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Outrunning injury-strewn year, Cardinals Tyler O'Neill has a plan to regain powerful pace

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Not too far from where he once trained for cross country races as a youth, Cardinals outfielder Tyler O’Neill laced up his shoes and hit the road recently to complete another workout to put distance, step by step, stride for stride, between him and this past season.

A breakthrough 2021 that saw his name appear on 15 of the 30 National League MVP ballots was followed by a 2022 that saw his name appear again and again on the injured list. He was slowed first by shoulder soreness and later by an aching wrist sandwiched between two left hamstring strains. Just when he found his swing, he lost his health, and when he got that back the Cardinals’ season ended a few hours later. An uphill summer has placed the 27-year-old outfielder at a crossroads, and he has a plan.

Run through it.

“I understand what I’m capable of and it’s just a matter of being consistent with it, and it starts by staying consistently on the field,” O’Neill said in a phone interview while in his hometown near Vancouver, British Columbia. “There’s no question about that. I’m not concerned if my performance will be there or my skill set if I can stay on the field, stay in a rhythm. That’s how I help the Cards win ballgames. That’s the kind of player I am. Step 1: And that’s stay on the field, staying healthy.”

As the Cardinals’ offseason gathers momentum with next week’s MLB winter meetings in San Diego, they still need to fill an opening at everyday catcher and want to find a hitter to join Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt in the middle of the order and provide “protection.” That was president of baseball operations John Mozeliak’s term. At the end of 2021, that was O’Neill’s spot. O’Neill is one of the players at the fulcrum of the Cardinals’ winter — their confidence in his ability to rebound from 2022 and build on 2021 informs how they see their lineup and how they measure their depth in the outfield.

That shapes their pursuit of an additional hitter as well as how they consider trade possibilities for a catcher that include a major-league outfielder. The Cardinals have had discussions with at least Toronto and Oakland about their catchers, including A’s Gold Glove winner Sean Murphy. The Blue Jays, who have three catchers including Danny Jansen, are shopping for a left-handed hitting young outfielder.

The Cardinals’ moves could hint at their expectations for O’Neill.

“No doubt this was a disappointing year, no way to say it otherwise, between injury and performance,” Mozeliak said. “There is still a lot to like about him. I think the best approach here is you turn the page and you start thinking about next year.”

For O’Neill, that began suddenly in the desert.

While the Cardinals were losing to Philadelphia in the National League Wild Card series, O’Neill was racing to return for the next round of the playoffs. He appeared in his first rehab game in the Arizona Fall League and went 1 for 3. A few hours later, that same night he watched from the Phoenix area as the Phillies eliminated the Cardinals in St. Louis. His comeback went from a matter of days to months — some of it mapped out with altered and new workouts to proactively defend against the leg injuries that twice interrupted his season.

“I want my body to be ready from the get-go, and I want it to be trained a different way so it doesn’t happen, so that situation doesn’t come up again,” O’Neill said. “I can’t be off the field for that long. It really comes back to going to the drawing board and understanding that I need to make a couple of adjustments to my training regimen. The one thing that I thought of first was definitely just running. Just running. Just becoming more of a runner.”

Among the changes O’Neill has made to his workouts is the addition of some distance running and modified sprinting. He did it earlier this offseason at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, continued it near the ocean during a visit to Hawaii, and for several weeks has been hitting the pavement and breathing in the air of home, back near Maple Ridge, British Columbia. It was there that he competed in cross country before, in high school, he shifted his energy and focus to lifting weights and baseball. O’Neill has also adjusted the weight he’s lifting, reducing the bulk and focusing more on the reps.

With coordinated guidance from the Cardinals’ strength and conditioning group, the team’s athletic trainers, and his agency’s specialists, O’Neill has workouts that aid muscle endurance, improve overall flexibility, engage cardio, and condition fast-twitch muscle fibers. He has drills called Copenhagen exercise for adductor muscles and Nordic hamstring curls. He begins each day “religiously” with a series of stretches and Yoga moves that he relies on.

“Starbucks and straight to the yoga mat,” he said.

He will begin a plyometrics workout in the coming weeks to increase and channel explosive movements. He plans to return to St. Louis in the coming week before heading later this winter to California for a spell at Boras Sports Training Institute, the facility run by his agent, Scott Boras.

In late January, as all of this work speeds toward the opening of spring training, something else he’s preparing for will arrive. Stephanie O’Neill and her husband, Tyler, are expecting the birth of their first child. They’ve been shopping for baby clothes.

A couple of infant-sized No. 27 jerseys are on the list.

“There is a bunch of excitement,” O’Neill said before adding specifically about his workouts: “I’m finding ways to adapt and bring it all together. I want to carry that.”

At full stride in 2021, O’Neill was a rare combination of foot speed and damage. He won his second Gold Glove Award in left field that season, and he finished the year in the 94th percentile for average exit velocity, 98th percentile for sprint speed, and 93rd percentile for hard hit percentage, according to data at Baseball Savant. The baseball card numbers that sprang from those metrics were 34 homers, 80 RBIs, a .286 average, and a .560 slugging percentage. He was one of three players in 2021 to rank in the top 20 for sprint speed, hard-hit rate, and expected slugging, joining Minnesota’s Byron Buxton and Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna Jr.

Since 2019, those three and outfielders Teoscar Hernandez (2020) and Mike Trout (2020, 2022) are the only five players to have at least one season ranking that high with that combination of speed and power.

Injuries kept O’Neill from showing if he could keep that pace.

“In ’21 you saw me get in a rhythm and do my thing,” O’Neill said. “It’s tough when things are broken up, staggered, not playing here and there. My M.O. and the type of ballplayer I am — it’s get in a rhythm and I just go and I play. I felt I was getting there a couple of times last year and then something happened. It just can’t happen. I have to be ahead of it this year.”

O’Neill spent the first month of this past season as the Cardinals’ No. 3 hitter, flanked by Goldschmidt and Arenado, who would finish first and third, respectively, in MVP voting. When O’Neill returned from an IL stint to rest an ailing shoulder, he found his swing — hitting .354 with a .521 slugging percentage and 18 RBIs in 13 games, raising his average from .195 to .241. Then, less than two weeks after his return from the IL, he was back on the IL with the first of two hamstring injuries. The second came in September. That was when the plan began to rethink and refine his offseason workouts.

He’s going to run with it.

“When I got sidelined the last time, it obviously motivated me. Why shouldn’t it?” O’Neill said. “There are some adjustments that I needed to make. Change is good. It’s exciting. It’s invigorating. I have a very good plan. I have the best team of people watching me. There is something powerful in believing in what you’re doing.

“I’m very excited where I’m at and what’s to come.”

In today’s 10 a.m. video, columnist Ben Hochman debates why 1948 was Stan the Man’s best season with the Cardinals. Also, a happy birthday shoutout to Nelly … Furtado. And, as always, Hochman picks a random St. Louis Cards card from the hat.

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