photo: Dylan Carlson (Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports)
Born: 10/23/1998 (22)
Hits / Throws: S/L
Acquired: 2016 Draft – 1st round (33rd overall)
Rule 5 Eligible: On 40-Man
Click on the above photo to be taken to his player page at The Cardinal Nation, with additional biography and history information.
2021 individual rankings – Brian Walton #1, Matt Thompson #1
Prior top 50 rankings – 2017 #22, 2018 #20, 2019 #8, 2020 #1
Matt Thompson’s scouting report
Physical Description: Good sturdy frame. Athletic but strong. Smooth operator with robotic demeanor. Baseball savvy. Elite body control; looks like he’s coasting at times.
Hit: Switch-hitter with mirror-image swings from both sides. Controls the zone well, will take a walk with better than average whiff and chase rates. Sound mechanically, efficient swings. Versatile hitter who can occupy any spot in the order due to vast skills but ultimately fits best as a run producer. Grade: 60
Power: Has improved physically. Gotten stronger and will drive the ball more consistently. Some of his homers at AutoZone Park and Hammons Field were absolute moonshots. More gap to gap though, but can get into one. 25-30 homers annually with heavy amount of doubles. Grade: 55
Field: Average in center but with Harrison Bader on the roster I don’t anticipate much time in center, except for the lineups that are geared towards offense. In an ideal world he’s the left fielder, he’s a plus defender out there but so is Tyler O’Neill. His only average arm makes him still a fit for right field, but with Fowler and his contract out there, it’s likely Carlson moves around all season. Grade: 55
Arm: Fits best in LF due to arm, but arm plays at least average in right. Accurate arm with modest carry. Grade: 50
Run: Above-average speed but plus baserunner. Taking the extra base with a high success rate. Enough speed and instincts to nab 15-20 bases a year. Grade: 55
Overall: Versatile player who does everything well. Hit tool is the strongest tool, but the collection of tools is what makes him stand out. Ideally a good secondary bat in a lineup behind an established slugger, like Paul Goldschmidt. Good on-base skills and plus defensive skills.
Future Value: 55
Role: Above-Average Regular; Occasional All-Star
Brian Walton’s environmental impact report
To me, it seems more than a bit anticlimactic to profile Carlson as a prospect as we prepare to enter 2021, yet we maintained his eligibility here to be consistent with the industry.
Not only is the outfielder the incumbent no. 1 in the Cardinals system, even casual fans already know all about him. They watched Carlson improve over his 35 regular season games with St. Louis in 2020, playing in well over half of the team’s schedule. In the process, Cardinals faithful learned about Carlson’s back story – and even met his family (through their screens).
The final nail in Carlson’s prospect coffin would have to have been driven in October 2020, as he performed as the big-league club’s cleanup hitter in the playoffs.
In other words, Carlson has already arrived and isn’t going back – with his qualification for this list serving as his semi-official curtain call as a prospect.
Having observed that, we still have a job to do here…
The switch-hitter experienced his breakout in the hitter-friendly environment of the Texas League. Carlson did it all – demonstrating above-average hitting ability, plus power, plus defense and enough speed and instincts to be a base-stealing threat.
The second-youngest position player in the Double-A circuit as the season opened went on to win the Texas League Most Valuable Player award. Carlson finished second in the TL in OPS (.882), home runs (21), runs scored (81) and extra-base hits (51).
In an indication of his balance, Carlson was the Cardinals first prospect at any level in the last 13 years to put together a 20-20 season (home runs and stolen bases) – since Tyler Greene and Terry Evans in 2006.
In July, Carlson played in the MLB All-Star Futures Game and earned an August promotion to Triple-A Memphis, where he joined a Redbirds lineup that from top to bottom was mashing the (juiced?) Pacific Coast League baseballs.
For his part, Carlson collected 11 extra-base hits on his way to an OPS of 1.098 in 18 games. A caveat was his Memphis BABIP of .429, a rate highly unlikely to be sustainable over a longer haul.
