Red Sox Trade Two Pitchers to St. Louis, Acquire Brawny Canadian

Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, Marco Gonzales got traded twice in three days: First from Seattle to Atlanta in the Jarred Kelenic deal, then up the Denny Neagle Highway to Pittsburgh. No one has ever been more traded. You want to know how traded Gonzales is? The only other player he’s ever been traded for, Tyler O’Neill, just got traded too.

The St. Louis Cardinals, sitting on a surfeit of corner outfield types, have sent O’Neill to Boston for pitchers Nick Robertson and Victor Santos. This is not as exciting a trade as it would’ve been two years ago, when O’Neill was coming off a 5.5 WAR season, but it allows the Cardinals to turn a player they probably weren’t going to use into pitching depth. The Red Sox gain some temporary goodwill from the small subset of locals who’ll scan a headline and think that former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill has returned from the dead. Moreover, they’ve added some right-handed power to a pool of outfielders that could use some.

O’Neill got his start in the Seattle Mariners system, where he was something of a local favorite, having grown up less than three hours away in Maple Ridge, British Columbia. Which is a real drag, by the way, because Larry Walker is also from Maple Ridge, meaning O’Neill was basically doomed from the start to be the second-best corner outfielder from his own hometown.

Before he could make his big league debut, O’Neill was sent to St. Louis in a one-for-one challenge trade for Gonzales. And the shadow of Walker loomed larger.

In parts of six seasons, O’Neill cut a mercurial figure with the Cardinals. The peak came in 2021, when he hit .286/.352/.560 with 34 home runs and 15 stolen bases and won a Gold Glove for his work in left field. But that one season accounts for almost a third of O’Neill’s career major league playing time and more than half of his career WAR.

Power has never been a problem for the 28-year-old, who is listed at 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, of which about 198 pounds is biceps and quads. It’s ironic that the Cardinals had no more use for him, because the last time a guy this muscular was deemed expendable, Sylvester Stallone made four movies about it.

The big problem with O’Neill is that — much as you can’t steal first base — you have to make contact with the ball in order to hit home runs. O’Neill’s career strikeout rate is an even 30.0%, which is the seventh-highest out of 240 players who have batted at least 1,500 times in the past six seasons. His contact rate is 11th-worst, and his Z-Contact rate is 15th-worst. There are hitters, like Adolis García and Bryce Harper, who screw themselves into the ground when they swing and don’t make a ton of contact on the whole. Harper walks a lot more than O’Neill and strikes out a lot less, but just looking at O’Neill’s plate discipline numbers compared to García’s — even the new and improved García who took a leap last season — there’s not a lot of difference between the two.

The problem is that for the past two seasons, O’Neill hasn’t done enough damage when he hits the ball to offset for all the swing and miss. Here is O’Neill’s one good season (2021) up against what he, Harper, and García accomplished in 2023:

Why Can’t Tyler O’Neill Be More Like His Brothers?
Player/Year BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Harper 2023 14.7 21.8 .293 .401 .499 142
García 2023 10.3 27.7 .245 .328 .508 124
O’Neill 2021 7.1 31.3 .286 .352 .560 143
O’Neill 2023 10.5 25.2 .231 .312 .403 97

And here’s how they did just in terms of contact. Bear in mind that Harper only had one-and-a-half working elbows for most of this season. Usually, his hard-hit rate is closer to 50%:

Tyler O’Neill vs. His Brothers on Contact
Player/Year Barrel% Z-Contact% HardHit% xwOBACON
Harper 2023 15.2 78.5 46.8 .470
García 2023 16.1 76.5 49.7 .471
O’Neill 2021 17.9 73.9 52.2 .550
O’Neill 2023 12.3 81.5 43.3 .411
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

What’s different about O’Neill from 2021 to 2023? He was much more selective, and made a ton more contact, especially in the zone. He walked more and struck out less. But he also didn’t hit the ball as hard. He hit it on the ground more. And he didn’t tee off on hittable pitches the way he did in 2021.

In 2021, O’Neill destroyed breaking and off-speed pitches over the heart of the plate. Those pitches represented 11% of the pitches he saw that season, which is a lot: the 10th-highest percentage out of 203 hitters who saw at least 1,500 pitches that year. And he took full advantage. He had a wOBA of .528 on non-fastballs in the heart of the strike zone, also 10th-best in the league. Harper, who it bears repeating was the MVP of the National League in 2021, had a .444 wOBA on those pitches.

