He compares to Lawrie, but O’Neill is O’Neill
* He’s been compared to fellow Langley Blaze grad: 3B Brett Lawrie (Langley, BC). OF Tyler O’Neill (Maple Ridge, BC) has grown into Tyler O’Neill — and there’s nothing wrong with that: as his six-figure signing bonus and first-year batting average of .310 with the Seattle Mariners rookie-class Arizona League club. Photo: Adam Morissette studios. ….
By Kevin Glew
He’s not Brett Lawrie.
But when you meet Tyler O’Neill it’s easy to see why he has drawn comparisons to the Toronto Blue Jays’ spark plug third baseman.
Like Lawrie, the 18-year-old Seattle Mariners prospect, who hails from Maple Ridge, B.C., boasts a stocky, muscular body, unwavering self confidence and a deep intensity. Both are also graduates of the Langley Blaze, Doug Mathieson’s B.C. Premier Baseball League (BCPBL) program.
O’Neill met Lawrie for the first time prior to Baseball Canada’s annual National Teams Awards banquet on Saturday. O’Neill was on hand to receive the Junior National Team (JNT) MVP honour, while Lawrie was the recipient of the Baseball Canada alumni award.
“He’s a great player from what I’ve seen,” said O’Neill, when asked about Lawrie prior to Saturday’s banquet. “He gets the job done. He’s a hard-nosed player and I tried to be like that in my early years when I first started watching him, but I’ve kind of molded into my own player now. And I am who I am.”
And who O’Neill is, is a powerful right-handed hitter who was chosen by the Mariners in the third round (85th overall) in the June draft. Not coincidentally, he was scouted and signed by Tom McNamara, the Mariners’ scouting director, who in 2008 was a scout with the Milwaukee Brewers who encouraged his superiors to make Lawrie a first-round selection.
O’Neill received a $650,000 US signing bonus from the Mariners and was assigned to their rookie-class Arizona League club, where he batted .310 in 28 games. The 6-foot, 215-pound youngster says the quality of pitching was the biggest difference between competing in the BCPBL and the pro ranks.
“In the PBL, I got a lot of off-speed pitches that they would try to throw off the plate, but I could still adjust to them,” explained O’Neill. “But in pro ball, I started facing these hard 80 mph hooks, not 70 or 60 [mph]. So it was a little different, but I adjusted to it and tried to do my best.”
His .310 average in his first pro season was even more impressive when you consider that he was also learning a new position. Primarily a catcher and shortstop with the Blaze, the Mariners have converted him into an outfielder. He played left field in his first pro season.
“I like it. It’s a lot easier on your body,” he said about patrolling the outfield. “As a catcher, you have to squat and squat in the Arizona heat all day. So I feel it’s [the outfield] a lot better position for me.”
It wasn’t that long ago that a career in baseball seemed unlikely for O’Neill, who excelled at multiple sports when he was growing up. His parents, Terry and Marilyn O’Neill, signed him up for T-ball when he was five, but he quit because he found it boring.
“I picked baseball back up when I was about 10 or 11 years old and I really took it from there,” he said.
Growing up in Maple Ridge, B.C., O’Neill sometimes had batting practice sessions with his father on Larry Walker Field. The talented and focused teen credits Mathieson and his four years in the Blaze program for helping him blossom into a bona fide prospect.
The Canadian slugger was primarily a contact hitter when he started in the program, but as he filled out, Mathieson encouraged him to swing harder to unleash his power.
“Tyler did not use the strength he possesses well and was a contact hitter,” shared Mathieson. “I told him not to be afraid to strike out and [to] use his bat speed to his advantage.”
Mathieson’s suggestion paid off and O’Neill belted six home runs and had driven in 47 runs in 59 at bats with the Blaze in 2013 prior to last year’s June draft.
“I can’t put into words what Doug has done for me personally in my development and in drawing all of the scouts out to see me play,” said O’Neill. “He did all the work he could and then it was up to me to perform in front of them.”
O’Neill also honed his skills with the junior national team (JNT). In six games at the 18U World Cup in Taichung, Taiwan in September, he socked three home runs and drove in 14 and was named to the tournament’s all-star team. This standout performance earned him the JNT MVP award at Saturday’s banquet.
“It’s a real honour obviously,” said O’Neill about the award. “It wasn’t my focus in going over there [to Taiwan]. I wanted to help the team win first and foremost and then I did my best. I tried to knock some runs in and help the team in any way that I could and this was the result of it.”
Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams and JNT head coach, has been impressed by O’Neill.
“He’s got a legitimate bat. He’s got power in the bat, he’s able to recognize pitches and make contact and his power comes out at the plate,” said Hamilton. “He runs well and from an athletic perspective, he’s worked hard to make himself into a very good defensive outfielder. He has a lot of tools. He’s just a good overall player.”
Being selected by the Mariners in the draft was a best-case scenario for O’Neill.
“I’m basically considered a hometown guy,” he said. “I’m a three-hour drive out from the stadium [Safeco Field]. It’s great for me and my family and hopefully I’m going to be there as soon as I can.”
O’Neill is aiming to start the 2014 season with the Mariners’ Class-A Short-Season Everett AquaSox.
“I’m going to do everything I can at spring training to get there,” said O’Neill. “Hopefully I’ll even be further than that [and be assigned to higher level], but we’ll see.”
Hamilton, for one, is optimistic about O’Neill’s future.
“I think he’s got a chance to have a major league career,” said Hamilton. “He can swing the bat. He can run. He can play defensively in the outfield. And the one thing that Ty does bring is that he has a real belief about his skill set. He truly believes that he belongs. He’s not intimidated by competition. In the relative world he’s be in so far, the bigger the stage, the more he likes to compete.”
Mathieson, who also scouts for the Arizona Diamondbacks, offers similar thoughts. He says O’Neill is “very confident” and has a “bulldog mentality” on the field.
“Tyler is one of the more advanced hitters for his age in the minors and [I] see him 3-to-4 years away [from the big leagues] if he stays healthy,” said Mathieson. “This year will be big for him to indicate where he stands.”
So while O’Neill is not Lawrie, if all goes as expected, the two stocky, intense Langley Blaze alumni will be grinding it out against each other in the big leagues in the not-so-distant future.