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Champ or Chump: Tyler O'Neill

tyler o'neill fantasy baseball rankings draft bust MLB injury news

With Opening Day officially in the books (for most teams anyway), the 2021 campaign is off and running. The secret to being a successful fantasy manager is to combine a strong draft with superlative in-season roster management. Early in the year, your focus should be on identifying potential 2021 breakouts that your rivals may not know about yet.

One of the first such names that spring to this author's mind is Tyler O'Neill, the 25-year-old starting left fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals. O'Neill had an excellent spring where he slashed .356/.383/.556 with two homers and three steals over 45 ABs, winning himself a job. He homered on Opening Day as well, but is still rostered in just 10% of Yahoo! leagues because of a bad showing in 2020. There is no guarantee that O'Neill clicks in 2021, but he offers league-winning upside if he does. That's exactly the type of roster move you should be making right now.

If you're unfamiliar with this column, we take deep dives into noteworthy players to ascertain their fantasy viability for the rest of the season. We'll use a variety of advanced metrics, including Statcast information from Baseball Savant, raw data from FanGraphs, batting order placement from RosterResource, news sources from around the web, and any other tools that tickle our fancy. Without further ado, let's take a look at what makes O'Neill such an enticing fantasy addition.

Editor's Note: Our incredible team of writers received 13 award nominations by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association including Baseball Writer of the Year, Football Writers of the Year, Golf Writer of the Year and many more! Be sure to follow their analysis, rankings and advice all year long, and win big with RotoBaller! Read More!


Fantasy-Friendly Lines on the Farm

O'Neill made his professional debut way back in 2013, but it was his 2017 season that put him on the fantasy radar. He spent that entire season at Triple-A, splitting time between the Seattle and St. Louis systems. Together, he slashed .246/.321/.499 with 31 HR and 14 SB over 557 PAs. O'Neill was only thrown out trying to steal twice, meaning that his baserunning was legitimately an asset to the club. The average wasn't great, but fantasy managers can deal with it if it comes attached to plus power and strong SB totals.

O'Neill returned to Triple-A for 2018 and morphed into more of a true power hitter, clubbing 26 long balls in just 273 PAs for a ridiculous .311/.385/.693 slash line. He "only" swiped three bags to go with those video game numbers, but he still offered something in the category. The performance earned him a shot with the big league club where he slashed a respectable .254/.303/.500 with nine homers and a pair of steals over 142 PAs. The Cards were concerned about the swing-and-miss in his game though, and he again split 2019 between the two levels.

O'Neill predictably cooled down a little at Memphis in 2019, though his .265/.325/.517 line with 11 HR and three steals in just 166 PAs was still solid. He was also decent in his 151 big league PAs, hitting .262/.311/.411 with five homers and a steal. However, a .386 BABIP masked atrocious plate discipline. A 6.6 BB% just isn't good enough when you're striking out 35.1% of the time. The Cardinals never committed to him as a regular either, making for a frustrating fantasy asset.


2020: A Lost Season?

There was no minor league team for the Cardinals to send O'Neill to last year, and he ended up appearing in 50 of the team's games. Unfortunately, the results were ugly: .173/.261/.360 with seven homers and three steals. His BABIP cratered to .189, and there were whispers that he might not ever hit at the highest level.

The BABIP gods hated O'Neill last season, but there were significant signs of growth if you're willing to overlook the terrible surface stats. His plate discipline improved, with his BB% increasing to 9.6% while his K% declined to 27.4%. Both changes were supported by his underlying metrics as well, with his chase rate falling from 37.2% to 28.8% while his SwStr% fell from 20% to 14.8%. Yes, he still struck out too often, but he got it to an acceptable range for a big power bat.

Better yet, O'Neill's contact quality actually improved by most of the metrics that matter. His average airborne exit velocity rose to 95.4 MPH from 94.0 the year before, nearly a tick and a half increase. His rate of Brls/BBE also increased from 6.8% to 8.2%. His overall exit velocity numbers don't reflect this, however, because he only averaged 79.8 MPH on ground balls against 85.9 mph in 2019. It's rare for a batter to average less than 80 MPH on grounders, especially one with O'Neill's 70-grade raw power. It seems safe to chalk it up as a COVID-induced anomaly and project something better in 2021.


What We Could See in 2021

Most projection systems see O'Neill as a .220-.240 hitter, so he probably won't help much in batting average. They also call for 25ish HR and upper single-digit steals, making him an intriguing play as a bench bat. However, the upside is considerably higher than these totals.

Scouts give O'Neill 70-grade raw power and he consistently meets or exceeds the 40 FB% benchmark in both the majors and minors, suggesting an ability to access it in games. He consistently had 30+ homer seasons on the farm and there's no reason to think he's incapable of doing it in St. Louis. The Cards also hit O'Neill fifth on Opening Day, a lineup spot that should provide plentiful RBI to accompany those homers. O'Neill has virtually no competition for playing time as well, so the Cardinals will probably keep running him out there even if he slumps. That's a luxury he's never had in his career before.

O'Neill's Statcast Sprint Speed of 29.6 ft./sec ranked seventh in all of MLB last season, besting freak athletes like teammate Harrison Bader and wunderkind Fernando Tatis Jr. It's true that he hasn't cracked double-digit steals since that 2017 MiLB season, but the potential is still there. His success rates were generally good on the farm, and the Cardinals may be incentivized to force offense when Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado aren't due up.

O'Neill's batting average is the weakest part of his profile, but even it has nowhere to go but up after 2020. The best-case scenario is probably a prime Khris Davis who steals bases, an outcome that would be tremendously valuable and perhaps league-winning in fantasy. A 30 HR, 10 SB season with good counting stats is more likely, and that plays in a lot more than 10% of leagues. Scoop him up fast: O'Neill won't be available for free indefinitely.

Verdict: Champ (based on excellent raw tools and opportunity to play every day)

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