Sports

Maple Ridge slugger set for prospects camp

Tyler O’Neill has been working out all off-season in anticipation of his first Major League Baseball training camp with the Seattle Mariners, in March. He leaves for Arizona in two weeks, for prospects camp. He is seen here taking his cuts for Team Canada, and he was an all-star at the Under-18 world championships last summer. - Contributed photo
Tyler O’Neill has been working out all off-season in anticipation of his first Major League Baseball training camp with the Seattle Mariners, in March. He leaves for Arizona in two weeks, for prospects camp. He is seen here taking his cuts for Team Canada, and he was an all-star at the Under-18 world championships last summer.
— image credit: Contributed photo

The new ball season starts in two weeks for Maple Ridge slugger Tyler O’Neill.

He begins Seattle Mariners mini camp on Feb. 14. in Peoria, Arizona.

That’s where the Major League Baseball organization’s top prospects are put through their paces. The days will start at 7 a.m., and cover everything from on-field basics like bunting and fielding, to nutrition education and even etiquette tips.

O’Neill will be playing close attention. He was a catcher and third baseman with the Langley Blaze in the Premier Baseball, but the Mariners are converting him to right field.

So far, he enjoys the switch.

“It’s awesome – it’s not hard on my body, like catching is,” he said.

Catchers squat for hours on end, and inevitably wind up with wonky knees. They fret about whether their pitcher has his stuff, and try to remember opposing batter tendencies as they call for pitches. Sometimes, on a play at the plate, a baserunner comes at them like Marshawn Lynch in Beast Mode.

Switching to the outfield, he’s doing a lot more running than in his recent baseball career, but his biggest worry there will be staying hydrated in the 40 C Arizona heat.

Mini-camp will be followed by his first spring training on March 9.

If starstruck by watching ‘King’ Felix Hernandez unleash his fastball, or ex-Yankee superstar Robinson Cano taking his cuts, O’Neill plans to play it cool.

“Everyone goes to spring training,” he said. “It’s nice to see the Big League guys, I guess, but I’ll focus on what I have to do.”

He’s not likely to be patrolling right field in Safeco Field this summer, even if that is the goal.

More likely, he will play in short-season Single A for the Everett Aquasox, or long-seasons Single A for the Clinton Lumberkings.

The Aquasox would allow his family and friends to drive two hours and watch O’Neill play. Or they could come to Vancouver’s Nat Bailey stadium to see him take on the Canadians in the Northwest League.

“That would be awesome,” he allows.

But his goal is the Lumberkings, who play in the Midwest League in Clinton, Iowa.

He’s not expecting to skip any rungs on the ladder.

When major league teams draft an older player, coming out of college, they might throw him into Double A ball, and see where he’s at.

But with a Canadian kid who just graduated from Garibaldi secondary, who they spent a third-round draft pick on, they will want to give him every opportunity to work on his game and mature.

“They high-pick prospects they want to slowly develop them, and see how they do at each level,” said O’Neill. “That’s just how it is.”

Last year was a whirlwind for O’Neill. He finished his Langley Blaze career, after batting .455 (85 for 187) with 62 runs scored, 17 doubles, 8 triples, 12 home runs and 86 RBI in 89 games over the last two seasons. He was the most feared hitter in the league.

In  June, O’Neill was drafted 85th overall, despite having had first-round buzz in pre-draft speculation.

He finished the season with the World Under-18 Tournament in Taiwan, where he hit three homers and 14 RBI in six games, and was selected to the all-star team.

In September, at the Baseball Canada banquet at the Rogers Centre, he was awareded the Junior Team MVP Award for 2013. Blue Jay Brett Laawrie, Mariner Mike Saunders and former MLB all-star Jason Bay were among the other players honoured there.

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