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If the St. Louis Cardinals are smart, Tyler O’Neill is the opening day right fielder

Tyler O’Neill signs autographs for Cardinals fans

Tyler O'Neill, whom the Cardinals acquired in the deal that sent Marco Gonzales to the Seattle Mariners, greets fans while signing autographs during spring training.
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Tyler O'Neill, whom the Cardinals acquired in the deal that sent Marco Gonzales to the Seattle Mariners, greets fans while signing autographs during spring training.

The St. Louis Cardinals may not have upgraded right field on the free agent market. But I’m still hoping that they don’t just hand the starting job to Dexter Fowler.

Fowler, after a painfully slow start, has been hitting better the last couple of days. Maybe he has some life left in him after all. If he kills it the rest of spring training and earns the job, so be it. But he has to earn the job, not get it by default. Otherwise, I’m intrigued by the skill set offered by youngster Tyler O’Neill who on Sunday hit his team-leading third home run of Grapefruit League play.

I like to refer to O’Neill as Randal Grichuk 2.0 because of his combination of impressive power and a knack for swinging and missing. But I believe the Redbirds are at least partially to blame for Grichuk’s failure to develop a more discerning batting eye. Where they failed with Grichuk, they could succeed with O’Neill who spent the winter working on improving his eye and his ability to make contact, according to the Fox Sports Midwest broadcast team.

Grichuk was thrown into the fire, seemingly with little regard for his future when Oscar Taveras got into the doghouse during his rookie season and other St. Louis outfielders were unable to pitch in because of injuries. If his confidence was destroyed by former manager Mike Matheny hanging him out to dry in tough situations and then pulling the rug out from beneath his feet when he was starting to get on a roll, so what? In the front office’s mind, Grichuk was just a place holder.

For whatever reason, the Cardinals seem to value O’Neill differently than Grichuk even though, on paper at least, the seem pretty similar. So, I hope the team doesn’t stick to its offseason philosophy that Fowler needs to start because he’s the guy making the big pay check if O’Neill proves to be the better player right now.

As I have said before, I think Fowler would be perfect to be something of a glorified fourth outfielder because of the fact that he has trouble playing 120 games a season even if he is a starting quality player. The only really knock on Fowler for that job is the fact that he’s a lousy fielder and he doesn’t seem any better at playing the corners than he did playing center. So, if Harrison Bader is the guy who needs to sit on a given day, O’Neill could slide over to center, putting Fowler in his right field slot. Likewise, if it’s Ozuna who needs to sit, O’Neill could play left field and Fowler could stay in right.

At this point, there just doesn’t seem to be any sense in sending O’Neill back to Class AAA Memphis where he absolutely abused opposing hurlers last season before getting called up to St. Louis. He doesn’t need everyday minor league at bats to improve his plate coverage and to learn to lay off the high heat and the low breaking balls. He needs to see major league pitching to do those things. So let’s not park him in exile in order to make room for a player with a lesser chance to be an impact player over the next five or six seasons.

O’Neill deserves to make the big league club not just because of his bat, but because of his dedication, his speed and his ability to play defense. He’s not just a project who the team hopes to make something out for the future. He’s a guy who can help this team win in a lot of ways right now. Put the guy in the outfield, bat him seventh in the order and watch him hit 30 home runs as a bonus. I bet he’d work his way up to batting in the middle of the order by next season if the Cardinals can just stop bringing guys to the majors only to see their development stall out. I’d sure hope that was the idea behind bringing former minor league skippers Stubby Clapp and Pop Warner to the big league club as coaches.

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