Tyler O’Neill always wanted to be a Mariner. Growing up in the Canadian province of British Columbia, less than three hours from Seattle, O’Neill and his family would make the trip down for a handful of Mariners games every summer.
He became enamored with the club and, when Seattle took him in the third round of the 2013 Draft, it was a dream come true.
“I was definitely hoping to go to Seattle,” O’Neill said. “It’s so close to home. … It was just an unbelievable feeling, finally hearing my name, getting the call and starting my professional career. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Now 21 years old, O’Neill is closer than ever to realizing his dream of playing for the Mariners. Despite entering last season as a relatively unheralded prospect, he steadily climbed the MLB.com rankings to No. 60 overall at the end of 2016 to his current spot at No. 36 overall.
O’Neill made a name for himself with his impressive power, which rates a 60 on the 20-80 scouting scale and is among the best in the Minor Leagues. However, his rise to elite status truly began two years ago in the California League, when he realized just hitting the ball out of the park would not be enough.
Power runs in the O’Neill family. His father, Terry, was a Mr. Canada bodybuilder in 1975.
“That’s where I get most of my strength from,” the younger O’Neill said with a laugh.
When he reached high school, his dad introduced him to powerlifting, helping apply it to his baseball training regimen. Power became O’Neill’s calling card when he began his Minor League career. He tied for sixth in the Class A Midwest League in 2014 with 13 homers, despite missing more than half the year with a fractured right hand, then hit 14 more over the first 57 games in 2015 with Class A Advanced Bakersfield. At the same time, he could sense that something was off. The strikeouts were piling up for the Garibaldi Secondary School product, who fanned 78 times in those 57 games while reaching base at a .278 clip.
“I was a young kid. I’m still young, but I was younger then,” O’Neill said. “I really just had to get control of myself, realize my ultimate goal and find my rejuvenated motivation.”
“It’s hard to go to a kid and talk about strikeouts, how we need to cut them down, without having some process to go through,” said Daren Brown, O’Neill’s manager last year at Double-A Jackson. “You just don’t want the kid going up to the plate and trying not to strike out.”
A July trip to Toronto to represent Canada at the Pan-American Games helped O’Neill reset a bit mentally, and he finally found the solution. While he had gotten by on his power to that point, he realized he had to do more.
“I think the majority of it was just utilizing the full field, taking what I was given, not trying to do too much every at-bat and not trying to hit home runs every time,” O’Neill said. “Just maturing mentally as a player.”
“Any good hitter, they want to swing the bat,” Brown agreed. “When they go to the plate, they get a little antsy or whatever, but he wants to swing. The pitcher’s job is to compete against that. I thought he did a nice job understanding that.”
With a calmer, more selective approach, O’Neill compiled a .286/.361/.659 slash line with 18 homers and 48 RBIs over the final 49 games of the second half of the 2015 season.
Things continued to fall into place with Jackson in 2016. Despite being around three years younger than the average Double-A player, O’Neill batted .293 with 24 homers, 102 RBIs and a career-best 26.1 percent strikeout rate. He even challenged for the Triple Crown before ultimately winning the RBI title and finishing second in homers and fifth in the batting race. He earned league MVP honors and a pair of All-Star nods.
“I think he was a little more relaxed at the plate last year,” Brown said. “There were times during the year where I thought he was a little more relaxed than other times. But again, we talk about what he did most of the year, and he was doing it at 21 years old, which is a credit to him.”
“I really wanted that Triple [Crown],” O’Neill said. “I came up a little short in the end.”
In the postseason, O’Neill was the standout player as the Generals cruised to the Southern League title. He led the team with a .448 average, three homers and nine RBIs in seven playoff games en route to Championship Series MVP honors.
“He was a big part of the offense all year and then to come into that playoff-type atmosphere. … It just seemed like in the playoffs he was coming up and then coming through in every situation,” Brown said.
The playoff run provided the exclamation point for O’Neill’s transformation from one-dimensional power hitter to multi-dimensional threat.
“We know what he can do if he just makes the pitcher get into the strike zone,” Brown said. “We know the kind of damage he can do.”
For the first time, O’Neill enters Spring Training as arguably the star of the Mariners’ future. He ranks No. 2 in the system, behind only 2016 first-rounder Kyle Lewis, who is recovering from a torn ACL. And O’Neill has not shied away from all the extra attention.
“It’s good,” he said. “I worked my way up the ladder through the system, worked my way up through these prospect rankings, and it feels good to be recognized for all the hard work and the success that I’ve had.”
The last two years have not altered his final destination. It’s the same goal he’s had since before the Draft in 2013.
“The end game is not Triple-A. The end game is not being the No. 1 prospect in baseball,” O’Neill said. “I’m trying to get to the big leagues and be an impact player. That’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
By Alex Craft