St. Louis Cardinals: Evaluating the young career of Dylan Carlson

One of the key pieces for the future of the St. Louis Cardinals is center fielder Dylan Carlson.

After the most disappointing end to an otherwise incredible 2022, it’s time to begin evaluating the state of the St. Louis Cardinals going forward. While we celebrate the tremendous and magical season that was, Cardinal fans are eager to move forward and begin the quest for improvement in 2023.

One of the key pieces for the future of the St. Louis Cardinals is center fielder Dylan Carlson. One of the least discussed but most disappointing parts of the final game last Saturday was the former top prospect’s role as a pinch runner. At the beginning of the year, Carlson was a key piece of a strong outfield. To see him reduced to this small role at the end of the season symbolized the enormous shift the Cardinals dealt with in the outfield grass.

Before this season, I predicted Dylan Carlson would have a breakout year. I was wrong. But to understand the disappointing conclusion to Dylan Carlson’s season, we must look at Carlson’s entire career. There’s more to DC’s story than what first meets the eye.

What a strange early career for the St. Louis Cardinals’ former top prospect. Carlson made his debut in the middle of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. It feels like eons ago, but the Cardinals made the move after being shut down for multiple weeks. During a trying time, Carlson’s call-up was an exciting and uplifting moment for everyone in the organization.

The beginning was a mixed bag. Carlson struggled to adjust to major league pitching, but still produced 11 of his 22 hits for extra bases. Going into 2021, there was belief throughout the organization that Carlson would continue to get better.

Although he started slow, the belief was right. Finishing third in NL Rookie of the Year voting, Carlson improved from his 2020 stint in every category. There was positive growth in all aspects of his game, highlighted by a 115 OPS+, good for 26th best in the entire National League.

Unfortunately, 2022 was a bit of a step back. Injuries and struggles from the left-side of the plate held Carlson to only 128 games played. While he made highlight reel plays on defense, his production with the bat became pedestrian. He hit .204 over the last 28 days of the season.

And that’s where we are now. A solid, ever-improving start to his big league career, followed by a small step back in 2022. When you see the entire story, it becomes much easier to be optimistic about Dylan Carlson’s future.

Now, let’s get into the details on how Carlson can improve, because when you look at the soon-to-be 24 year old’s career numbers, there are both positives and negatives.

Carlson has played in 312 games, registering 1,226 plate appearances. He’s slashing .247/.323/.407 with an OPS+ of 104. Those numbers are right around the league average. Combined with his solid defense, and you get a respectable big league player. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that player profile.

The pressure to be better, however, comes from two very real places. First, Carlson has only 29 career home runs. In comparison, Carlson had 48 home runs in 1,731 plate appearances through his minor league career. Not all baseball players need to hit home runs, but the lack of power and extra-base hits have been especially costly for Carlson reaching his ceiling. Just take a look at how MLB.com described him as a prospect in 2020:

With his high baseball IQ, sound approach and promising blend of hitting ability and power, Carlson appears well on his way toward becoming an above-average regular, if not more.

The tantalizing blend of power and contact is what makes Carlson such an exciting baseball player. Without it, Carlson is what we saw in the wild card round– a defensive replacement who can draw a few walks. Not a bad baseball player by any stretch, but nowhere near the ability and ceiling of Dylan Carlson.

Carlson’s power struggles have been made worse because of the second source of pressure– this past summer’s trade deadline. Somehow, amidst all the Juan Soto craziness, the only thing Cardinal fans focus on is John Mozeliak’s reluctance to trade DC to D.C.

Now, whether it’s fair or unfair to Dylan, his next few seasons will always be compared to a once-in-a-generation superstar. Even though the Padres ended up trading multiple top prospects, and even though the potential trade was never Carlson alone in exchange for Soto, the pressure fell squarely on St. Louis Cardinals number three to become Soto’s equal.

This is a bit ridiculous, and completely outside of Dylan Carlson’s control. We can question the decision to pursue or not pursue Juan Soto for years, but that should in no way reflect on Carlson’s career.

Even so, the Soto angle reflects an interesting part of Dylan Carlson’s tenure with the St. Louis Cardinals. Fans have huge expectations for DC. His five-tool potential is so exciting and rare that Carlson’s real-life production always seems to fall short of what he might become.

And yes, I’ve highlighted how Carlson has been far from his best. Not to mention that the St. Louis Cardinals organization boasts extraordinary outfield depth, or just how stark Carlson’s lefty-righty splits from 2022 became by the end of the year. But not all hope is lost for Dylan Carlson. He is not destined to be a platoon bat living in the shadow of Juan Soto.

Plenty of players improve and work on their power over the offseason– like fellow Cardinal outfielder Lars Nootbaar. Not to mention that historically, most professional athletes aren’t at their peaks at 23 years old.

2022 was a step in the wrong direction– there is no debating that. But I believe Dylan Carlson remains a highly talented baseball player with the potential to become a true leader of the St. Louis Cardinals. Only 24 years old next season, there is plenty of opportunity for Dylan Carlson to rediscover his power potential and resume his growth as a top-notch Major League Baseball player.