He attacked his three rounds of batting practice like he was preparing for a game for Class AA Jackson. He sprayed the ball to all fields, staying in his approach. Everything was done with purpose.
SAN DIEGO — For many of Tyler O’Neill’s teammates, it was a time for smiles, joking and lighthearted enjoyment. Because while the annual Futures Game brings some of the best prospects in major-league baseball onto one field during the All-Star Game festivities, it is still essentially an exhibition game with meaningless results and scheduled playing time.
Even with a small army of scouts watching the pregame workout, there was still time for players to pose for pictures during batting practice, have conversations with media and loiter in large groups in the outfield.
But there stood O’Neill, a chiseled 220-pound package of muscle and intensity, stoic, focused and on-task. There was no goofing off for the Mariners’ top prospect. He was all business from the time he stepped on the field at Petco Park before Sunday’s game.
“Relentless intensity,” said an opposing scout watching him work.
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Representing the organization and his native Canada in the prestigious game was a goal O’Neill set for himself.
“It gave me goosebumps when I got the call,” he said. “This is something I had my eye on going into the season.”
So while being selected is the major accomplishment, O’Neill wasn’t going to relax and soak in the Southern California sun. No, he knows only one way to play. He attacked his three rounds of batting practice like he was preparing for a game for Class AA Jackson. He sprayed the ball to all fields, staying in his approach. And when he went out to shag balls, he worked alone in right field, reading balls off the bat of hitters and chasing them down with near game-like speed. Everything was done with a purpose.
“I guess it’s a little thing us Canadian guys have,” he said. “We’ve got some fire in our belly. I always come out to the field energetic every day. I love being there. I love doing what I do. You have to be happy about it.”
O’Neill attacks the game of baseball, each at-bat, each ball in the field. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the game or workout leading up to it.
“You never have to worry about him playing hard,” said Class AA Jackson manager Daren Brown a few weeks back.
O’Neill has played with that energy since his days in British Columbia.
“I’m always doing something,” he said. “I can’t really sit still. I can’t be a calm guy. I’m always tuned into what’s going on and ready for the next thing.”
It’s that mindset that’s carried him quickly through the Mariners’ minor-league system as a third-round pick in the 2013 draft. He is in his first full season at the Class AA level at age 20 — one of the youngest players in the Southern League. And he’s been one of the best, hitting .308 with a .920 on-base plus slugging percentage, 20 doubles, three triples, 16 homers, 66 RBI and six stolen bases.
“O’Neill has been killing it since spring training,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “Tyler is one of the youngest players in the Southern League. For Tyler to go the Southern League and do what he’s doing is rare at his age.”
O’Neill certainly had the talent to do so. A year ago in his first season at advanced Class A Level, he hit .260 with an .874 OPS, 21 doubles, two triples, 32 homers and 87 RBI.
But Dipoto’s new regime wanted more from him. They wanted a more disciplined approach at the plate. It’s why O’Neill was one of 15 players invited to the team’s hitting summit in January. It’s where the “Control the Zone” mantra was introduced to them by Dipoto, director of player development Andy McKay and the rest of the developmental staff.
“Obviously it was the first time I was told about it,” O’Neill said. “We just had to make adjustments. We had to buy into the process. It took a little getting used to, but I really think a lot of us are coming around and buying into this new philosophy.”
But he credits that change in thinking and the organization’s new developmental plan as key to his success.
“It’s just trying to get a pitch in the middle of the zone and lay off the corners pitches, the pitcher’s pitches,” he said. “Don’t miss the ones when you get them, obviously they don’t happen too often, but those are the pitches you do your damage on.”
That understanding has led to a .375 on-base percentage compared to .355 at the end of last season and 33 walks in 80 games this season compared to 29 walks all of last season.
“I’m hitting 3-4 in a Double A lineup,” he said. “I’m not always going to get cookies to hit. I’m going to be pitched around a lot and I have to leave those pitches I can’t hit. I think that’s working for me this year.”
O’Neill’s success has made pitcher’s wary and weary.
“It’s all generally the same,” he said. “They are going to stay away from me and there are times where they would rather give me the walk than let me do some damage to them. I’m really cognizant of that and I know what they are trying to do.”
Don’t label O’Neill a power hitter. Sure he has tremendous power and strength, but he wants to be a complete player.
“I feel like I can be better than .250-.260 hitter,” he said. “I can be a .290-.300 hitter guy. I really told myself that going into this year. I can’t sell myself short and just be an average hitter. I want to be the best of the best at every aspect of this game. I’m going to keep getting better.”
So where will that take him?
The past regime might have already bumped O’Neill to Class AAA Tacoma. Dipoto and his group aren’t quite so reactionary.
“There’s no rush,” Dipoto said. “Really what you’d like to do is leave him in the Southern League for right now. He’s an All-Star. He’s one of the best players in the league. He’s certainly in the player of the year and possibly triple-crown discussion. Let him have that dominant season. And when we get that opportunity, sometime in the latter part of the season, if things have gone consistently well for him, we’ll give him that taste of Triple A and get him ready for next year.”