O'Neill eyes big spring with Mariners, Team Canada

Power-hitting prospect impresses Seattle with reworked approach

O'Neill eyes big spring with Mariners, Team Canada

SEATTLE -- Tyler O'Neill had a big year for the Mariners in 2016, opening eyes with an outstanding season at Double-A Jackson and emerging as a legitimate outfield prospect for a franchise that has struggled to develop homegrown talent over the past decade.

But this figures to be an even bigger season for the 21-year-old from Maple Ridge, British Columbia. For starters, he's been invited to his first Major League camp and will get the chance next month in Peoria, Ariz., to show how close he is to landing his dream job.

And a few weeks after checking in with the Mariners, he'll take time off to play for Canada in the World Baseball Classic before rejoining big league camp.

"It's going to be great," said O'Neill, who ranks No. 36 on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 overall prospects list. "Any time I can wear Canada across my chest, it's a different feeling, a different level of competitiveness. You're out there against the world, basically, and it's really something I can't explain."

But his ultimate goal lies beyond, as he's now knocking on the door for a Major League job. The Mariners aren't expecting the stocky outfielder to crack their 25-man roster this spring, but there clearly is a feeling that his time is near, and it wouldn't surprise anyone if he earns a promotion to Seattle at some point this coming season.

"He's a special player," said Andy McKay, Seattle's director of player personnel. "The numbers speak for themselves. But there are so many things that are more exciting than the numbers. He bought into what we asked as much as anybody, when he had as much to lose as anybody [coming off a big year at Class A Advanced Bakersfield]."

Top Prospects: O'Neill, SEA

O'Neill hit 32 homers with 87 RBIs in 106 games in 2015 for Bakersfield, but the Mariners wanted him to be a more complete hitter after he posted a .260 average and .316 on-base percentage with 137 strikeouts and just 29 walks in 449 plate appearances.

The youngster listened to the advice and jumped aboard Seattle's "control-the-zone" philosophy, hiking his on-base percentage by 58 points while drawing 62 walks with 150 strikeouts in 575 plate appearances.

"It could be hard to buy into if you're stubborn enough not to," he said of the team's new approach. "But if you want to improve and better yourself and really take the next step and take that risk, I'd recommend more guys doing it. It really worked for me this year, being selfless and playing for my team. Eventually, the individual stats take care of themselves when you get to win."

O'Neill posted a .293/.374/.508 line with 24 homers, 102 RBIs and 12 stolen bases in 130 games for Jackson, then led the team to the Southern League title with a strong postseason run as one of the youngest players in the league.

"I knew jumping from High A to Double-A was a big stretch," he said. "And I knew I had a lot of holes in my game and there were some changes to be made, and I needed to mentally agree with that. I feel like I did that. I did everything in my power and worked very hard to do what I did."

O'Neill isn't taking anything for granted this year either. After being named the Southern League MVP, he knows his next step is Triple-A.

"It's going to be great to play in Tacoma," he said. "I'm ready for the next level. I'm going to show you guys who I am this year."

He got a little exposure to the Major League coaches last spring, when he was called over from Minor League camp to appear in 11 Cactus League games, going 4-for-10 with a homer and five RBIs. But it's a far bigger opportunity to get a full camp invite this year and be in the same clubhouse and meeting and competing with the Major Leaguers from Day One.

"I was really hoping for it this year," he said. "I felt like I deserved it. Obviously it's great to be recognized for accomplishments you deserve. I'm very excited. I'm going to go to camp, do my best and see what happens.

"I just want to show everybody that I can play everywhere. I can hit, I can play in the field, I can run, I can take the extra base. Do the little things right. Throw to the cutoff, whatever I need to do when the play is going on. I'm just going to play the way I did all last season and carry it through."

And if it works out at some point that he gets the callup? Sitting in the dugout at Safeco Field during FanFest, O'Neill allowed himself to look out and dream a little.

"I hope so," he said. "It's a big motivator. I want to have a strong spring, a strong start in Tacoma and just let my performance take care of itself. If I think too much about getting up here or not getting up here, about who is getting promoted or demoted, it's going to mentally get into my head. I just can't do that."

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.