The St. Louis Cardinals are lacking a fantastic option at the leadoff spot in the lineup. Dylan Carlson should get a chance at some point in 2021.
Coming into 2021, the St. Louis Cardinals really have just one good option for the leadoff spot in the lineup. Kolten Wong is gone, Matt Carpenter won’t be starting regularly, so that leaves Tommy Edman all alone as the best option.
If things go well as they did in 2019, Edman will thrive. Combining Edman’s elite speed with a .300/.350/.500 slash line would make Edman the best stereotypical leadoff man the Cards have had in a while. However, 2020 swung the pendulum back the other way for Edman. His OPS dropped almost 200 points, cutting his 122 OPS+ in 2019 to 87.
Edman did a fine job of getting on-base at the minor leagues, averaging an OBP of .350 in his final two seasons in the lower levels. But where he lands between the player he was in 2019 and 2020 is important to watch.
Out of the gate, Edman will and should get the first crack at leadoff. If he is sitting at a .317 OBP (his 2020 OBP) in May and the offense is struggling, it may be time to look elsewhere. It may be time to look at Dylan Carlson.
Fans were treated to a small look at Carlson in 2020, but 2021 should be his first year that he gets a full year of at-bats. His first stretch after being called up in 2020 was a good lesson in not throwing a rookie into a position with too much pressure off the bat. Carlson played too much, got buried, and struggled.
For the same reason that I think Edman deserves to start the year at leadoff, I think Carlson shouldn’t. This will be his first full season, bat him 5th or 6th and just let him get more than 35 games under his belt.
In building his confidence lower in the lineup, a perfect leadoff hitter might be born. At his best, Carlson projects to be a meat and potatoes of the lineup hitter. A 2-5 guy. However, what he’s shown to this point in his career has always been the ability to get on base and work counts.
In Carlson’s worst minor league season by OPS (.690 OPS in 2017), Carlson still got on base at a .342 clip. Since 2017, that trend hasn’t changed. I would understand the argument that Carlson is better utilized in the middle of the order, but with Nolan Arenado in the lineup now, Carlson has less weight on his back.
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While Carlson may not have elite speed, he does have good baserunning ability. In 2019, he stole a combined 20 bases and hit 26 homers at AA and AAA, making for a potentially dangerous combo out of the leadoff spot.
For as fast as Edman is, he hasn’t shown a huge willingness to steal bases. He nabbed 15 in 2019, but was only successful in two of six attempts in 2020.
If Carlson could get to the point where he is a 20/20 threat (likely not this year), he’d be a lite version of what Ronald Acuna Jr. provides the Atlanta Braves out of the leadoff spot. I say the lite version because Acuna is a threat for 40 homers and 40 steals. Carlson is not that guy.
Just like Edman would only lose the leadoff spot because of struggles, Carlson should only earn it if he’s hitting well. At just 22, there is no reason to force Carlson to be more than he is. Letting him grow and struggle lower in the lineup won’t hurt anyone.
Mike Shildt is going to have a lot of options with the lineup this year, it just appears that Dylan Carlson’s ability to get on base and steal bases makes him a fit at the top of the lineup. The same reasons why he would make a good leadoff man also apply to the second spot, but giving him a look at leadoff (if earned) could be fun.