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Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Yairo Munoz and Tyler O'Neill

Yairo Munoz and Tyler O'Neill

Cardinals outfielder Tyler O'Neill was just an extra guy back in the spring. So was utilityman Yairo Munoz.

But both are important players now. Injuries have thrust O'Neill and Munoz into bigger roles for this depleted team and they are helping keep the squad's playoff hopes alive.

O'Neill punched a RBI single and ripped a solo homer Wednesday afternoon as the Cardinals rallied past the Pittsburgh Pirates 6-5 in the broiling Busch Stadium.

"I am just 100 percent focusing on the ball," O'Neill said. "I'm not thinking about what pitch is coming, or what am I'm going to do if this happens. Just seeing the ball and letting my hands react. It's been paying off so far."

Munoz, who started at third base, beat out an infield single leading off the second inning and scored a run.

Who could have imagined such prominence for these two earlier in the season? Both O'Neill and Munoz received limited playing time and both did stints at Triple-A Memphis as odd men off the 25-man roster. 

Their relegation was notable because both players came to the organization at a high cost. The Cardinals traded lefthanded pitcher Marco Gonzales to Seattle to get O'Neill and sent outfielder Stephen Piscotty to Oakland (with Piscotty's pressing family matters in mind) to get Munoz.

Now those moves are paying off. With left fielder Marcell Ozuna sidelined for the foreseeable future with finger fractures, O'Neill will play regularly in left field. This is his time to shine.

"He's a presence," manager Mike Shildt said. "He's doing damage. That helps the rest of the lineup."

Indeed, O'Neill has gone 16 for 40 (.400) at the plate in July with three doubles, four homers, eight runs scored and 11 RBIs. He still strikes out a lot, but he is making his contact count.

O'Neill went with the pitch on his RBI single in the first inning, poking a slider away into right field. That was a sign of professional growth.

"He's meant a lot," Shildt said. "When there's an anchor to the lineup and there's a presence to it, it just allows everybody else . . . it frees them up a little more.

"First of all, it helps us on the scoreboard. It allows us to get some leads, extend some leads, get back in the game and know that we're swinging away with the right guys on base."

Munoz and rookie utility man Tommy Edman will be busier with third baseman Matt Carpenter back on the injured list, this time with a foot contusion. Edman reached base three times Wednesday with two singles and a walk.

The versatile Munoz could also spell Paul DeJong at shortstop, Kolten Wong at second base or struggling Harrison Bader in center field. He can play all over the diamond.

Both O'Neill and Mumoz are just 24 years old. Both are excellent athletes. Both could have big futures with this franchise if they keep progressing.

Munoz runs well and offers some offensive pop too. He is batting .293 with 13 runs scored in 99 at-bats.

His ability to play seven positions comfortably may work against Munoz as he tries to earn a regular role, but he gives Shildt tactical flexibility.

O'Neill smacks long homers — Wednesday's blast over the left-field wall went an estimated 411 feet — and he moves well, both on the bases and in the outfield. He, too, could play some center field if needed.

Ah, but what is their true potential? Clearly they are talented enough to have major league careers, but the Cardinals need difference-makers. Do they have that in them?

This is the question every farm system product faces when their time comes. Some meet their projections, some exceed them . . . and others (Colby Rasmus!) sadly fall short.

Maybe O'Neill and Munoz will become solid everyday players like Wong or DeJong. Perhaps they could they become that rare high-end producer, as Carpenter was from 2013 through much of last season.

Maybe they will settle back as role players, pinch-hitting and filling in here and there as needed. Or maybe they will become trade chips as Tommy Pham, Luke Voit, Carson Kelly, Luke Weaver, Sandy Alcantara and Magneuris Sierra within the past year or so.

The Cardinals' field staff and the front office executives are evaluating them (and everybody else) on a day-to-day basis as the July 31 trade deadline nears. President of baseball operations John Mozeliak is still deciding whether to buy, hold or sell.

Writing for, David Schoenfield suggested Munoz could become the regular second baseman and make Wong expendable. And O'Neill drew a mention from as somebody the Cardinals could spend to solidify their rotation with another starting pitcher.

We shall see. The challenges keep coming and the assessment continues. Every game matters as the Cardinals try to stay in the playoff race and their management team figures out what it has, what it lacks and what it needs to do.

Who knows how this crazy season will end. But it's clear that emerging players like O'Neill and Munoz will have a say in what happens next.

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