Not long after trading outfielder Alex Verdugo to the Yankees, the Red Sox picked up his replacement, trading for Tyler O’Neill of the Cardinals. In exchange, Boston sent a pair of right-handed pitching prospects to St. Louis: Nick Robertson and Victor Santos.
The Red Sox Side of the Deal
There’s no denying that Alex Verdugo and Tyler O’Neill are similar players. They’re both corner outfielders. They’re both under team control for one more season. Verdugo is 27, while O’Neill is 28.
So what are the differences? Why might the Red Sox have preferred O’Neill?
For one thing, he has more recent experience playing center field. Verdugo last played center in 2021, while O’Neill has played a handful of games up the middle in each of the past two seasons. The Sox could use some extra depth in center field, especially since the presumptive starter, Jarren Duran, is no whiz with the glove himself.
O’Neill is also right-handed, and the Red Sox could use another righty in the batting order; four of their top five hitters are lefty batters, as is Verdugo. Unsurprisingly, the Red Sox struggled against left-handed pitching last year, and O’Neill has better splits against southpaws.
In addition, O’Neill is fast. His sprint speed ranked in the 97th percentile or above every year from 2017-22, and despite various injuries, it was still in the 80th percentile in 2023. Meanwhile, the Red Sox finished among the bottom five AL teams last season in the baserunning metrics from FanGraphs and Baseball Savant, so they could certainly use a pick-me-up on the bases.
Finally, O’Neill will earn significantly less than Verdugo in 2024 – even though he possesses more upside. According to the arbitration estimates from MLB Trade Rumors, Verdugo is in line to make approximately $9.2 million next season, while O’Neill will earn approximately $5.5 million. A few million dollars shouldn’t mean much to the Red Sox, but if they’re smart, they’ll reinvest those savings in an extra reliever or a new bench bat.
More to point, O’Neill has splashed a kind of star potential Verdugo has never shown. In 2021, O’Neill played in a career-high 138 games, hitting 34 home runs, stealing 15 bases, and slashing .286/.352/.560. He also won a Gold Glove and finished eighth in voting for NL MVP.
Verdugo has always been the more consistent and reliable player, yet he has never shown a ceiling quite like that. Perhaps the Red Sox are hoping they can help O’Neill rediscover his 2021 form.
That said, it’s still a huge gamble. In parts of six seasons, O’Neill has only qualified for the batting title once, in 2021, and even then, he only played 138 games. He has spent time on the injured list in every season of his MLB career, with the exception of the shortened 2020 campaign.
His career wRC+ is 111, and he has averaged 3.2 FanGraphs WAR per 162 games. Yet his 2021 numbers are skewing his overall statline. It’s more accurate to say that O’Neill has been a below-average hitter in four of the past five seasons.
So what are the Red Sox doing here? O’Neill is a slightly better fit than Verdugo, and he didn’t cost as much in prospect capital; the Sox came out on top in that regard.
Still, I can’t shake the feeling that chief baseball officer Craig Breslow potentially made the team significantly worse for 2024. So why did he do it?
Because the Red Sox need to bet on upside if they’re going to win in 2024. The AL East is going to be a powerhouse division once again, and Boston has the highest ladder to climb to the top. They aren’t going to challenge the Orioles, Rays, Blue Jays, and Yankees by playing it safe. Tyler O’Neill could crash and burn, but at least there’s a chance he could be the middle-of-the-order righty bat the BoSox so desperately need.
The Cardinals Side of the Deal
The deal is a whole lot easier to understand from the Cardinals’ point of view.
O’Neill has been on the trading block for a while now. Not only has he had his disputes with the team’s management, but the Cardinals have a surplus of outfielders – Lars Nootbaar, Tommy Edman, Jordan Walker, Dylan Carlson, and Alec Burleson all need playing time.
Meanwhile, this team needs all the pitching depth it can get. Simply put, it was only a matter of time before the Cardinals made a trade.
Nick Robertson, who came to Boston last summer in the Enrique Hernández deadline deal, made his MLB debut in 2023. He boasts a 95-mph fastball with excellent extension, a chaseable changeup, and a sweeping slider. The 25-year-old will almost surely contribute to the Cardinals’ bullpen at some point next season, and he could very well make the Opening Day roster.
Victor Santos, 23, reached Triple-A in 2022 but lost the entire 2023 season to injury. If he comes back healthy next year, he could serve as rotation depth at Triple-A. His carrying tool is his ability to throw strikes.
For one year of control over an injury-prone and inconsistent outfielder, that’s a perfectly fair return. Moreover, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak now has a little extra cash to play with as he works to improve a roster that disappointed last season.
The team’s payroll currently sits right around where it was at the end of the 2023 season. Mozeliak previously suggested the team could run a similar payroll to their 2023 preseason estimate (i.e. before they traded several veterans at the deadline), so presumably, he has the flexibility to make a few more moves.
“As we look to add pitching depth, as well as address concerns on potential playing time in the outfield, we felt this deal worked well in addressing both of those issues,” said Mozeliak, in a press release published on MLB.com. “We are excited to add Nick to our bullpen, and we feel Victor gives us added depth in our minor league system.”