Cardinals outfielder Tyler O’Neill has been out for three weeks with a lower back strain, and it’s taking longer than expected for the 27-year-old to get back on track. The original hope was that he could go on a minor league rehab assignment last weekend, but manager Oli Marmol said on Monday this week that O’Neill hadn’t progressed to the point where that could happen. MLB.com’s John Denton tweets that O’Neill resumed baseball activity yesterday but only in the form of light swings off a tee.
It’s not yet clear when O’Neill will head out on that rehab assignment, but it’s fair to say his absence will be lengthier than originally expected. The mounting scope of his absence is notable in multiple facets. First and foremost, it deprives the Cards of a potential high-end source of power. Health troubles have dogged O’Neill over the past two seasons, but as recently as 2021 he clubbed 34 home runs and swiped 15 bases while batting .286/.352/.560 in 537 plate appearances.
O’Neill’s absence also gives the Cardinals some additional runway to look at younger talent. Twenty-four-year-old Alec Burleson hasn’t logged everyday at-bats but has frequently remained in the lineup through some struggles, in part due to both O’Neill and Dylan Carlson currently residing on the injured list. Burleson has thus far mustered a rather punchless .258/.324/.290 batting line since O’Neill hit the IL, but it’s still valuable exposure to big league pitching for the promising slugger, who hit .331/.372/.532 in 470 Triple-A plate appearances last season.
From a larger picture standpoint, O’Neill’s injury further muddies the Cardinals’ outfield outlook as the summer trade season approaches. O’Neill and Marmol already had a public spat early this season after the manager suggested to the team’s beat writers that his outfielder hadn’t hustled at full effort when trying to score from second on a single to the outfield. O’Neill naturally disputed that notion and took exception to Marmol publicly airing his frustration.
The two have ostensibly put the issue behind them, but the Cardinals have a fairly well-documented battle for playing time in the outfield and O’Neill is only a year and a half away from reaching free agency. There’s been plenty of speculation about a potential trade, and USA Today’s Bob Nightengale wrote over the weekend that Cardinals brass could indeed look into potential trades of O’Neill in exchange for rotation help this summer.
O’Neill only hit .228/.283/.327 with a 34.3% strikeout rate in 99 plate appearances before being placed on the injured list. The longer he’s out, the less time he has to show he’s righted the ship — and the greater the concern for any potentially interested trade partners. Given his injury troubles and that diminished production prior to the injury, it’s not a given that O’Neill will even have sufficient trade value to net the Cardinals meaningful pitching help.
That need for starting pitching is due both to a lack of starters controlled beyond the current season and the 2023 struggles of some current rotation members. Chief among them is lefty Steven Matz, one of just two current starters (in addition to Miles Mikolas) signed beyond the current season. Matz inked a four-year, $44MM deal in free agency in the 2021-22 offseason and has struggled to remain healthy and to pitch well when on the field.
The 31-year-old Matz was torched for a 6.39 ERA through his first six starts this year but looked to be turning a corner when he held opponents to four earned runs over 15 1/3 innings in three starts from May 7 through May 19. A date with the Reds at Great American Ball Park yesterday proved otherwise, however, as Cincinnati jumped Matz for six runs on 11 hits and two walks in just four innings of work.
Matz’s 5.72 ERA in 10 starts is even higher than last year’s 5.25 mark (15 games, 10 of them starts), which came in a season that saw the southpaw battle shoulder and knee injuries. Denton further reports that while the Cardinals have used six starters during their current stretch of 19 games in 19 days — Matthew Liberatore is slated for his second start this weekend — they’ll drop back to a conventional five-man arrangement after their coming off-days. The 23-year-old Liberatore, who’s been excellent in eight Triple-A starts — could push the struggling Matz off the starting staff, at least on a temporary basis.
Turning from a pair of players who are currently mired in some struggles to one who’s trending in the other direction, Tommy Edman discussed a key part of his recent hot streak with Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The switch-hitting infielder has begun batting right-handed against certain right-handed pitchers whom he feels he can see better from that side of the plate. Rather than simply favoring the standard left-on-right and right-on-left platoon matchup, Edman is selectively favoring right-on-right matchups based on pitch shape, release point and other more granular data points — and thus far doing so with good success. He’s 5-for-14 with a pair of doubles and a triple in right-on-right matchups.
Edman elaborates on the finer details of his approach and how he selects which pitchers are best faced from which side of the plate. It’s a fascinating read from Goold with thoughtful quotes from both Edman and reigning NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt that’ll likely appeal to far more than just Cardinals fans. Edman’s fresh approach to switch-hitting makes sense in an era of increasingly specialized data, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see more switch-hitters begin looking into it — particularly if it continues working well for Edman.
Rounding out a smattering of Cardinals-related topics, Jeff Jones of the Belleville News-Democrat tweets that lefty Andrew Suarez, who signed a minor league pact with the Cards after two-year run overseas (one KBO season, one NPB season), has an opt-out in his contract on June 1.
The 30-year-old Suarez has had an uneven showing in Triple-A Memphis so far, with a 5.08 ERA in 28 1/3 frames working as a multi-inning reliever. The bulk of the damage against him has come in three particularly tough outings, but Suarez has been scored upon in six of his 15 trips to the mound. He’s fanned 30 hitters in that time but also issued 13 walks, and his overall 22.9% strikeout rate and 9.4% walk rate are fairly pedestrian. Suarez had a nice rookie campaign with the 2018 Giants (4.49 ERA in 160 1/3 innings out of the rotation) and was outstanding in the KBO in 2021, but he struggled in Japan last season and hasn’t found his stride thus far in Memphis. He has a career 4.66 ERA in 202 2/3 big league innings.