Two Pending Free Agents in the Midst of an Early Resurgence

Tyler O'Neill and Michael Conforto headline the list of upcoming free agents who are off to hot starts to open the 2024 season.

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - MAY 25: Michael Conforto #8 of the San Francisco Giants hitting against the Milwaukee Brewers at American Family Field on May 25, 2023 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Andy Kuno/San Francisco Giants/Getty Images)

Just over two weeks into the 2024 MLB season, there are already a handful of players who are in the midst of an early career comeback.

In contrast to their disapointing 2023 seasons, Tyler O’Neill and Michael Conforto are two veterans who are off to scorching-hot starts in the early goings of the season.

Both players had very promising peaks a few years back, but they have struggled as of late, causing their stock to drop in recent years.

Now, they each have a chance to boost their value before hitting the open market at the end of the season. With strong campaigns this year, they could earn themselves a hefty hunk of change and entrench themselves as two of the top free agent outfielders this offseason.

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OF Tyler O’Neill – Boston Red Sox

Tyler O’Neill was once viewed as the next up-and-coming star for the St. Louis Cardinals. There were stretches where he flashed his outstanding tools, most notably during his impressive 2021 campaign in which he secured the second Gold Glove Award of his career and finished eighth in MVP voting with a 5.3 fWAR, a 143 wRC+, and a .912 OPS.

Just a couple of years ago, O’Neill appeared to be a cornerstone piece of the Cardinals’ roster for years to come. Evidently, things can change rather quickly in Major League Baseball.

His persistent physical ailments kept him off the field for prolonged stretches and hampered his ability to reach his full potential in his previous two seasons in St. Louis. Combine his injury concerns and the conflicts with skipper Oli Marmol, and it was clear O’Neill needed a change of scenery to get back on track.

O’Neill was traded to the Boston Red Sox back in December, and the move from St. Louis to Boston has done him wonders. Not only does he look rejuvenated at the plate, but he has been the hottest hitter in all of baseball to open the 2024 season.

O’Neill is hitting .343 (12-for-35) and is getting on-base at a whopping .489 clip to start his tenure with the Red Sox. He’s also walking almost as much as he’s striking out, sporting nearly an 18% walk rate while striking out just 10 times in 45 plate appearances.

O’Neil has clearly been seeing the ball well at the plate, and that has led to some gaudy power numbers thus far. In his first 11 games, O’Neill has a league-leading .857 slugging percentage and an MLB-best .514 Isolated Power (ISO). In turn, O’Neill is pacing MLB in homers (6) and is leading the sport in OPS (1.346), wOBA (.550), and wRC+ (263).

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Given his video game-like numbers thus far, it’s no surprise that O’Neill is posting some of the best quality of contact numbers in the sport. Out of his 25 batted balls, six of them have been barrels, yielding a barrel rate of 24%. Additionally, his average exit velocity of 91.9 mph and hard hit rate of 44% are the highest marks since his 2021 season.

Through 11 games, O’Neill has an fWAR of 0.9 which is already greater than his fWAR total from a season ago (0.7 in 72 games). It’s early, but it’s clear he is healthy and ready to put together a terrific season with Boston in his walk year.

Getting Back to His Old Form

As mentioned, health has been the greatest shortcoming for O’Neill in his seven-year career. Back in 2022, he only played 96 games due to a handful of ailments, including right shoulder discomfort and a strain to his left hamstring that landed him on the injured list multiple times throughout the season.

O’Neill had an even more injury-plagued season in 2023. He missed nearly two months of the season with a lower back strain, and he didn’t look like the same player when he returned to the field. He would eventually end up missing the final few weeks of the season with a right foot sprain to close out his Cardinals tenure.

Those injuries prevented O’Neill from getting back to form, and his performance suffered because of it. Most noticeably, O’Neill’s performance against breaking pitches was a major hole in his game in 2022 and 2023.

However, so far this season, O’Neill has returned to the 2021 version of himself, specifically against breaking pitches. The table below highlights his production against breaking balls since the 2021 season.

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2024BA: .400SLG: 1.300wOBA: .717Whiff: 35.3%AVG EV: 90.6 MPH
2023BA: .116SLG: .145wOBA: .137Whiff: 36.1%AVG EV: 85.9 MPH
2022BA: .187SLG: .366wOBA: .275Whiff: 39.8%AVG EV: 86.8 MPH
2021BA: .245SLG: .564wOBA: .355Whiff: 41.8%AVG EV: 90.9 MPH
Metrics via Baseball Savant

The stark improvement in production against breaking pitches has been the most noticeable development in his game. After hitting just .116 and slugging under .150 against the pitch type a season ago, O’Neill has not only improved his ability to put the bat on breaking balls more often, but he’s also doing far more damage with the pitches he connects on.

It’s inevitably a very small sample size just a few weeks into the season, but his boost in performance against this pitch type is a major contributing factor to his offensive surge thus far. While his numbers against breaking balls are likely to come back down to reality as the season progresses, if he can at least maintain the level of production from his 2021 season in this department, it would go a long way for his offensive consistency.

Sometimes, a change of scenery is all a player needs to get back on track. In O’Neill’s case, switching clubhouses combined with some tangible improvements in his offensive approach has led him to be one of the best hitters to start the 2024 season. His numbers will level out eventually, but there’s a real chance O’Neill could be in store for a career year before he hits free agency this offseason.

