Why Tyler O’Neill considered a Cardinals trade inevitable

O’Neill spoke highly of his experience with the Cardinals — his growth in their minor league system after a trade to the Mariners in 2017, his relationships with St. Louis players and the atmosphere.

He nevertheless recognizes that his time has run its course after difficult seasons in 2022 and 2023.

In 2021, O’Neill hit .286/.352/.560 with 34 home runs and 15 steals, won a Gold Glove for his work in left field, and finished eighth in National League MVP voting. But he and the Cardinals couldn’t come to an agreement on a salary for 2022, so they resorted to arbitration.

The circumstances were atypical. The lockout imposed by MLB owners had disrupted the offseason schedule. Arbitration hearings that typically take place in February and March were held remotely in the middle of the season. O’Neill’s hearing came on May 6, when he was hitting .204/.271/.333.

“I wasn’t hitting very well at that point,” he said. “(The hearing) was getting closer and it was on my mind. It was just a really, really (exhaustive) experience for me.

“It was on a computer; it wasn’t in the courtroom because of COVID regulations and all that. So I had to sit in my hotel room and listen to the team harass me for five hours.

“We all know what we’re getting into, man. We both knew what we were getting ourselves into in arbitration, and it’s no one’s fault. It kind of is what it is, but it really set me back.

Days later, the three-judge panel sided with the Cardinals’ proposal of a $3.4 million salary and against the $4.15 million O’Neill sought. The process marked the start of a breakdown in his relationship with the team during a frustrating year. Injuries limited him to 96 games and contributed to a season-ending .228/.308/.392 line.

“I’ve just kind of tried to wipe the slate clean going into 2023, new beginnings, kind of a reset, and go from there,” O’Neill said. “And then obviously things happened at the beginning of the year.”

“The thing” is that Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol publicly lambasted O’Neill for what he called “unacceptable” efforts on the bases in early April. O’Neill was shaken, especially since he was dealing with “dead legs” after playing in the World Baseball Classic that spring and contracting a stomach illness shortly before the season.

Less than daily work (starting in 22 of the first 31 contests) led him to start questioning his role.

O’Neill entered the weekend series against St. Louis leading the Red Sox in home runs with 10.Matthew J. Lee/Globe team

“It was just a bad series of events,” O’Neill said. “And then I lost the starting job. They just took it from me a week or two into the season. It really affected my confidence from then on. I just can’t follow a consistent routine for my body.

“I’m such a routine-oriented person. I need consistency. I need trust (from) the people around me.

“The consistency aspect wasn’t there for me there. It occurred to me and it affected me. It affected me physically. It affected me mentally. And unfortunately, I’ve had to deal with multiple injuries over the past two years.

O’Neill was out for more than two months with a back injury. He returned in the second half of 2023, but by mid-September he was rarely starting more than two games in a row when his season ended due to a sprained right foot.

While the Cardinals had one more season of team control over O’Neill, he was convinced his career in St. Louis was over. He was ready when the team traded him to the Red Sox in December for pitchers Nick Robertson and Victor Santos.

“It wasn’t a question of whether I was going to be traded; that’s where I was going to be traded,” he said. “It was just a matter of time.

“When I got that phone call…telling me I was going to the Boston Red Sox, I was really excited about it, really excited about a new, fresh start. Really excited to play in a stadium like Fenway.

O’Neill felt renewed with the Sox, his confidence restored by the assumption that, in general, he will start regardless of the opposing pitcher.

“I know I’m going to play every day,” he said, “so there’s not that anxiety of, ‘Am I in there or not?’ If I put 0 for 4, will I be there?

“I just feel like the last few years in St. Louis, I wasn’t playing every day, I wouldn’t play against certain starters, and just the confidence, it wasn’t the same, unfortunately.

“But it’s a different game here, man. So I feel more and more comfortable and more and more confident.

With this confidence came production. O’Neill carried a .256/.371/.554 line and 10 homers in the series against the Cardinals, reveling in his new workplace – particularly the proximity to Fenway’s famous wall for a right-handed hitter – and acquiring a sense of belonging. even as free agency beckons after the season.

“I’m hitting free agency next year, and it’s going to be great and exciting,” he said. “We’ll see where this goes.”

“But right now I’m just focused on Boston, man. I’m focusing on Fenway. I concentrate on enjoying it.

“Whatever happens in free agency or with Boston in the future, we’ll see. We’ll see where this leads. But what I can tell you is that I really enjoy where I am right now.

Alex Speier can be contacted at [email protected]. follow him @alexspeier.

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