Tyler O’Neill Playing Like MVP for Cardinals

Tyler O'Neill

Tyler O’Neill MVP for Cardinals

Going into the 2021 campaign, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Nolan Arenado would be the St. Louis Cardinals most valuable player. But through the team’s first 66 games, Tyler O’Neill has made a strong case as the Cardinals MVP.

Still, despite spending 24 days on the injured list over two separate stretches, Tyler O’Neill leads the Cardinals in a variety of offensive categories. He’s hit the most home runs on the roster and is fourth in the NL. He ranks second on the team in RBI, and he’s slashing .291/.330/.630 on the year.

Tyler O’Neill and the NL MVP

O’Neill as a league MVP award recipient is a bit premature with Jacob deGrom, Fernando Tatis Jr., and Ronald Acuna Jr. as this year’s early favorites. While O’Neill hasn’t entered the conversation, he continues to make his case as an All-Star this season. He must stay healthy to make the cut. Currently, O’Neill does not have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, but if he did he would rank among the league leaders in the National League. His batting average would be good for eighth and his slugging would rank second. Although his on-base percentage would barely make the top 30 in the league, his OPS would still be good for fourth. His 11.13 AB/HR would lead all qualified hitters although Tatis Jr. is at 9.25 and doesn’t yet qualify either.

None of that is to say he can’t win one in his career. So far, O’Neill has not appeared in more than 61 games in a season. He’s played in 47 games so far this year and looks to set a career high. If he can one day appear in 150 games in a season and produce at his current 2021 clip, it’s hard to imagine him not taking down some hardware. It’s a tall order, of course, but the projections are remarkable.

In this hypothetical season, O’Neill would hit 48 home runs and amass 106 RBI. Just appearing in 150 games in a season seems hard to achieve for O’Neill, but it’s encouraging that he was able to appear in 50 of the team’s 58 games in 2020. If he stays healthy for a full season, he won’t have to maintain his current .335 ISO or his 166 OPS+ to be in the mix.

Other Cardinals Performing Well

If the measure of a player’s value is in how the team performs without him, then Jack Flaherty is the undisputed most valuable Cardinal. The team won nine of his eleven starts before he hit the injured list. They are a sub-.500 team in games he has not started. A starting pitcher’s impact goes well beyond the games he appears in though. With him on the active roster, the Cardinals are 30-25.

Arenado is leading the team in RBI. He’s played nearly every day for the Cardinals. He makes spectacular plays so routinely that it’s easy to take his defense for granted. In short, he’s been everything the Cardinals expected when they traded for him. He’s still the safest bet to end the season with the highest WAR among Cardinals position players. Paul Goldschmidt is next, but has had a rather pedestrian start to the season, though he is heating up of late.

The most unlikely person in the conversation is Tommy Edman. Edman is sandwiched between O’Neill and Arenado for the team lead in WAR. His versatility covers for a number of shortcomings in roster construction and aids the Cardinals as they weather wave after wave of injuries. While officially the Cardinals second basemen, he has made 22 starts in right field and four at shortstop this season. His defense grades out very well. He does all of this while being a competent leadoff hitter.

While each of the three have a strong case, Tyler O’Neill is the team’s current MVP. The production, despite missing one-third of the team’s games, is just too impressive to overlook. The reigning Gold Glove winner in left field plays with intensity. His 24 Runs Above Replacement are a big reason the team is 26-21 in games he’s played.

Patience Paying Off

Perhaps the Cardinals front office was correct to keep O’Neill and part with others. It may still be fair to complain about Lane Thomas being held, though other general managers have a say in who’s included in any given deal. Many fans have lamented the various successes of Randy Arozarena, Oscar Mercado, and Adolis Garcia. Mercado’s 2019 had the faithful up in arms, insisting that O’Neill should have been the outfielder included. Similar refrains sounded with Arozareno’s 2020 performance.  While Mercado is struggling in Triple A, Arozarena, Garcia, and O’Neill have each accumulated a 2.4 WAR in 2021. O’Neill has done it in far fewer at bats. It will certainly be exciting to see how O’Neill performs in a full season, assuming he has one.

Players Mentioned: Nolan Arenado, Jacob deGrom, Fernando Tatis Jr., Ronald Acuna Jr., Tyler O’Neill, Jack Flaherty, Paul Goldschmidt, Tommy Edman, Lane Thomas, Randy Arozarena, Oscar Mercado, and Adolis Garcia

Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images

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