photo: Dylan Carlson via Zoom (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)
Your reaction to this article will be in large part dictated by your take on several very important open questions, answers to which may vary substantially by individual.
- First and foremost – How optimistic are you that most, if not all, of the entire 60-game 2020 Major League season will be completed?
- Even if the shortened-by-definition schedule is played to its conclusion, do you consider 2020 to be legitimate relative to a normal, full season?
- What is your level of toleration, opposition or support for the commonly-used tactic of service time manipulation across Major League Baseball?
I want to be clear that the following scenario is not necessarily being recommended. Of course, even if it was, it is not like I have influence over team decisions.
No matter what, I believe it is worth a hearing and subsequent dialogue. To share your view, please head over to The Cardinal Nation’s free message board. I will be there to discuss it with you!
Every St. Louis Cardinals fan even mildly paying attention knows who Dylan Carlson is. Many of you want to the see organization’s top prospect, ranked in the top 10 nationally, in the team’s lineup right now.
The Cardinals, however, see it differently. As they have said they would do all along, the organization dispatched the 21-year old to their alternate camp in Springfield, MO as the long-awaited 2020 season finally got underway. In “Summer Camp South,” the outfielder can work out and play in intrasquad games until called upon to make his St. Louis introduction.
The question on everyone’s mind is, “When?”
The much-discussed timing of Carlson’s MLB debut is the focus of this article. However, the angle may not be what you had expected. What is explored here is why it might be better in long term for the Cardinals to actually wait even longer, rather than accelerate his promotion.
The current lay of the land
The organization has been clear that Carlson’s immediate roadblock is the lack of a starting outfield position for him to assume in St. Louis. Former prospects Tyler O’Neill and Lane Thomas have yet to be given extended trials in the majors and both remain ahead of Carlson in the pecking order. O’Neill has received the first shot to start in left field with Thomas the team’s no. 4 outfielder to begin 2020.
Neither of the other starting outfielders, center fielder Harrison Bader and right fielder Dexter Fowler, have been strong offensively. Their immediate futures also could interact with Carlson’s opportunity.
Much has already been written here and elsewhere about the value to the organization of keeping Carlson in the minor leagues for at least six days in 2020. This is much shorter than in a usual season, as is the case with everything in this weirdest of years.
This action (or perhaps more appropriately, inaction) ensures Carlson will not accrue an entire year of major league service time in 2020. Assuming once he is up, he stays for good, at the back end, it means he would not be eligible for free agency until following the 2026 season.
While this is a brand of service time management, or manipulation, if you prefer, the benefit – an entire season of Carlson’s services later – makes not placing him on the 2020 Opening Day roster a very understandable decision by the team. In fact, it would have been quite foolish had they not taken advantage of these unique circumstances.
Those six days are almost up.
However, the organization’s stated reason for not promoting Carlson – the aforementioned lack of a starting role – is not realistically going to be resolved in the next few days. No one knows how the four leading outfielders will perform this season and how long manager Mike Shildt will stick with them if they struggle. (Of course, a serious injury could change matters in an instant, but this can neither be assumed nor planned for.)
Now, let’s review several 2020 scenarios and how Carlson’s situation would be impacted.
2020 “What ifs?”
“What if” #1 – What if COVID-19 knocks out the 2020 season before its conclusion?
Based on the recent happenings involving the Miami Marlins, the tenuous nature of all of MLB in 2020 is on everyone’s mind.
If baseball is shut down after Carlson is up, the 20-20 hindsight will be swift and severe. Why did the Cardinals promote Carlson and start his service clock in a wasted year that will have no World Series champion?
The actual time is magnified by the shortened season. According to the March agreement between MLB and the MLB Players Association, all service time accrued in 2020 will be prorated to a full season.
How that translates is that just 10 days in 2020 will be equivalent to a month of service in a normal season and a month in 2020 will be worth about half of a normal season, for example.
So, let’s assume Carlson is brought up, only for the season to be called off 10 days later. For the Cardinals to save a year of his service, he would need to be sent back down for a month in 2021. You can do the math in other scenarios, but no matter the numbers, the risk is clear.
Of course, none of us know in advance if this season will make it all the way. Feeling lucky?
“What if” #2 – Would even the partial 2020 season played to the end be worth it?
Even if play continues for the entire schedule, what if it takes a month into the 2020 regular season to sort out the Cardinals outfield?
Then the best case for Carlson would be to play the final month of 2020 with St. Louis. While there could be immediate benefit to the team’s playoff hopes, the potential downside is the loss of an entire full season of his services later.
Before proceeding, it is time for each reader to answer these three questions:
- Do you believe that the 2020 season will be played to its conclusion?
- Do you believe that the 2020 season means as much as any other, and if so, that Carlson could be a true difference-maker:
- in an attempt for the Cardinals to become one of 16 playoff teams and
- to win the 2020 World Series?
- Are you more focused on no. 2 than potentially being able to keep Carlson a full year longer later on?
If the answers to these questions are a clear “yes,” then bringing up Carlson as soon as appropriate would seem the best course for the Cardinals to take.
But what if you are not sure?
- What if you are skeptical that the season will make it to its end?
- As the season unfolds, will the odds of play continuing increase or decrease?
- What if you have already written off 2020 as an illegitimate asterisk of a season – unless the Cardinals win the World Series, that is?
- Do you believe that the Cardinals should be able to win games at a .500 pace and make the lowered-bar, 16-team crapshoot 2020 playoffs with or without Carlson?
- Do you think that O’Neill and Thomas deserve at least 60 games to show their stuff?
If your view is not completely hardened and you are at least open to these thoughts, here is the related logic.
A case to delay Carlson’s arrival longer in two steps:
- Let 2020 play out as short or as long as it goes with O’Neill, Thomas and the current bunch. (At this point, all of the outfielders are slated to return for 2021, as well.)
- Keep Carlson in the minors until he passes the full-year service time window in 2021. In a normal year, this would be sometime around mid-April, 16 days into the season.
Even though the shortened 2020 schedule is unprecedented, keeping a high-profile prospect down in the minor leagues longer than expected is not that unusual.
In what became the celebrated Kris Bryant grievance, the Cubs third baseman was kept in Triple-A to open the 2015 season, and was promoted to Chicago on April 17, leaving him just one day short of a full year of service time. That meant Bryant would remain under Chicago’s control through the 2021 season.
Bryant argued that the full 2015 should count and he should be allowed to become a free agent following the 2020 season, instead. Even though this had been blatant service time manipulation by the Cubs, since no rules were broken, his grievance was denied by an independent arbitrator.
The MLB Players Association will likely prioritize changing the current rule in the next Cooperative Bargaining Agreement. However, this new CBA will not go into effect until 2022, so Carlson’s situation in 2021 will be under today’s rules – the same ones the Cubs used to their advantage against Bryant.
Where are we now?
Back to today. Carlson’s current path would likely have him coming up this August or September, if baseball is still playing. In the process, he would accrue a partial year of service time in 2020 and be on track for free agent eligibility following the 2026 season.
However, by not bringing Carlson up until the second half of April 2021, the Cardinals could be assured of controlling his services through the 2027 season, instead.
Obviously, 2027 is a long time from now, but getting 162 games worth of the outfielder later for a much smaller cost now is worth serious consideration. But the Cardinals have consistently avoided service time manipulation with other players in the past, including top prospects.
When all is said and done, the shortened, asterisked nature of the 2020 season creates a unique opportunity to at least consider managing a special player’s service time, even when it may not have been palatable in normal times.
What would you do if you were running the Cardinals?
Stop by The Cardinal Nation’s free forum to weigh in.
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