OF Michael Conforto – San Francisco Giants

Michael Conforto is in the midst of a career resurgence of his own with the San Francisco Giants. Conforto signed a two-year, $36 million deal with the Giants in January of 2023, but he struggled in his first season with San Francisco last year. In 470 plate appearances, Conforto slashed .239/.334/.384 for a .718 OPS, a 100 wRC+, and an fWAR of just 0.8.

However, Conforto’s game has looked rejuvenated in the early goings of the 2024 season. Through 50 plate appearances, he is slashing .326/.380/.609 for a 175 OPS+ and a 171 wRC+. He has accumulated an fWAR of 0.4 through 12 games, which is already half his number from a season ago.

Conforto has six barrels already on the season (16.7% barrel rate) to go with a hard hit rate of 41.7%. He hasn’t posted a double digit barrel rate since 2020, and he has hasn’t put up a hard hit rate over 40% since his 2017 season with the New York Mets. It’s early, but it’s an extremely encouraging sign to see his quality of contact take an uptick to open his 2024 campaign.

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What’s more, he already has seven extra-base hits to open the year (four doubles and three homers), and in turn he has a .283 ISO to start the season. He has easily been the best hitter on the Giants, as he leads the club in hits (15), homers, runs scored (8), runs batted in (11), wRC+, and OPS among qualified Giants hitters.

Not too long ago, Conforto was viewed as an emerging cornerstone piece for the New York Mets. His lone All-Star appearance came in 2017, and he accumulated an impressive 11.8 fWAR from 2017-’19. He had four consecutive seasons with a wRC+ of 119 or higher, with his career-high coming in the shortened 2020 season (158).

Conforto has the ability to flirt with 30 homers when he is comfortable at the plate. He had three consecutive seasons with 27 or more homers from 2017-’19 with Mets, launching a career-high 33 bombs in 151 games in 2019. However, the power output took a major step back since then.

In his 304 games played from 2020-’23, he has just 38 homers. Like O’Neill, injuries have plagued his momentum at the plate, and various different ailments have stagged his power output over the past handful of seasons.

Conforto missed the entire 2022 season after undergoing shoulder surgery in April of that year. Given the significant drop in production, there’s a good chance his shoulder was impacting his performance last season.

Beyond that, hamstring strains have plagued him dating back to the 2020 season. He spent some time on the shelf in each of his last three seasons with hamstring injuries in both of his legs. In turn, Conforto put up back-to-back seasons slugging just .384 in 2021 and 2023. Similarly, after posting a subpar OPS of .728 in 2021, he followed it up with a career-low OPS of .718 last season.

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However, he finally appears to be healthy to start the year, and he’s making an impact from the get-go in his sophomore season with San Francisco. At 31 years old, Conforto can still be an impactful offensive weapon, and that has been on full display thus far. If he can return to form this season, he has a chance to boost his stock in a significant way before he re-enters free agency at the end of the year.

Where They Stand Among Pending Free Agent Outfielders

There are a lot of similarities between O’Neill and Conforto in terms of their career path to this point. They both had promising peaks with their first ball clubs, but injuries and offensive inefficiency staggered their production.

However, both have hit the ground running with their respective ball clubs this year, and they each have a chance to boost their stock in a big way if they can put together a complete season.

Starting with Tyler O’Neill, there may be no player with more to gain this season than O’Neill. Still in the midst of his prime earning years at 28 years old, a strong 2024 season could earn himself a good chunk of change this offseason. It’s clear that when he is healthy, he can be a difference maker in the lineup.

O’Neil has only flashed one full season of being a high-impact player, but it was an indication that his ceiling is extremely high. If he can return to form and put together a healthy 2024 season, he could become a highly desirable free agent target this offseason.

For Michael Conforto, he might not have as high of a ceiling as O’Neill, but he has a longer track record of success. He put together multiple high-level seasons with the Mets, but the problem is he hasn’t done it in quite some time. If he can show that he still has the ability to put up an All-Star-caliber season, his free agency value would see a drastic bump.

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Anaheim, CA – April 05: Tyler O’Neill #17 of the Boston Red Sox high fives teammates after a solo home run against the Los Angeles Angels in the second inning of a baseball game at Angel Stadium in Anaheim on Friday, April 5, 2024. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

Moreover, the 2024 outfield free agent class includes a very interesting mix of players. Obviously, Juan Soto headlines the group and will be the top target on the free agent market. However, it gets interesting beyond him.

Cody Bellinger has a player opt-out following the 2024 season, so whether he exercises the remainder of his deal with the Chicago Cubs or returns to the open market will depend on if he can repeat his impressive 2023 season.

The other top names set to hit the market include Teoscar Hernández, who has gotten off to an impressive start of his own with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and veteran Anthony Santander of the Baltimore Orioles.

Point being, O’Neill and Conforoto have a path to becoming the most valuable outfielders on the market behind Soto if they can bounce back this season.

Interestingly enough, both O’Neill and Conforto are represented by Scott Boras, as are Juan Soto and Cody Bellinger. While he wasn’t able to capitalize on holding a monopoly over this past free agent class, Boras will once again represent many of the top names in free agency at the end of the year. That in and of itself will make the potential resurgence of these two veterans a fascinating story to follow throughout the year.

It’s early into the season, but Tyler O’Neill and Michael Conforto have a great opportunity to boost their value before hitting the open market this offseason. They’ve each gotten off to a blistering-hot start, and the two veterans will look to earn themselves a luxurious deal with a strong 2024 campaign.

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