Tyler O’Neill checks first field in path to return

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MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN – SEPTEMBER 14: Tyler O’Neill #41 of the St. Louis Cardinals hits a single in the fifth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers during game two of a doubleheader at Miller Park on September 14, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

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Even with a fractured finger, the St. Louis Cardinals did not think Tyler O’Neill would miss much time — with some inside the organization believing he would only miss the minimum of 10 days as he recovered on the injured list.

That appears to still be on track, as O’Neill took light swings for the first time on Monday, according to Jeff Jones of the Belleville News.

There is no word on how O’Neill feels after swinging the bat, which will obviously determine how both he and the team go from here. But it’s the latest sign that he is getting closer to returning, which would provide a huge boost for a Cardinals lineup that has needed his production in the lineup alongside Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt.

The Cardinals gambled on O’Neill this winter by not pursuing any free-agent outfielders, hoping that consistent playing time would allow him to make a jump offensively. That is exactly what’s happened. He is hitting .250/.290/.350 with eight home runs and 18 RBI this season, looking like the team’s third most prolific home run hitter behind Arenado and Goldschmidt.

So getting him back in the lineup as soon as possible would be huge for a Cardinals team that recently lost two out of three games against the Chicago Cubs and is 4-6 in their last 10 games. But O’Neill is also a Gold Glove caliber defender in the outfield and his absence has been felt since being placed on the IL.

Monday was the first test for O’Neill and he will have a few more hurdles to clear before he can return to the Cardinals. But if he can return and produce on a similar level to what he has in the first 47 games of the regular season, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and the Cardinals front office will have one less thing to worry about come the trade deadline.

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