St. Louis Cardinals: With Carlson optioned, weight falls on O’Neill, Thomas

The St. Louis Cardinals outfield has been struggling. With Dylan Carlson getting sent down, it’s time for Tyler O’Neill and Lane Thomas to step up.

The St. Louis Cardinals are set to make up a two-game series against the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday. However, there was a very surprising roster move done before the game.

The Cardinals sent down their struggling top prospect, Dylan Carlson.

This move came in tandem with the activation of Carlos Martinez as well as the news that the team was designating Ryan Meisinger for assignment and adding Daniel Ponce de Leon as the 29th man for the doubleheader on Tuesday.

It was expected that CMart would be back today and Meisinger was an unfortunate consequence of roster crunch. The really interesting move was, of course, sending down Carlson.

Dylan Carlson’s major league career didn’t get off to the start that fans, the team, nor he wanted it to. Through his first 74 MLB at-bats, he had a slash line of just .162/.215/.458, good for a 25 wRC+.  Carlson, known for his approach at the plate, was walking just 6.3% of the time while striking out 29.1% of the time.

At the beginning of Carlson’s time up this year, he played in every inning for the first few games back, even when those around him were getting a break. It was only when he showed very clear signs that he was worn down that he got a day off.

Even then, Carlson was getting wildly unlucky at the beginning. He was hitting the ball hard without any results. Slowly though, he began to regress.

The mix of the pressure of being a top prospect with all the expectations from the fanbase along with the fact that he was only seeing 50% fastballs at the plate made it clear that Carlson wasn’t quite ready to excel at this level. At AA where Carlson is used to hitting, pitchers don’t show nearly the confidence and skill in their breaking pitches that Carlson has been facing up here.

While he hit one homer and three doubles, it was clear that the 21-year-old was overmatched. Carlson was easily the worst-hitting player on the Cardinals, but it is up for debate that sending him down was the right move.

On one hand, Carlson now has a clear time for a mental break. If he’s going to come back up this year at some point (we have no idea what the plan is), that is important. If his cup of tea at the MLB level is over, Carlson has a good plan for what to work on going into next year.

The problem is, the best way to get better at hitting MLB offspeed pitches is not to face minor league pitchers. I would’ve argued that the best thing for Carlson’s development would’ve been to keep giving him starts, focusing on encouraging small improvements rather than what is on the stat sheet.

However, the mental pressure may have been too much for the prospect, which is okay. Carlson will be better in 2021 because of his struggles this year. He’s too smart, too hard-working, and too talented to let a bad 23-game stretch bury him.

In the meantime, the outfield for the Cardinals will have a lot more pressure on them.

Just like at the beginning of the season, the trio of Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, and Harrison Bader have their necks on the line. So far, only Bader has been staying afloat.

Despite starting the year relatively cold at the plate, Bader has turned it around as of late. In the past 14 days, Bader has a slash of .263/.375/.526 with three doubles and a triple. A slight tweak in his batting stance has made a clear difference and his overall season numbers have him at a 140 wRC+ on the year.

His deeper numbers suggest he may be getting pretty lucky to this point but right now, he’s the only outfielder that is reliably hitting.

With Carlson down and Dexter Fowler on the IL, O’Neill, Thomas, Bader, and Edman are the only outfielders on the roster. Edman has slowly been coming alive at the plate, but has not been slugging nor getting hits where he did in 2019.

Lane Thomas has appeared in just 10 games so far this year so his lackluster 52 wRC+ can’t be taken with any weight. However, he is going to be given a fair share of playing time now.

O’Neill was great for the first five games of the season, but now seems to have unraveled at the plate. He’s been among the best defensive left fielders in baseball with 4 OAA in left (even outpacing Bader’s 3 OAA in CF) while keeping up his elite sprint speed, but it doesn’t matter much if he is batting below .200. He’s improved his walk rate and lowered his strikeout rate, but it has come at the expense of driving the ball.

No matter how they have done to this point, we are going to see a ton of these four outfielders the rest of the way. Just like we heard coming into the season, the Cardinals want to figure out who is going to perform well enough to stay here. It may not be “fair” to give these guys just a 60-game season, but sometimes that is just how it goes.

While Carlson may not develop quite as well at the Alternate Site than staying in the MLB, this declutters the MLB outfield, letting the Cards get back to their original goal of the 2020 season.

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The Cardinals’ young outfielders have their destiny in their own hands. With Carlson and Fowler out of the picture for the time being, there is no more room for excuses. Carlson will be just fine in the future, even if this isn’t the best move for him now. The pressure is on.

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