), there are some things to unpack.

That’s what we’re here for.

Why add O’Neill?

On the surface, adding a right-handed hitter who compiled subpar numbers in 2023 (.231 average, nine homers, 21 RBIs and a Baseball Reference WAR of 0.3) doesn’t seem like much of a value add. He had a similarly underwhelming 2022 season.

But that is taking a shallow look at things. When O’Neill was healthy in 2021, he put up big numbers (.286/.352/.560 slash line, 34 homers, 80 RBIs, 15 stolen bases) in 537 plate appearances for the Cardinals. That was the year he won the second of back-to-back Gold Glove Awards for his excellence in left field and finished eighth in the National League Most Valuable Player Award voting.

O’Neill is a tremendous athlete, which showed through Statcast (Majors’ 89th percentile in arm strength and 80th percentile in sprint speed) even in that down 2023 season.

O’Neill could be a bargain -- and a low-risk, high-reward one at that

Cot’s projects O’Neill’s arbitration figure at $5.85 million, which is $3 million less than Verdugo. Also, the Sox didn’t need to give up much in terms of a return to the Cardinals, sending over depth arms Nick Robertson and Victor Santos.

Look for O’Neill to be motivated in walk year

Sometimes, there are few things as helpful for a team as a talented player who has every reason to be motivated on a daily basis. Eligible for free agency following the 2024 season, O’Neill will have a 162-game season to show his worth in Boston.

O’Neill needs to stay healthy

For this trade to work out the way the Red Sox hope, O’Neill needs to stay on the field a lot more than he has the last two seasons. Over the last two seasons, O’Neill was on the injured list with the following ailments: sprained right ankle, lower back strain, strained left hamstring, strained right hamstring and right shoulder impingement. He also served short stints on the injured list during that breakout 2021 season with a fractured middle finger and right groin strain.

Perhaps working with a new training staff in Boston will help O’Neill be more durable.

Duran will have competition in the weight room

Jarren Duran was clearly the Red Sox player who stood out last season in terms of physique with bulging biceps. But O’Neill’s father, Terry, was Mr. Canada as a bodybuilder. Tyler has the same type of build. 

It’s also fair to wonder if that build has led to some of his injuries. Again, this might be an area where a new training staff can help give O’Neill a fresh perspective.

What went wrong for O’Neill in St. Louis?

Not only were there injuries, but there was controversy in the first week of the 2023 season, when manager Oliver Marmol called him out for not running hard enough around third on a play that led to an out at the plate.

"That's not our style of play as far as the effort, rounding the bag there. It's unacceptable,” Marmol said of O’Neill after the Cardinals lost, 4-1, to the Braves on April 4.

The next day, O’Neill countered with this: "These conversations definitely could have been had in-house and not gotten out loose like they have. It should have been handled a little differently in my opinion, but who's to say."

Perhaps O’Neill will mesh better with Red Sox manager Alex Cora.

How will Boston’s outfield shake out?

That picture isn’t complete yet. Given O’Neill’s injury history, don’t be surprised if the Sox add another righty outfield bat. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Teoscar Hernández are two of the best on the market. There’s also the chance Duran gets traded while his value is high after his surprisingly strong 2023 season. Without another addition or subtraction, O’Neill, Duran and Wilyer Abreu could be the most frequent outfield alignment. Masataka Yoshida is likely to spend more time at designated hitter than he did in his rookie year. Cora also has Rob Refsnyder and No. 3 prospect Ceddanne Rafaela as righty bench options.