Overall in 2019, Carlson slashed .292/.372/.542/.914 with 26 home runs, 68 RBI and 20 stolen bases in 126 games between Double-A and Triple-A.
That successful season, including its conclusion at Memphis, led Carlson and the Cardinals to jointly back off their earlier intent for him to play in the Arizona Fall League. His 562 regular season plate appearances in 2019 were deemed enough.
It certainly was impactful as the Cardinals named Carlson their cross-organization Player of the Year. For two years running, Baseball America has labeled him as the “Best Hitter for Average” in the system.
2020 recap – Assignments
- January instructional camp – no (non-roster invite to MLB camp already announced)
- St. Louis’ spring training camp – yes (non-roster returnee)
- St. Louis Summer Camp – yes
- Springfield alternate camp – yes
- St. Louis – yes
As noted above, Carlson and the organization decided jointly that especially after his late-season success in 2019, that he would skip the Arizona Fall League. That continued in 2020, with Carlson given a pass to not attend instructs, keeping the focus on his non-roster invitation to MLB camp.
Expectations were higher for Carlson in his second official spring with St. Louis. He did not disappoint in his extended trial, slashing .313/.450/469/.919 in 13 games. Carlson collected 10 hits, of which four went for extra bases and drew more walks, seven, than strikeouts taken, five.
At the time camp was closed on March 12 due to the health threat presented by COVID-19, Carlson was still with the big league club. When the team reconvened in St. Louis to begin July, Carlson was there – and remained until the final cuts, despite the fact it was understood that he would not make the delayed Opening Day roster.
Though some continued to speculate that the Cardinals were manipulating Carlson’s service time by sending him to Springfield, there is no evidence that was the case. But when the other outfielders ahead of him in the pecking order began to go down and the Cardinals offense clearly needed a spark, priorities changed.
On August 15, after the team’s extended outage caused by the loss of 10 players and eight staffers to COVID-19, Carlson received “the call” as the Cardinals prepared to resume play in Chicago.
The then-21-year old was already in the 60-man player pool but at that point, required a 40-man roster spot as well. Carlson picked up his rental car and drove to the Windy City to join his new teammates.
As team officials had made clear all along, Carlson was with St. Louis to play every day. And he did. However, his first time up, the switch-hitter did not provide the jolt the offense needed.
After playing almost every day since his August 15 arrival, Carlson’s situation changed in early September. Sabermetric measures suggested he had encountered significant bad luck at the plate, but his modest results were declining with particular troubles against breaking pitches. As a result, his playing time diminished until he was optioned out on September 8.
Specifically, Carlson only started two of seven games to open September, extending his then-current skid to 1-for-19 (.053) with no walks. His aggregate slash line over his first 79 MLB plate appearances was .162/.215/.243/.458. Further, Carlson’s strikeout rate of 29.1% was only exceeded among team regulars by another struggler, veteran Matt Carpenter at 29.4%.
Recalled from Springfield 10 days later, Carlson began to put his game together. To conclude the regular season, he batted .278 (10-for-36), including four doubles, a triple, two home runs and a .936 OPS. His 11 RBI during that season-concluding period was the most among MLB rookies and fourth among all National League hitters.
In the final regular season game, Carlson was installed as the cleanup hitter and he continued there for all three games of the Wild Card Series against San Diego. The regular in left field (as Tyler O’Neill was reduced to reserve duties), was a standout. Carlson went 3-for-9, including a double, drew four walks and stole a base. His slash line was .333/.571/.444/1.016.
Farm director Gary LaRocque looked back at the importance of Carlson’s brief return to Springfield.
“As a real credit to him, his first opportunity once he came back and worked on a few additional things, he went back up and obviously finished well,” LaRocque told MiLB.com.
“That’s a quality of Dylan’s. He adjusts very well. … I think you look at all the work he’s put into this over the last few years, he’s prepared himself well.”
St. Louis chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. offered his own review, as shared with Bernie Miklasz of ScoopsWithDannyMac.com.
