Hot Stove season waits for no one — not even the biggest free agent in baseball history. While the eyes of the baseball world were fixed on Toronto and any private jets in its airspace, the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals agreed to an interesting trade, with St. Louis outfielder Tyler O’Neill headed to Boston in exchange for right-handed pitchers Nick Robertson and Victor Santos.
Real baseball news: The Boston Red Sox are acquiring outfielder Tyler O'Neill from St. Louis for right-handed reliever Nick Robertson and right-handed starter Victor Santos.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) December 8, 2023
A former top prospect, O’Neill looked to be a rising star during a 2021 season in which he slashed .286/.352/.560 with 34 home runs and 15 stolen bases and finished seventh in NL MVP voting. But injuries and strikeout issues have short-circuited things since then; the two-time Gold Glove winner has played in just 158 games over the last two years, with just 23 homers and a .707 OPS (97 OPS+).
With an outfield logjam and a desperate need for pitching heading into 2024, O’Neill had long been rumored to be on the trade block. But how much was Cardinals GM John Mozeliak able to get in return for the 28-year-old? And what does this mean for a Boston team that just dealt away outfielder Alex Verdugo a few days ago? Let’s break it all down.
Tyler O’Neill trade grades
Red Sox: B+
In turning Verdugo into O’Neill in a pair of deals, you could make the argument that Boston got both the better big-league outfielder and the better package of Minor League pitchers — not bad work for new chief baseball officer Craig Breslow’s first foray into Hot Stove season. Verdugo had worn out his welcome with Red Sox brass, and O’Neill is a very worthy flier, a much more dynamic athlete with a substantially higher power/speed ceiling whose righty swing also figures to make him a better fit in Fenway Park. For all the talk of Boston’s enviable outfield depth, they were short on sure things: Jarren Duran looks like a keeper in center, but Masataka Yoshida is defensively stretched in left, Rob Refsnyder is only really playable against lefties and prospects Ceddanne Rafaela and Wilyer Abreu are tantalizing but still have much to prove.
O’Neill gives manager Alex Cora another piece with which to work, a capable fourth outfielder at worst who could be in for a breakout season if he’s able to finally stay healthy and recapture his 2021 magic. Players with his skill set are hard to come by, and acquiring one without giving up anything you’ll be liable to miss in the near future is good business.
Mozeliak more or less announced his intention to find a deal for O’Neill at this week’s Winter Meetings, telling reporters: “Getting him everyday at-bats is going to be really difficult given the way our outfield, we predict, will line up. So when you’re looking at exploring the trade market, and when you think about what’s best for everybody in the end, it probably makes sense if we’re going to do something.”
It’s not hard to see the logic. The Cardinals simply had more outfielders than they had roles for, with Jordan Walker in right, Lars Nootbaar in left and the promotion of top shortstop prospect Masyn Winn bumping Tommy Edman to center full-time, plus Dylan Carlson in a reserve role. With O’Neill entering his final year of team control, he was the obvious odd man out, a player who’s flashed legitimate upside in the past but simply hadn’t done enough — or stayed healthy enough — to earn the everyday role he wanted in St. Louis.
To no one’s surprise, Mozeliak targeted pitching in return, landing a pair of righties from Boston — one who could be a sneaky fit in the big-league bullpen next year and another starting pitching prospect hoping to get back on track after missing time with an elbow injury. Robertson, 25, appeared in nine games for Boston last season after coming over in the deal that brought Enrique Hernandez to the Dodgers, posting a 6.00 ERA in 12 innings. Santos, 22, had been in the Red Sox system since 2021, reaching as high as Triple-A Worcester in 2022 before missing the entire 2023 season due to injury. It remains to be seen whether either pitcher will pan out, and while O’Neill’s market was likely limited by his inability to stay healthy and his pending free agency, it’s hard not to feel like this is a bit of a disappointing return for a player with such a high ceiling.