In March of 2013 I was doing what I usually do in Arizona: spending the first several hours of every day on the back fields watching top prospects. From the 98 mph heater of Reds’ right-hander Robert Stephenson to the young arms in the Padres’ system, including Zach Eflin, Robbie Erlin, Max Fried and Matt Wisler, and so on. One day in the middle of the month, Canada’s Langley Blaze, a travel team from British Columbia, were in town taking on one of the lower-level clubs from those Padres. On that Langley team was Tyler O’Neill. He was catching. He threw seeds to second base. He ran faster from home to first and first to third than is typical of a stocky 17-year-old. He barreled a 94 mph fastball into the right-center field gap against a soon-to-be-21-year-old professional.
The Seattle Mariners took O’Neill in Round 3 that June. O’Neill came to pro ball a raw bat with explosive strength. He would transition to the outfield immediately and in Year 3, has made the move seem easy.
When the season began, many saw the high-strikeout, low-walk totals that accompanied O’Neill’s impressive power numbers and understandably doubted the 20-year-old’s ability to make enough contact to take advantage of the powerful stroke capable of producing the no-question long ball and easy alley-to-alley doubles with a flick of the wrists.
O’Neill has a ways to go before we’re talking about a high-probability prospect, but his first none weeks this season have shown tremendous progress in the exact areas doubters would want to see. Fewer strikeouts, a few more walks and the same prowess in the power department.
As you can see, O’Neill has not sacrificed any power yet is walking more than in either of his first two full seasons and his strikeout rate is down more than eight percent from a year ago and more than 12 percent from 2014.
“We’re seeing a more complete hitter right now,” per one American League scout who has had the Mariners’ organization in his assignment book for seven years. “The swing is a little shorter (than last year) and I’ve seen him use the other side of the field more often.”
O’Neill’s home-run power is line to line, but typically he’s launching four baggers from right-center field to the left field line. Perhaps more importantly, he’s hitting more than just fastballs and he’s showing the ability to take the free pass rather than anxiously attempt to put the bat on the ball.
I like to see good takes from hitters, on pitches close to the zone or very tough offspeed pitches that serve as the ultimate teaser.
“Sometimes it’s the last piece of the puzzle,” the scout said. “It’s more valuable in Triple-A … and eventually the big leagues, but ‘hitters’ see the ball well. They track the spin and the release and within their natural rhythm meet the ball with the barrel and do so with authority. This kid’s doing that more and more. It’s a good example of development in its truest sense.”
Remember, ‘raw’ was one of the terms used to describe O’Neill leading up to the draft. He’s quickly turned that into a description of the past.
Prior to the season I did rank O’Neill No. 1 in the Mariners’ organization. While the system is very thin, the reason that distinction is important is why he belonged there and why he will remain there for some time — probably until he breaks through to the big leagues. That reason is work.
O’Neill is a relentless worker and from what I can gather through talking to the outfielder, talking with others that have played with him, coached him and scouted him, he’s hellbent on proving doubters wrong, believers right, and may just run through a cement wall in order to see it through. Furthermore, his consistent progress suggests he’s as smart as he is strong. He’s also proven coachable — he knows he doesn’t know everything, that baseball is a game of never-ending adjustments and just shy of the age of 21 he’s putting all of this together in games as well as between them.
A lot of what I wrote over the winter remains true for O’Neill, who profiles as a corner outfielder with a plus arm and above-average range. But we can now add to the evidence locker a two-and-a-half month period of absolute mashing. True hitting and hitting for power, not simply slugging.
Naysayers, as few as there may be at this stage, will point to a high BABIP as a reason to believe O’Neill’s season isn’t real. First of all, not even I am suggesting the kid is going rake at a .321/.384/.557 clip for the entire season. But the consensus scouting eye doesn’t often lie, and numbers rarely do if used in the right context. The Maple Ridge, BC native has taken the seeds of doubt and shoved it where the sun won’t shine.
O’Neill isn’t necessarily an elite prospect at this stage. There’s work to do, possibly including a more balanced attack on breaking balls and continued sound adjustments with two strikes. Some scouts see a potential mechanical fix with his front arm — it nearly bars during his swing load. A full season of his current efforts, however, and he’s knocking on the proverbial door, and more of the same for a season in the Pacific Coast League almost certainly places him in that premium group.
But the Mariners’ top young talent now is on a path that can lead to a regular spot in the Mariners outfield within the next 18 months or so. The club could not have asked for more at this point. And he’s gaining steam toward one of my favorite scout quotes, which is all about just letting the kid walk the road he’s already on, rather than picking at the little things to try and find ways to tear him down. “Just give him water and watch him grow.”
If one wishes to continue to doubt O’Neill, I have just one piece of advice and one request: Do so at your own peril, and while I’m not around to get caught in the crossfire.
Jason A. Churchill
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