St. Louis Cardinals: The very unlikely path for Carlson to start with Cards

JUPITER, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 19: Dylan Carlson #68 of the St. Louis Cardinals poses for a photo on Photo Day at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium on February 19, 2020 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
JUPITER, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 19: Dylan Carlson #68 of the St. Louis Cardinals poses for a photo on Photo Day at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium on February 19, 2020 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

Dylan Carlson will be a major league contributor for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2020 but the path for him making the big team out of the gate is unlikely. What has to happen for the top prospect to make the Opening Day roster?

For the first time in a while, the St. Louis Cardinals have a highly touted prospect who is a position player, not a pitcher like the majority of the team’s top 100 prospects of the past decade.

Since the tragic story of Oscar Taveras, the Cardinals haven’t had any prospects like Dylan Carlson. I’ve had the pleasure of following Carlson from when he was drafted to now and to see him gain national attention is fantastic.

Carlson showed all the signs of a great hitter at the majority of the minor league levels without ever putting up superstar numbers until the 2019 season. If you haven’t been living under a rock, you surely know how good he was with a .292/.372/.542 slash line, 26 homers, and 20 steals between AA and AAA.

Ranked within the top 20 prospects in the game by multiple publications, Carlson looks like the real deal and fans (myself included) are having a tough time tampering expectations and play it cool. It doesn’t help that projections like ZiPS project Carlson to be the team’s second-most productive outfielder in 2020. 

So far this spring, fans have gotten to see a glimpse of Carlson’s talents.

With the bat, Carlson started two for eight with a walk and an RBI through three games. It’s early, but it’s still a glimpse of what the switch-hitter could do as an everyday player. I have been tooting the “start Carlson Opening Day” horn all winter, but it likely won’t happen.

The path seems simple: the Cardinals have a hole in left field, they have an awful hitter in center, and they have a player way past his prime in right field. Either plug him in right or left and let everyone fight for spots.

Sadly though, that’s not so simple.

The Cardinals have stuck by the fact that they want to see what they have in their young players all winter, and there’s no reason (right now) to think they will diverge from that. The Cardinals are going to start the season with an outfield of Lane Thomas/Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader, and Dexter Fowler.

According to the front office, it’s an “open competition” for both center and left, but the group of three listed above are all but penciled in the lineup on Opening Day if they have a solid spring. Playing the kids is fine and dandy,

Carlson isn’t on the 40-man roster which is not a huge hurdle, but it does get in the way when a decision like this needs to be made. Why cut a player out of camp when you could just wait and see what you have with the current 40-man first. The path of least resistance is to keep Carlson off the 40-man.

There is also the fact that the Cardinals have shown that they aren’t going to cut any dead money. Dexter Fowler was above replacement level in 2019, but there’s plenty of reason to believe that Carlson could outperform Fowler if they had the same amount of playing time.

I love the idea of a O’Neill/Bader/Carlson outfield, but it just isn’t realistic right off the bat in 2020. To get an outfield like that out of the gate, something would have to happen with Fowler. Either Fowler would have to get hurt (which we don’t want to root for) or he would have to underperform so much during spring that the Cardinals decide to bench the $16.5M salary for Carlson.

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For a 10-year vet, there’s almost no level of performance during games that don’t count that could lead to him not being in the lineup on Opening Day.

With that in mind, it seems like there is almost no way for Carlson to leave Jupiter Florida headed anywhere but Memphis. Even if Carlson outperforms Tyler O’Neill and Lane Thomas, the Cardinals still are committed to seeing what they have in the young outfielders and likely wouldn’t put Carlson above them on the roster.

Without injury, a complete lack of production from one of Bader/O’Neill/Thomas, or an insanely good spring from Carlson, he will start in AAA.

This isn’t an awful thing though.

Carlson had a fantastic year at AA last year before he was promoted and got better at AAA. This was due to an unworldly high BABIP of .429. His .361/.418/.681 slash line in his 18 games at Memphis is great, but there’s no reason why the 21-year-old wouldn’t benefit from more time at the highest level of the Minors before he comes up.

It could be very detrimental to Carlson longterm if he comes up to the Majors too early and struggles mightily. With options that could be just fine already on the 40-man roster, there is no reason to push it with Carlson right away.

If, however, the Cardinals sputter out of the gate and any of the outfielders on the roster are struggling by May, Carlson needs to be the first one up for reinforcements. The Cardinals are giving these young players chances, but they can’t afford to relax and wait for players to produce with how the NL Central is set up this year.

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It would take a lot for Carlson to make the big club out of spring training and there’s probably no more than a 5% chance it happens. Without at least one injury to the outfield group, Carlson will get more seasoning at AAA. Don’t get me wrong though, Carlson will have an impact at the MLB level in 2020. It just depends on when.