Many media outlets have reported that the St. Louis Cardinals want to use their outfield surplus to acquire pitching. Unsurprisingly, given the number of trades between the two ballclubs, the Blue Jays have been linked to the Cardinals as a likely trade partner. Let’s look at the candidacies of Dylan Carlson and Tyler O’Neill for an opening in Toronto’s outfield.
In a previous article, I outlined the need for Toronto to improve its offence. Part of the offseason offence-improvement plan will be the incumbents’ return or near return to form. The other part of the plan is for Toronto to replace the bats of Matt Chapman, Brandon Belt, Kevin Kiermaier and Whit Merrifield, all of whom are free agents and I have assumed are not likely to return to the club in 2024.
Furthermore, I expect Daulton Varsho to be the Blue Jays’ starting centerfielder next season. Although his bat was sub-par in 2023 (85 wRC+), Varsho’s glove was elite in centerfield. He posted a +18 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) and a +10 OAA (Outs Above Average) in 462 innings. Toronto’s Kiermaier also excelled in centerfield. He generated a +18 DRS and +13 OAA. However, Kiermaier’s defensive numbers were accumulated in 981 innings, more than twice that of Varsho. As acclaimed MLB observer Larry David noted, Varsho’s 2023 performance in centerfield was pretty, pretty, pretty good.
With centerfield taken care of, Toronto can focus on adding a left fielder, preferably one who is at least average defensively but above average offensively. Let’s dig into Carlson and O’Neill. I have organized the analysis as follows:
- Injury history
- Trade values
The 2024 campaign will be Carlson’s age-25 season. The Cardinals selected the 17-year-old Carlson with the 33rd overall pick of the 2016 MLB June Amateur Draft. In its 2020 and 2021 preseason rankings, Baseball America rated Carlson as the Cardinal’s top prospect. He made his MLB debut on August 15, 2020, and became a full-time player in 2021 when he posted a 111 wRC+ and a 2.5 fWAR. This season is Carlson’s first year of arbitration eligibility, and he is scheduled to become a free agent in 2027. He is a switch hitter.
O’Neill hails from Burnaby, British Columbia. The Mariners selected him in the third round of the 2013 June Amateur Draft and traded him to St. Louis in 2017 in exchange for Marco Gonzoles. Baseball America ranked him as the Cardinals’ fourth-best prospect in its 2018 preseason rankings, and O’Neill made his MLB debut on April 19, 2018. His breakout season was 2021 when he generated a 143 wRC+ and 5.5 fWAR in 138 games. O’Neill is in his third arbitration year and is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2024 season.
Table 1 summarizes the injuries suffered by Carlson and O’Neill during the 2021-2023 period and the related time spent on the Injured List.
Injuries likely contributed to Carlson’s underperformance in 2022 (99 wRC+) and 2023 (84 wRC+). Similarly, partly because of injuries, O’Neill probably underperformed in 2022 (99 wRC+) and 2023 (97 wRC+). Also, O’Neill missed 22 days with a groin injury in 2018 and 41 days in 2019 with wrist and elbow ailments.
Starting in May 2023, ankle issues plagued Carlson. In September, he underwent surgery on his ankle and is expected to be ready for 2024 Spring Training.
My previous article highlighted the strong, positive correlation between run-scoring and each of SLG, wOBA, ISO and OBP. These relationships are essential because Toronto’s run-scoring slipped from fourth-highest in 2022 to a tie for fourteenth in 2023. Hence, Toronto should bolster its roster with players who excel in most of, if not all, the SLG, wOBA, ISO and OBP metrics.
Table 2 shows how Carlson and O’Neill performed over the past three seasons. The highlights are as follows:
- Concerning SLG, wOBA and OBP, Carlson had a solid 2021. However, his performance was poor after that campaign.
- O’Neill had a terrific 2021 regarding SLG, wOBA, ISO and OBP.
- Although his three-year numbers are very good, those metrics were mediocre in 2022 and 2023.
Table 3 summarizes the wOBA and xwOBA data for the two outfielders. A significant wOBA-xwOBA difference may indicate that good fortune boosted the player’s performance. Such a difference may suggest a wOBA regression the following season. The opposite is true of a significant xwOBA-wOBA delta. The Bad Luck Goddess may have influenced the player’s batting results, which may signify future upward regression of wOBA.
Based on the wOBA and xwOBA numbers during 2021-2023, O’Neill’s expected wOBA was noticeably better than his wOBA, particularly in 2023 and 2022. He appears to be a regression candidate for better OPS days in the future. Given his 2023 xwOBA-wOBA delta, Carlson either incurred some bad luck or perhaps his lingering ankle issue affected his performance.
Table 4 shows that both players have been a tick above average defensively. No doubt injuries have hampered their performance with the glove. Regarding Carlson, he is a minus 5 OAA in right field but a plus 7 in centerfield during 2021-2023. Both are capable of, at a minimum, solid defence.
Oh yeah, there is a table. Please refer to Table 5, which shows that Carlson and O’Neill are above-average baserunners.
I summarized my thoughts in the checklist below. My comments are as follows:
- Carlson is younger than O’Neill (25 versus 29). Also, Carlson was the Cardinals’ top prospect in 2020 and 2021. In other words, Carlson has a better pedigree.
- O’Neill is scheduled to be a free agent after the 2024 season; Carlson is eligible after the 2026 campaign.
