KANSAS CITY — The Cardinals’ offense has grown so stagnant in recent weeks — six runs combined over their past six losses — that usually mild-mannered and patient manager Oliver Marmol admitted late Tuesday he is contemplating changes to the hitting order.
There are a few spots in the lineup than haven’t been changed, and they don’t figure to with the proven track records of Paul Goldschmidt (No. 2) and Nolan Arenado (cleanup). Tyler O’Neill, one of the biggest heroes of the 2021 late-season surge when the Cardinals won 17 games in a row, has hit third in all 22 of his games, but that could now be up in the air with St. Louis looking to do something — anything, really — to breathe life into a lineup that figured to have more top-to-bottom firepower.
“Yes, I am considering it,” Marmol said of changing a lineup that features five regulars (six when counting both DH options) who are hitting below .200 and one that produced only six hits in a 7-1 loss to the Royals on Tuesday. “I’m not exactly sure what it will look like yet.”
A change that would help the Cardinals would be a return to form of the 26-year-old O’Neill, who showed his enormous potential last season when he ripped 34 homers and drove in 80 runs. This season, however, O’Neill’s average sits at .188, and his one home run came back on Opening Day.
O’Neill is struggling to barrel up breaking balls and has been chasing pitches out of the zone. He insisted on Tuesday he is watching more video and studying data about his swing, and he’s confident he is close to a breakthrough.
“I’m picking the brains of the hitting coaches and seeing what they have to offer, and I have every piece of analytical data at my disposal,” said O’Neill, who swatted an RBI single in his final at-bat Tuesday to end an 0-for-7 rut. “We have great hitters in this locker room like Albert [Pujols], Paul and Nolan. They’re all knowledgeable, and I can pick up bits and pieces here and there, but I understand what I have to do, and I’m a very smart hitter myself.
“I know there are adjustments to make. It’s just a matter of doing that and becoming Tyler O’Neill again.”
The Tyler O’Neill the Cardinals saw last season was one who dominated games in a variety of ways. He won a second straight National League Gold Glove Award, used his blazing speed to swipe 15 bases and he punished pitches in the zone when hurlers dared to challenge him. This season, he’s seeing slightly fewer fastballs (50 percent) as opposed to last season (54 percent), but it’s his inability to drive breaking balls that has hurt him the most.
The proverbial 500-pound elephant in the room — one that the muscular O’Neill might be able to lift with his chiseled frame and his body-builder bloodlines — is the slugger’s lack of clarity with his contract. Last year’s breakout performance seemed to have come at a good time for the newly married O’Neill, who hoped to cash in this past offseason with a long-term contract extension.
Instead, the offseason lockout caused O’Neill’s contract situation to linger into the season. Barring a late agreement, O’Neill and the Cardinals will go to arbitration later this week when the team is in San Francisco.
“Not thinking about it too much right now, because we have our hands full playing baseball every day,” O’Neill recently said. “It’s my first time going through contract negotiations and arbitration, but it’s not normal to have it leak into the season. I’ve tried to have a singular focus, and it’s easier when I’m on the ball field because I’ve got a lot of stuff to think about. I’m just taking things in stride.”
O’Neill’s performance this season should have no bearing on the upcoming hearings, but it’s only human to think there might be some cause and effect going on with his lack of clarity over his future.
“Technically, everything should be based off last year, so what’s done is done,” O’Neill said. “Right now, I’m just trying to help these guys win games this year.”
That will likely happen again when O’Neill uses his quick hands and massive power to pounce on pitches in the zone and drive them out of the park. That’s what he did last season to finish in the top 10 in NL MVP Award voting, and he said it’s up to him to prove that it was no fluke.
“I was very pleased with my play last season,” O’Neill said. “Sometimes guys go through slow starts and get in a rut. I’m not here to make any excuses, but I feel like my best times are definitely ahead of me. I’ll be putting in the due work to get out of this as soon as possible.”