photo: Dylan Carlson (Sam Navarro/Imagn)
The top prospect in the St. Louis Cardinals organization and one of the game’s brightest prospects, Dylan Carlson, did not stick in his initial trial in the majors. This is not unusual and in no way damaging to the 21-year old’s significant career potential.
It seems clear that the switch-hitting outfielder has more work to do in recognition and approach at the plate, especially against breaking pitches. That will come with more repetition and experience.
St. Louis manager Mike Shildt said the following on Tuesday.
“Dylan Carlson will be just fine.” Shildt further noted, “He will be able to get a lot of live at-bats in Springfield.”
That is something that wasn’t going to be in the cards with St. Louis over the final three weeks of the compressed regular season.
Yes, Carlson was fed a heavy diet of breaking pitches and was pitched backward. Yes, he had some bad luck early on. Welcome to the big leagues, rookie. Until a hitter proves he can adjust, pitchers will keep working in the manner that they can most effectively get him out. That’s Baseball 101.
Granted, the quality of pitching in the alternate camp is not the same as it would be if he was continuing to face experienced MLB pitchers. But at this point, a return to Springfield is deemed better for Carlson than being a bench player for the near-term in St. Louis.
Carlson is rightfully considered a special talent, but I believe the expectations of some have been overly inflated. It starts from the top. The following is from December 2019.
"I hate to do this… [but he's] the Albert Pujols or Oscar Taveras type."#STLCards fans aren't the only ones excited about top prospect Dylan Carlson. Cardinals President John Mozeliak had some high praise for the young outfielder who he says we should see in STL in 2020. pic.twitter.com/Zc2ZNifT0g
— Corey Miller (@corey_miller5) December 8, 2019
19 years later, Carlson was even assigned the same number 68 that Pujols wore in his first spring training camp. In his MLB debut, Dylan was issued the number “3,” which by definition signaled very high expectations.
Yet with the benefit of some early hindsight, we know Carlson is not on a Pujolsian track. Albert never played a game at Double-A and only a handful of Triple-A contests to conclude the 2000 season before the virtual unknown and decided underdog hit his way onto the 2001 Cardinals out of spring training. In his St. Louis debut, Pujols was 21 years of age – same as Carlson today.
This is the last time I will reference the future first-ballot Hall of Famer in this article. Albert is simply in another class, arguably the best player of his generation.
Compared to Pujols, Taveras was signed younger and with less experience and therefore, it was not surprising he had a more measured, traditional rise through the system. While doing so, he was recognized for several years as one of the game’s brightest future lights. In fact, Taveras was among the consensus top five prospects nationally for two years running, 2013 and 2014.
Carlson just scraped the bottom of the top 10 on one top 100 prospect list this year, averaging a rank of no. 20 across seven major national raters – still a significant recognition in its own right.
Let’s rewind to 2014. Note the initial similarity to 2020.
As May ended, Matt Adams went onto the disabled list, opening the door for Taveras to make his MLB debut, also at the age of 21. Though it was hoped the top prospect outfielder would catch fire immediately and ignite the listless Cardinals offense, it would not be the case.
Taveras was initially given the chance to start, and homered in his MLB debut. But he could not replicate that success, batting just .189 in his first 11 games. When Adams rejoined the lineup in mid-June, the Cardinals returned Taveras to Memphis.
Oscar was recalled on July 1, apparently for good, but he only started semi-regularly and did not take off. Taveras finished his debut season with a line of .239/.278/.312/.590 over 248 plate appearances. He had three home runs and 22 RBI in 80 games, including 61 starts. His 66 OPS+ mark was not good, but compare that to Carlson at 25, where 100 is league-average.
By the playoffs, Taveras was not in manager Mike Matheny’s regular lineups. In fact, he was not given a single start in either the 2014 Division or Championship Series. In his seven post-season at-bats, all as a pinch-hitter, the left-handed batter performed well, collecting three hits, including a home run.
Less than two weeks later, he died in an automobile accident, leading us all to forever wonder, “What if?”
However, one further aspect of Taveras’ background should be noted.
Oscar had taken 448 plate appearances over 108 Triple-A games. All but two weeks of that occurred in late 2013 and in April and May of 2014, prior to his St. Louis debut. This was valuable experience that due to the unique circumstances which 2020 presented, Carlson was unable to achieve.
Carlson’s Triple-A resume to date lists just 17 games, logged at the end of last season. He passed up an opportunity to participate in the Arizona Fall League prospect showcase afterward.
In contrast, Taveras built upon his initial 46 games at the highest minor league level accumulated in 2013 with two more months at Memphis to open 2014 – all before his first call up to St. Louis.
A recent case
This reminds me of a more recent example, Tommy Edman.
The infielder put together a strong 2019 spring training with St. Louis, but his experience with Memphis at the time was limited to only 18 games plus the playoffs in 2018. Even though there was no available job with St. Louis coming into the 2019 season, some fans wanted Edman on the big-league roster and blasted the team when it did not occur.
Instead, Edman logged 218 additional Pacific Coast League plate appearances that April and May, batting over .300 and generating a career-best .869 OPS in the process. And when he did get the call up, there was a greater opportunity to play. Edman seized it and never looked back.
Those who had wanted Edman on the Opening Day roster hopped on his initial MLB success as validation that he should have been on the team day one. Instead, I considered it to be evidence that his additional Triple-A seasoning was the crucial final step in his big-league preparation.
What about others?
I shared the Edman example on Twitter Wednesday morning and received this reply from a disappointed Carlson fan.
“It’s just a bummer when a lot of other top prospects are doing so much better,” he wrote.
In response, I checked on the backgrounds of the projected leaders for the two league Rookie of the Year Awards. Notice the differences with Carlson in both age and experience.
- American League: Luis Robert, age 23, 202 Triple-A plate appearances
- National League: Jake Cronenworth, age 26, 432 Triple-A plate appearances
It is no one’s fault that Carlson isn’t Pujols and that he did not get the opportunity to play more extensively in Triple-A in 2020 as did others like Taveras and Edman before him.
He is not a failure in any way, but we all need to be more realistic and patient in our expectations.
Repeating what I wrote back in December, “Let’s just let Carlson be Carlson.” That should be plenty good enough, whenever it comes.
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