“We do have a number of outfielders, and now of course we have Dylan Carlson,” DeWitt said. “He’s done everything you could ask of a player coming through the system. First-round draft choice out of high school, moved up the ladder pretty quickly, lit it up in Double-A and Triple-A.
“He got an opportunity (with the Cardinals) and struggled a little bit early and then went down to Springfield, kind of regrouped, came back, and was everything we could hope for.”
As a footnote, the manner in which Carlson’s uniform numbers were assigned in 2020 was quite unusual, to say the least.
It began normally enough in spring camp. In Jupiter, he stepped up from no. 91 the year before to no. 68, appropriate for a youngster looking to make an impression.
But when the Cardinals reconvened in St. Louis in July, Carlson had to wear a jersey with no number, usually found on the batboy – and even he gets his first name on his shoulders! Though the summer camp contests were of the intrasquad type, a number of them were streamed, creating an odd spectacle for viewers.
Upon Carlson’s mid-August promotion, the club swung the pendulum in the opposite direction as far as it possibly could by awarding the rookie the last remaining single digit available, number 3. Its long history includes being worn by Cardinals legends Frankie Frisch, George Kissell, Dave Ricketts, Edgar Renteria and switch-hitting star outfielder Carlos Beltran.
Nothing like adding more pressure on the rook, while not so subtlety amping up fan expectations…
Let’s see… Counting from the start, we have Ozzie, Red, Dylan, Yadi, Albert, Stan…
Let’s be crystal clear about one matter right up front. Carlson will be an everyday player in the 2021 St. Louis outfield. Full stop. If you have doubts about this, I don’t know what to tell you – other than you are misinformed.
If you don’t believe me, how about the ultimate authority, Mr. DeWitt?
“We have high hopes for Dylan Carlson, and we have three spots in the outfield and certainly we can count on him for one of them,” the Cardinals chairman told Miklasz in December.
However, Carlson is almost certainly not going to log those expected 140 to 150 games at a single position. With Harrison Bader’s career splits indicating his optimal offensive deployment would be against left-handed pitching, Carlson could see the majority of his time in center. When Bader is playing, O’Neill could get a day off in left or right fielder Dexter Fowler could sit, with Carlson sliding over to a corner.
It would not be unlike Carlson’s defensive use in 2020, during which he symmetrically started 16 games in center and eight contests each in left and right.
Of course, the preceding assumes the current personnel remains the same.
Regarding Carlson’s results ahead, I don’t know how much weight to attach to any projections coming off the wild and crazy season of 2020. But let’s review a few early entries.
Fangraphs’ ZiPS projections are widely publicized, perhaps partially because they are often among the first to come out each year. The preview of Carlson’s 2021 is, in the words of author Dan Szymborski, “fine but unspectacular.” It is highlighted by a .741 OPS, which translates to a 97 OPS+, and with his defense rolled in, an fWAR of 1.8. ZiPS’ number one player comp to Carlson is Junior Felix – probably not what anyone was expecting.
BaseballHQ’s 2021 Baseball Forecaster is only slightly more optimistic, pegging the 22-year old to register an OPS of .757 and 102 OPS+ just ahead, or 2% higher than the major league average hitter. It should be clear that none of this is a reflection of Carlson’s potential career ceiling, but instead what we may expect in his first full season as a big-league regular.
Whether these projections turn out to be accurate or end up being off base, it seems appropriate to note that some percentage of Cardinals fans have already attached expectations to Carlson’s 2021 that may prove unreasonable.
The fact that the St. Louis offense has struggled overall and is expected to continue to do so this coming season only increases pressure on Carlson to become the savior – as if batting him fourth in the most important games of 2020 wasn’t a clear enough indicator of how dire the situation around him has been.
It may be surprising to readers, but honestly I have very little to add, as I agree with every word that Matt wrote above. Carlson is positioned in both skills and opportunity to be an above-average corner outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals for a long time – at least through the 2026 season, if the current free agency rules remain in place.
We should be very satisfied if he can achieve that and not be disappointed if he does not become the next Mickey Mantle.
MLB debut: 2020
Our 2021 Top 50 series continues
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