By: Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
MIAMI, Fla. – Team Canada has been a big part of the evolution of Tyler O’Neill.
The 21-year-old Seattle Mariners prospect went from contributing on the Canadian Junior National Team, to debuting on the senior squad at just 20 years old, making his mark on the gold medal-winning squad at the Pan Am Games in Toronto, becoming a staple in the lineup at the inaugural Premier 12, to welcoming rookies at the World Baseball Classic in Miami.
“You see new faces every time, younger guys,” O’Neill said. “I don’t think I’m the younger guy anymore since I have a little experience under my belt. It’s so great to see guys younger than me come in with the veterans we have. They kind of show the way for us young guys, and create this great mixture that we have, and obviously the chemistry goes with that.”
The right-handed hitting corner outfielder is still the second-youngest player on the Canadian squad at the Classic – with San Diego Padres prospect Josh Naylor making his debut with the senior team at 19 – in terms of his date of birth, but the international experience he’s racked up has quickly helped him become one of the more veteran players on the world stage.
“We’re getting on bigger stages every time we play,” O’Neill said. “It’s great to have a little break from the routine of spring training, and the routine of A ball when we were in the Pan Am Games. It’s a great change of pace and the same game, but different baseball. I really enjoy wearing Canada across my chest. There’s no better feeling.”
Away from big-league camp with the Mariners, O’Neill has impressed in his four seasons on the professional circuit as well. In 325 games, the native of Maple Ridge, BC has hit .276/.349/.412 with 70 home runs, 63 doubles and nine triples, topping out at Double-A so far.
“I’m not there yet,” he said. “We all have goals. I’m trying to get to the big leagues and be an impact player and win a championship up there, just like I’m trying to do here. The goal is winning and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Afforded some unique experiences in his young career because of the prospect status he’s gained, O’Neill is not only enjoying the ride, but also preparing for what he hopes the next step in his career will lead to.
“The Futures Game was great,” the 5-foot-11, 210-pound outfielder said. “The [Arizona] Fall League was another experience to get the feel for playing more games in the season. Since minor-league seasons are only 140 games, getting an extra 20 or 30 games there and really experiencing what it’s like to go deep into October into the World Series playing time. Everything is beneficial, and I’m going to keep riding the path that I’m on.”
Complementing the experiences offered to him by the Mariners, O’Neill’s progression in his professional career has been helped along by the chances he’s had to wear the red-and-white jersey. Learning from older players, being welcomed into a veteran clubhouse, and performing with the pressure on, the national team has done a lot for the growth of the former third-rounder.
“Every time coming to play for Canada, it’s a new motivator,” O’Neill said. “It’s definitely been new experiences building up to the WBC, with the Junior National Team, the Pan Ams, Premier 12 where we were playing in front of China with 20,000 fans, and now in the WBC we played in front of 30,000 fans [against the Dominican Republic]. It’s all great experiences, and I’m just trying to log it and have a great time, and see what happens…
“I love being in pressure situations. I love playing in front of the 30,000 Dominican fans we had a couple days ago. I embrace it. Obviously the guys here make it a fun time with the chemistry that we have, and it’s a great group of guys. We’re relaxed, and a lot of these guys have been here before. They know what it’s about.”
Quickly impressed by many of the new faces he’s met with the WBC squad, and reuniting with players like Naylor for the first time since they were teammates on the junior team four years ago, O’Neill is looking forward to what more Canada has to offer.
“Josh has got some serious pop in batting practice, and he’s only had one at-bat so far, so hopefully he can get a couple big clutch pinch-hits here,” O’Neill said. “[Cardinals pitching prospect Rowan] Wick is not the guy I would necessarily want to face, with the slide-step at 98, with a good curveball. And Eric Wood [in the Pirates organization] had a great [exhibition] game against the Yankees so hopefully he can do something like that today.
“This is definitely exciting for the future. We’ve got a lot of young guys coming up, a couple guys in their first tournament here, and it’s another great experience for them, a great experience for us, and hopefully we can do something here.”
With his third chance in two years to take on the world with his Canadian teammates, and enjoying the stage that the WBC offers, O’Neill hopes to do much more of the same with every opportunity that arises.
“It’s nice to be one of the select few from Canada representing them on the biggest stage here,” he said. “It’s a huge honour and hopefully I can just keep doing this in the future.”