- Given O’Neill suffered back woes in 2023, I gave the injury-risk checkmark to Carlson. Back ailments can be chronic and may be amplified by the Roger Centre’s artificial turf.
- The Canadian lad has produced markedly better SLG, wOBA and ISO scores during the 2021-2023 seasons. Given the strong correlation between these metrics and run-scoring, O’Neill grabbed the hitting checkmark.
- Also, Carlson’s career wRC+ versus RHPs is 86 and 135 against LHPs. O’Neill’s comparable numbers are 107 wRC+ when facing RHPs and 125 wRC+ versus LHPs.
- Both players are capable defenders. However, O’Neill has the edge over Carlson because he has more experience in left field (2,857 innings versus 161).
Another point to consider is the payroll budget. Cot’s Baseball Contracts estimates that Carslon and O’Neill will earn USD 2.1 million and USD 5.85 million in 2024. The payroll savings between the two players may free up money for Toronto to use toward acquiring other players.
If I had to make a choice, I would opt for Carlson. He is 25 years old and has many tools. Also, he could be the backup centerfielder when Varsho is not in the field. This roster flexibility would keep George Springer in right field. The Varsho-Kiermaier duo allowed Springer to play more games in 2023 because he did not have the added workload of patrolling centerfield. O’Neill certainly has the power element commonly found in a left fielder. However, the 2023 back injury is a concern, and Steamer’s 2024 projection slightly favours Carlson.
Yet, in the end, I would be happy with either Carlson or O’Neill.
The Belt-Chapman-Kiermaier-Merrifield Ensemble
More table time? Yep. Please take a look at Table 6.
At the outset, I opined that Toronto needs to improve its run-scoring capabilities. One off-season challenge for Management Is replacing the hitting metrics produced by the Belt-Chapman-Kiermaier-Merrifield ensemble. To replicate the 2023 performance of this ensemble, I did the following:
- Created two groups: Group 1 – J.D. Martinez-Davis Schneider-Carlson-New Chapman A, and Group 2 – Martinez-Schneider-O’Neill-New Chapman B
- Inserted numbers for New Chapman A and New Chapman B such that Group 1, Group 2 and the 2023 ensemble numbers are identical.
There are three critical takeaways from Table 6.
- First, for reasons I outlined in my previous article, the projected metrics for Martinez seem slightly too conservative.
- Second, Steamer estimates more of a bounceback for Carlson than O’Neill in 2024.
- Third, based on the projections, the offensive ability of New Chapman A or New Chapman B does not vary much if Carlson plays left field for Toronto or O’Neill.
- For your information, Steamer projects a 0.248/0.324/0.423 slash line for Jeimer Candelario. I point out these numbers to show that the numbers required from New Chapman A or New Chapman B are not in the neighbourhood of peak Josh Donaldson.
Baseball Trade Values (“BTV”) is a website where we all can become online General Managers. BTV has two attractive features. First, it is a third-party, objective resource. Second, its trade-value track record is pretty good. However, users should not take the stated trade value as gospel but as a guideline.
Via Si.com, Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Dispatch (subscription required) reported that the Cardinals are willing to trade from their outfielder surplus for pitching. Accordingly, I have assumed that St. Louis will not consider a trade package for Carlson or O’Neill that does not include a proven, MLB-ready pitcher.
Table 7 summarizes the trade values of Carlson and O’Neill. The reader will observe that Lars Nootbar’s name appears in the table. Nootbar is an excellent outfielder, the type of bat that Toronto and other teams would covet. However, the cost to acquire him would be massive. For example, one package could include Ricky Tiedemann, Alek Manoah and Yosver Zulueta. That is mighty expensive.
A hypothetical trade package for Carlson or O’Neill would be Yusei Kikuchi and Zulueta. I selected these two players to give the reader a sense of the likely trade capital needed to acquire either Carlson or O’Neill.
A trade including Kikuchi would be consequential to Toronto’s starting rotation. Steamer estimated that in 2024, Kikuchi will produce a 4.03 ERA in 156 innings; Steamer forecast an average of 4.39 ERA for MLB starters in 2024. That level of performance would be difficult to replace, especially given the questions surrounding Manoah.
However, Kikuchi is eligible for free agency after the 2024 campaign. Furthermore, Toronto may be able to mostly replace Kikuchi with internal candidates, such as Tiedemann or Mitch White, who pitched very well as a starter for Buffalo after his designation for assignment. Alternatively, perhaps Yimi Garcia is a pitcher who appeals to the Cardinals.
I believe St. Louis wants to retool, not rebuild. Hence, It is doubtful that they will trade either Carlson or O’Neill for a bunch of middling prospects or a package that does not include a proven, MLB-ready pitcher. It’s a tough choice for Toronto’s Management. Add a much-needed left fielder, or make no changes to Toronto’s pitching staff.
The Last Word
One of the offseason challenges for Toronto’s Management is replacing the production of Belt, Chapman, Kiermaier and Merrifield. Martinez is an excellent candidate to replace Belt, and Davis Schneider could outperform Merrifield’s 2023 batting metrics.
However, the free-agent market of better-than-average left fielders is thin. Accordingly, the trade market is an avenue for Blue Jays’ Management to consider. Two attractive candidates are Dylan Carlson and Tyler O’Neill. Both players would fit the bill for Toronto. A question yet to be answered: is Toronto willing to pay the bill?
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Title: Looking at St. Louis Cardinals outfielders as possible trade options for the Blue Jays
Author: Bob Ritchie