photo: Tommy Edman/Dylan Carlson (Jim Owens/Imagn and Frank Ramirez/The Cardinal Nation)
Since this is the time of year for predictions, here is one from me:
If Dylan Carlson does not break 2020 spring training camp with the St. Louis Cardinals, a segment of the fan base will go off the rails.
The cries will center on the team supposedly not wanting to take its best 26 players north.
(It will be augmented by the same tired whining over Dexter Fowler’s contract, and the most daring will even accuse the team of service time manipulation.)
Why do I predict this?
Because I have seen this kind of overreaction before – as recently as one year ago, in fact.
Edman in 2019
After non-roster invitee Tommy Edman made a good showing in 2019 spring camp, some supporters of the infielder wanted him on St. Louis’ Opening Day roster. That did not happen.
Edman did arrive two months later, and his strong rookie performance afterward turned up the second-guessing noise volume even louder.
“See. Why wasn’t he on the roster from the start?”, they asked.
The problem as I see it is that these folks did not fully consider the entire environment. In the real world, player moves can never be made in a vacuum and therefore rarely, if ever, occur as fast as the impatient demand. In fact, there might actually be valid reasons for waiting.
Coming into the 2019 season, St. Louis’ infield appeared to be locked, healthy and ready to go. Matt Carpenter was coming off his career-best 2018 with the bat, a top 10 finish in the National League Most Valuable Player voting, and had a new contract. Up the middle, Kolten Wong and Paul DeJong were primed for another improving season together. Veteran Jedd Gyorko was the top back-up.
The other infield reserve was Yairo Muñoz, who had already put in almost an entire full season with St. Louis to that point. A key consideration not understood by some (and not accepted by others) is that the Cardinals’ own actions made it clear they did not view Edman (or Gyorko) as an adequate reserve at short. Muñoz played that role. Though Edman went on to become a highly valuable and versatile utility player for St. Louis, he did not play one inning at shortstop, even as it became clear that DeJong could benefit from rest. That was not a coincidence.
In reality, the 2019 season did not open as clearly and cleanly as I suggested. In the final days of spring camp, Gyorko suffered a calf injury believed to be minor, but still bad enough to justify a back-dated move to the injured list. That opened the door for a reserve infielder to join the team temporarily as the Cardinals opened in Milwaukee and Pittsburgh.
The choice was Drew Robinson, who had recently been acquired from Texas with about 250 career MLB plate appearances under his belt. Robinson was on the 40-man (and Edman was not), easing the impact of the associated roster moves.
Robinson’s stay was very short, as Gyorko was activated on April 5. With the Cardinals, Robinson made seven April plate appearances, none as a starter, and before the month was out, the St. Louis portion of his career was over. On the evening of May 1, the Cardinals’ team record was 20-10.
Since St. Louis had a full infield last April, where would Edman have played had he made the team?
The simple answer is that he wouldn’t have.
Coming into 2019, Edman had just 17 games of Triple-A experience. So, even with the benefit of hindsight, the Cardinals took the best course by sending him down to Memphis so he could play every day and continue to get better.
The switch-hitter logged another 200+ plate appearances and associated innings playing all around the Memphis infield. His alternative would have been to gather rust on the St. Louis bench and perhaps hop the I-55 shuttle. Instead, he had two full months in which he demonstrated he could consistently hit Triple-A pitching and gained additional confidence.
When injuries opened up a roster spot and playing time with St. Louis in early June, Edman was ready. He did not look back, never returning to Triple-A.
Would he have been as good with St. Louis had he not spent a couple of months playing daily for Memphis? No one will ever know for sure, but I believe the right calls were made – both for the team and the player.
Carlson in 2020
No two situations are alike, but there are several striking similarities. Carlson has a total of 18 career games played at Triple-A, and like Edman the year before, will come to 2020 camp as a non-roster invitee.
One potential difference that may affect Carlson is if the Cardinals have a clear starting job open this spring. However, if Marcell Ozuna is re-signed or another veteran outfielder is brought in, it would increase the odds that Carlson is not going to open the season with St. Louis.
The one point everyone can agree on is that Carlson needs to play every day. Not twice a week – every day.
As much as some fans have wanted Fowler benched yesterday – for at least the last two years – it is not going to happen. It was a bad contract, but let it go. As an aside, Fowler had a better 2019 than about half the Cardinals’ offense, which speaks volumes about both.
Center field is another short-term possibility for Carlson, but it seems to be Harrison Bader’s job to lose, with major league-tested Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas and Randy Arozarena each looking for their own opening to start. Will Carlson outhit them in the spring? Before anyone has even put on a uniform, some are already assuming the answer will be “yes”.
I have nothing more to say about the service time manipulation theory than I have already written on numerous occasions. I do not believe it and I challenge doubters to show any prior Cardinals examples of it.
Given all of this, the thought that the Cards would deposit Carlson in center on Opening Day seems a major stretch. Impossible? No. Unlikely? Yes.
So, like Edman in 2019, Carlson may end up back in Triple-A for a while in 2020. If that happens, the development time would not be wasted. Soon enough, a starting spot will open up with St. Louis and the Carlson era will commence.
In the meantime, as difficult as it is for some, please just be patient.
I wrote much more about Carlson and 2020 here, as did TCN’s Derek Shore.
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