Photo Courtesy of the Frisco RoughRiders.
After four years in the New York Yankees organization, Michael O’Neill needed a fresh start.
And when the Yankees released him last December, that’s exactly what he received. Last winter, O’Neill, 25, nephew of former Yankees great Paul O’Neill, signed with the Texas Rangers organization.
O’Neill, started the 2017 season with High Single-A Down East of the Carolina League. And after hitting .273 with 7 home runs and 19 RBI in 45 games for the Wood Ducks, he was promoted to Frisco on May 31.
In 74 games with the Roughriders, the Ohio native hit .262 with 8 home runs, 22 RBI and an OPS of .759. Late in the season, he was among the Ranger prospects invited to the play in Arizona Fall League (AFL), an annual October and November showcase for the top minor leaguers in the sport, a nice way to end his first season in the Rangers system.
It’s been a great experience,” O’Neill said on the final day of Frisco’s regular season. “They (the Rangers) gave me a huge opportunity to continue my career after some rocky times in New York. I’m just very thankful for the opportunity to restart my career. I’ve had the best year of my career so far here. It’s just been nothing but positive things, on the field, off the field, in the clubhouse, in the organization. I can’t thank Texas enough for the opportunity.”
A University of Michigan product, O’Neill was a third-round pick of the Yankees in 2013 and had spent every season as a professional in their organization.
That’s the same Yankees who his uncle played for between 1993 and 2001, when he was a four-time American League All-Star and played on four World Champions.
Michael is honored to have such a famous uncle, but did tire of answering questions about Uncle Paul during his time in the Yankee system.
Yeah, it was unique, but honestly, it was difficult,” O’Neill said. “Every time you went to a new city, that’s all everybody wanted to know-how’s your uncle doing, what’s he doing, is he going to be here tonight? It’s nice to get away from it and just be your own player, be your own person and not have to answer all the time about how he’s doing and what he’s doing.”
But being related to a famous former big-leaguer who is still close to the game as a television broadcaster for the Yankee-owned YES Network, is not something the younger O’Neill advertises. In fact, he said many of his Frisco teammates didn’t realize he was related to Paul until late in the season, usually when a teammate brought it up.
There are still guys finding out in the locker room that my uncle was Paul O’Neill two, three months after I’d been here,” O’Neill said. “When I was in New York, I feel like I was almost defined by who my uncle was.”
Frisco manager Joe Mikulik has enjoyed managing O’Neill and like other Roughriders who have played in the AFL, “Mik” knows fall ball will be a positive and productive endeavor for his versatile outfielder.
I think more at-bats (is a big plus),” Mikulik said. “I think if you have tools and some talent, I think you need as many at-bats as you can (get). Winter ball is always good. Back in the day, winter ball was always beneficial to a lot of players. I don’t know how many plate appearances he had this year, maybe 450. You get another 200, it’s only better for you. Plus, the overall (experience)-baserunning, playing defense, seeing more pitching is going to make him better, no doubt.”
O’Neill is still riding high after what he dubbed his best professional season to date.
However, he’s also stoked about being able to add a nice exclamation point to 2017 with a great experience in the Fall League.
Yeah, I’m extremely excited. It’s just another thing to be thankful for, that Texas has given me the opportunity to do,” O’Neill said. “I came in as a free agent. Nobody really knew who I was and I feel like I put myself on the map by playing well enough to be in the conversation for the Fall League. It’s just a huge opportunity to further my baseball career, meet new people, form new relationships and obviously, represent the Rangers in another form of baseball.”
And even though this will be his first taste of the Fall League, O’Neill knows approaching this prospect-rich environment in the same way he handled the regular season is the easiest way to ensure continued success.
I definitely have expectations. It’s just another place to expose yourself as a player and a teammate,” O’Neill said. “I’m just going to try to continue to execute the same routines that I execute through the season. I’m not just going to go out there and have fun with it. I want to compete, I want to be successful and I want to represent myself and the Rangers the best that I can.”
O’Neill considers himself blessed on many fronts. For one, he’s grateful for the Rangers giving him a fresh start after the Yankees let him become a minor-league free agent last season.
He’s also grateful for the invite to the AFL and for the opportunity to play in Frisco and at some of the top facilities in the minor leagues.
Everything is just top-notch,” O’Neill said of Dr Pepper Ballpark. “It’s the best baseball atmosphere that I’ve played in in the minor leagues, and I’ve played in some really cool cities. I played in Charleston, I played in Tampa, I’ve also played in New York. When you can say that this is the best of the places that I’ve played in, you can definitely say it’s first-class.”
O’Neill admits that when he signed with the Rangers during the offseason, he did so with mixed emotions. On one hand, he was happy to have a fresh start with a new organization and was optimistic about what that could mean for his baseball future.
However, he also approached changing organizations, a completely foreign experience to him, with a bit of trepidation because he had left behind friendships and relationships with many teammates, instructors and managers in the Yankee organization to join a new organization where he didn’t know what to expect.
But since he’s concluding his first season under the Ranger umbrella in the Fall League, it’s safe to say his first year in his new organization has gone well, and O’Neill is intent on ending 2017 on another positive note with a strong performance in the AFL.
If you just look at the number of guys that play in the Fall League versus the number of guys that make it to the big leagues that played there, it’s well over 50 percent,” he said. “I think they’re giving me a huge opportunity to achieve the goal of playing in the Major Leagues, whether that’s next year or the year after.”
I definitely think it (sending me to the AFL) is them (the Rangers) saying we think you can make it. You just got to continue to get better every day and show us that when the time comes, you’re ready. I’m very thankful for the opportunity.”