Mike O'Neill Is A Sparkplug





ST. LOUIS — Many numbers from outfielder Mike O'Neill's first full pro season could excite him, but it's a word that resonates with him.

"When you say 'leadoff,' my eyes light up," O'Neill said. "I like to be the sparkplug for the offense. I want to be the person who gets on base, so I can create things with my speed, make things happen for the hitters behind me. That's my game."

O'Neill's .458 on-base percentage and his .359 batting average led the organization in 2012. The lefthanded-hitting outfielder batted .342/.441/.417 in 108 games at high Class A Palm Beach before providing that spark for Double-A Springfield late in the year. O'Neill hit .563/643/.719 in 13 games and helped the Cardinals to the Texas League championship. He drew a total of 78 walks and struck out just 26 times.

Dogged by knee surgery that limited him to 50 games in 2011, O'Neill was a Florida State League all-star and won Texas League player of the week honors, then went to the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .368/.463/.397.

"I saw this as the best competition in the U.S., and I wanted to see how I could do against the best competition and at that level of play," O'Neill said. "I think I showed I could play with these guys. I learned that I could."

O'Neill played mostly center field and left field in Arizona, though it's not a push to put him in right. He has versatility, and his instincts for getting on base add to his qualifications. His patience and eye at the plate are strong, and since being a 31st-round pick in 2010 out of Southern California, he has twice as many career walks as strikeouts.

A boost in power and improved success on the bases (he stole 15 bases in 25 attempts last season) will dictate how O'Neill advances. Getting to first certainly hasn't been an issue.

"I sit on a pitch and I don't give in to the pitcher," O'Neill said. "I know what my strengths are. I don't chase a lot of pitches. I know I have to do all I can to get on base."

REDBIRD CHIRPS

• Outfielder C.J. McElroy went to instructional league to work on becoming a switch-hitter. McElroy, the son of former major league pitcher Chuck, hit .271/.314/.332 (as a righty batter) with 24 steals at Rookie-level Johnson City in 2012.

• The Cardinals continued their plan to develop not only players in the minors but also coaches, with the promotion of Triple-A pitching coach Blaise Ilsley to the majors as the bullpen coach. Manager Mike Matheny's staff now includes three members who were part of minor league coaching staffs as recently as 2010.