DUNEDIN, Fla. – Roughly two weeks before the World Baseball Classic’s roster deadline, Tyler O’Neill took a phone call from Greg Hamilton and learned there was a problem.
The St. Louis Cardinals slugger, a key middle-of-the-order bat in the lineup Baseball Canada’s director of national teams was putting together, had just been rejected by the tournament’s insurer. Since O’Neill finished the previous season on the injured list with a left hamstring strain, he’d been rendered ineligible. To play, the Cardinals first needed to pull their automatic withhold on him, clear him with a physical and then have the insurer approve his participation.
Only the second step was a sure thing, and after Josh Naylor withdrew because of injury concerns and with Joey Votto, among others, also ineligible after major shoulder surgery last summer, there was a lot riding on steps one and three.
Regardless, O’Neill was determined to make it happen.
“Any time I can play for Canada, that’s an opportunity I want to take. I love playing for my country,” he says in an interview from Cardinals spring training in Jupiter, Fla. “I had to clear some things up with the insurance company just to make sure I’m OK to start the tournament. I totally understand. I had the support of the Cardinals front office … as long as I was confident and clear to play. I’d been working with the trainers in St. Louis this past off-season so I gained their confidence that way and everyone is on the same page. Our communication has been very good, obviously, the Cardinals front office understands how important it is for me to play for my country and I really appreciate them making it work in the end.”
Make it work they did and credit for that goes to John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations for the Cardinals, who could easily have objected with three-fourths of his infield, two-thirds of his outfield and two-fifths of his rotation also committed to the tournament.
But recognizing that O’Neill’s initial injury “wasn’t that severe” and comfortable with the 27-year-old’s rehab work over the winter, “it just seemed like he wasn’t putting himself at any more risk than if he was playing in a spring-training game,” said Mozeliak.
“So why would we withhold him?” he continued. “I know this means something to Tyler. I know he takes a lot of pride in being Canadian, so I’m not going to stand in his way.”
The Cardinals’ approval was pivotal, but no guarantee.
Once a withhold is pulled, players in O’Neill’s situation essentially undergo an underwriting, as in the insurer assesses the level of risk and comes up with either a yes or a no. At that point, it’s math, not logic.
“All owners agree to do this because these players are insured should they get hurt,” explained Mozeliak. “Basically what we had to do was submit where he is physically and then he also had to take a physical with us. And if that was sufficient, then the insurance company could then approve it. Or, if it was not, then the next step might have been for the insurance company to then do their own physical. That didn’t have to happen. And if they had rejected it, then there’s nothing I could have done.”
The entire process led to some anxious days working through the process for O’Neill and the Canadian national team.
O’Neill felt confident the entire time since he’d been rehabbing the injury back in October, even appearing in an Arizona Fall League game, and expected to be ready for the National League Division Series had the Cardinals advanced past the Philadelphia Phillies, which they did not.
His off-season work only further built up his confidence and he checked into Cardinals camp “feeling really good where I’m at,” a game-changer for Canadian manager Ernie Whitt.
O’Neill and Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman are the lineup’s primary threats. Surrounding them will be Milwaukee Brewers infielder Abraham Toro, Cleveland Guardians catcher Bo Naylor, Minnesota Twins prospect Edouard Julien, Toronto Blue Jays utilityman Otto Lopez and Chicago Cubs outfielder Jared Young, among others.
Elite younger prospects like Owen Caissie of the Cubs and Denzel Clarke of the Oakland Athletics will factor in the mix, as well, in the place O’Neill found himself in back in 2017 at the last World Baseball Classic, when he was on the cusp of a big-league breakthrough.
As an accomplished major-leaguer now, O’Neill is both eager to be a presence in the lineup while also pouring into his younger Canadian teammates.
“I’ve hung around a bit now where I’ve got some experience under me and seen some stuff, which is really cool,” he said. “Just being able to chat with the rest of the guys on the team and share that camaraderie like the guys did when I was a young guy first playing for Canada on the junior national team, I’m looking to be that veteran presence for those guys.”
To the Canadians’ great relief, he’ll get that chance beginning March 6, when players travel to Phoenix for a training camp that begins the next day and includes exhibition games against the Cubs on March 8 and the Seattle Mariners on March 9. The Canadians play out of Pool C and face Great Britain on March 12, followed by the United States, Colombia and Mexico.
The top-two clubs in each pool advance to the quarter-finals and Canada’s chances took a hit with a number of key players either sidelined by health issues or their personal roster situations.
“It’s a very interesting dynamic. It’s MLB sponsored and an interesting time of the year in the early to mid part of spring training when guys are still trying to build up. I get it,” said O’Neill. “Obviously with previous injuries and stuff, I saw what I had to go through this year to be eligible and I can understand why guys wouldn’t want to do such a process. I’m very grateful to be playing baseball on a global stage like this. … To wear Canada across my chest, there’s nothing better.”