Two years later, O’Neill was almost an automatic out on the pitches he did so much damage against in his best season: a .257 wOBA.

The change in O’Neill’s swing decisions and contact are significant enough they can’t be accidental; it’s almost certain he — or one of his coaches — decided he needed to take a bit off his swing in order to cut down on strikeouts. But he also wasn’t operating at full capacity for most of the past two seasons.

O’Neill runs like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but usually he gets from here to there quite rapidly; Baseball Savant usually has him listed in the 97th percentile or higher for sprint speed. In 2023, his sprint speed dropped to the 80th percentile.

And I’m not just stereotyping O’Neill because he looks like he hasn’t stretched or eaten carbs since he was in middle school; he has genuinely been hurt. Since the start of the 2022 season, he’s suffered injuries to his shoulder, taken multiple IL trips for hamstring injuries, and developed back problems that forced a 60-day IL stint early this past season.

The first step on O’Neill’s road out of St. Louis came in the first week of last season, when Ronald Acuña Jr. threw him out at home. Manager Oliver Marmol lit O’Neill up after the game and publicly accused him of lollygagging.

O’Neill, to put it mildly, disagreed with his manager’s criticism. When pressed by reporters, he admitted that he was running cautiously to avoid re-injuring himself on a wet track. He’d also reworked his running form over the offseason in an attempt to stay off the IL. Less than two months later, O’Neill hurt his back and was out until July.

So maybe injuries can explain O’Neill’s offensive ineffectiveness. And I’m also beginning to see why the Red Sox want him. When I started writing this post, my viewpoint was that O’Neill is a low-risk, high-upside player whom Boston acquired for basically nothing. And even when compromised the past two seasons, he was essentially a league-average part-time outfielder. Seems like there’s little to lose and much to gain.

Now, I’ve talked myself into O’Neill being two Advil and a yoga class away from turning back into the Canadian Adolis García. The Red Sox can get him healthy, stick him out in front of the Green Monster, and tell him that if he hits 40 home runs, he can strike out as much as he wants.

Why would the Cardinals give up on this guy? Well, they are getting some useful pitchers back. Robertson got into a couple dozen games out of the bullpen last season on either side of being traded from the Dodgers to the Red Sox in the Enrique Hernández deal. He’s probably not much more than a low-leverage reliever, but he’ll give you major league innings.

Santos is a former Phillies prospect who came to Boston in 2021 in exchange for C.J. Chatham, who is either a minor league infielder or a crudely conceived alias for pitching coach Caleb Cotham, I don’t know which. Santos didn’t pitch in the minors last season, but he’s made it to Triple-A and is currently hitting the low 90s in LIDOM with a sinker, slider, and changeup. If this were 25 years ago, Dave Duncan would’ve turned this guy into a 20-game winner; now, he’s probably capable of eating some major league innings in an emergency but nothing more.

Most of all, the Cardinals have tried and tried to get O’Neill to repeat his 2021 season and nothing has worked, to Marmol’s clear frustration. The Cardinals have also promoted enough young infielders that Tommy Edman — a Gold Glove second baseman as recently as 2021 — is bound for the outfield, where Jordan Walker and Lars Nootbaar have incumbent positions locked down and Dylan Carlson is still in the mix.

O’Neill is due an estimated $5.5 million in his final year of arbitration. My proposed solution for every problem a major league team might face is, “spend more of ownership’s money,” and even I’ll admit that’s a lot to pay for a fifth outfielder.

I’ve described trades like this as moves in pursuit of Pareto efficiency. There are X number of ballplayers to fit Y number of needs across the league, and a player who does nothing for one team might be another’s knight in shining armor. O’Neill is superfluous in St. Louis, but for a Red Sox team with a ton of left-handed hitters and an Alex Verdugo-shaped hole in its outfield, he’s just what the doctor ordered. The only downside for Boston is that with Triston Casas and Bobby Dalbec already on the roster, the club might have to spring for another squat rack in the clubhouse.

And if O’Neill gets healthy enough to hit with the aggression he showed in 2021, the Red Sox stand to win big.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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raregokusmember
2 months ago

Are the K and BB rates flipped in the first table?

srpst23
2 months ago
Reply to  raregokus

Pretty sure they are.

ccjl
2 months ago
Reply to  raregokus

No actually, Tyler is really secretly Barry Bonds

maguro
2 months ago
Reply to  ccjl

“We have Barry Bonds at home”