photo: Dylan Carlson (Aaron Doster/Imagn)
There was a buzz heading into this spring.
The buzz was about St. Louis Cardinals outfield prospect Dylan Carlson, who the Cardinals were betting big on his breakout this year in the hitter-friendly environment of the Texas League.
Carlson has done exactly that and then some, showing a mix of tools and savvy. He is demonstrating above-average hitting ability, plus power, above-average defense and enough speed and instincts to be a base-stealing threat.
With an all-around game blossoming at a young age, Carlson is making a push at Nolan Gorman as the No. 1 prospect in the Cardinals’ system.
Proving his worth in spring
As spring training progressed and players started moving out and over to the minor-league side of the complex, one of the youngest players in the Cardinals big-league camp remained.
That was not only because of the potential he showed, but because of the game performances he delivered in spring.
Carlson is the latest in the line of young, ascending outfielders the likes of which the Cardinals haven’t seen since Colby Rasmus and the late Oscar Taveras.
Late in one of his spring starts, Carlson drilled a home run off Mets all-star closer Edwin Diaz.
“He looks like he belongs,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt told the media during spring training.
Carlson, a 2016 first-rounder out of Elk Grove High in California, said he went into the spring trying to learn every day. He was able to hang around Matt Carpenter and Paul Goldschmidt, and watched how they studied video.
He watched them view video of opposing pitchers, and eventually started picking their brains about what they were looking for in at-bats and with their swings. Those tips he now uses at Double-A to scout the opposition.
“I felt like I had a productive spring from that aspect and trying to take things with me and get better each day,” Carlson said.
Playing baseball at Elk Grove
Carlson has been one the youngest players at every level of his development, including when he was playing the game growing up and in high school.
He went to elementary school close to nearby Elk Grove High, where his father Jeff coached baseball. Dylan picked up switch-hitting while watching one of his father’s players hit from the left-side. His father nurtured it and never told him to stop.
At a time when some kids are held back to be older, bigger and more mature at their grade, Jeff pushed both of his sons forward, including Dylan’s younger brother Tanner, who graduated at 17. Dylan also graduated at 17 and started high school at 13, lining up against opponents who were four years older.
Coach Carlson wanted his team to face the best pitching prospects in California and wanted his sons to play up.
“It challenged him and he is facing guys that are more mature, so obviously the competition level is a little higher,” Jeff Carlson said. “That is always going to challenge you. It brings up your maturity level as a ballplayer and plays at their level. It has always been a big challenge.”
Breakthrough season with Springfield
At High-A Palm Beach last year, in a ballpark that suppresses offense, Carlson slashed .247/.345/.386 with nine home runs in 99 games. He drew 52 walks against 78 strikeouts in the Florida State League after earning a promotion from Low-A Peoria after 13 games.
Carlson said playing in the Florida State League taught him to stay dedicated to sticking with the process. He has taken that into this season at Springfield instead of worrying about the results.
That mindset has paid off greatly.
Carlson has the third-highest slugging percentage (.529) and OPS (.904) in the Texas League. He’s the only 20-year old in the league’s top 40 in OPS.
“For me, I have tried to stick with my plan so far this season,” Carlson said. “That has been the biggest difference – trying to stick with my strengths, my plan and executing as opposed to giving in to how they are trying to get me out and getting out of my plan. I’m swinging at strikes, handling pitches that I can handle.
“For me, that has been the biggest thing (in making myself a complete hitter).”
One of his former coaches agrees with that assessment.
“He has matured. The approach he takes at the plate continues to grow,” his father said. “The consistency – that is what we always talk about and just being consistent. You are taking 500 at-bats a year, so it is, ‘How can you be consistent throughout the whole year?’”
Springfield manager Joe Kruzel said Carlson has been his team’s most consistent player all-around and continued with even more praise.
“He has done a tremendous job hitting from both sides of the plate,” Kruzel said. “He is a real student of the game. He really studies it and understands it, and plays it the right way. The preparation that this young man does on a daily basis is head and shoulders above his age.
“I think you’ll continue to see a breakout year from him. The whole goal is to get him to St. Louis as quick as possible.”
Carlson has also grown into his power this year, collecting an impressive 28 extra-base hits (13 doubles, six triples and nine home runs) in 56 games for the S-Cards.
“Like I said, the whole process and my plan at the plate has changed,” Carlson said. “I try to really do some damage when I walk up there. Luckily, for me, I have been able to connect on a few.”
His performance at Springfield makes him a strong candidate for this year’s MLB All-Star Futures Game in July.
Carlson said representing the Cardinals would be a tremendous honor.
“It would be a huge honor playing for such a storied organization,” Carlson said. “It would be a real honor. If it happens, it happens. Obviously, it is a big deal. It is something I would love to do.”
With the growth and improvements he has made this season, Carlson is viewed by scouts as a plus power-hitting outfielder, who hits for a high-average thanks to his strong hit tool.
With the versatility he has added, scouts say his speed and solid average arm fits best in a corner outfield spot, but he could also play center field in a pinch. They like him as an everyday player at the big-league level, who has 25-30 home run power.
The showing Carlson put together in spring training and his breakout season so far has arguably put him in the conversation for the Cardinals’ 2020 outfield plans. He will likely be 21, playing during an era of which young talent has taken the big-leagues by storm.
“I think it’s awesome (that there are players getting it done at the highest level who are my age),” Carlson said. “It makes me motivated to get there. It’s definitely also good to see guys getting it done at that level and at that age. It is definitely inspiring and cool to see.”
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