Depending on who you ask, Carlson's struggles can be attributed to a number of reasons. The outfielder was set to make his MLB debut during the 2020 season, and due to the pandemic, he got his first taste of big-league action in the odd season that was. Since then, Carlson has been tugged around in a variety of roles.
Carlson played in 149 games in 2021, finishing 3rd in Rookie of the Year voting and showing great promise as an above-league-average hitter and defense. That parlayed into an increased role in 2022, with the Cardinals eventually handing Carlson the center field job when they dealt Harrison Bader to the Yankees for Jordan Montgomery.
Since then, injuries have really plagued Carlson. He finished with a .695 OPS in 2022, almost 100 points lower than in 2021, as it was later revealed that Carlson had a nagging wrist injury that limited him at the plate. He then entered the 2023 season in a competition for center field, losing out to Tyler O'Neill and being relegated to a bench role behind O'Neill, Lars Nootbaar, Jordan Walker, and even Alec Burleson.
From that point on, Carlson's role with St. Louis has been a major question mark for both the immediate and long-term future. Carlson, even when healthy, has received inconsistent playing time, but he hasn't really shown St. Louis why he deserves more playing time either. This year, Carlson was slashing .219/.318/.333 before his season-ending ankle surgery. Carlson appeared in just 76 games this year, landing on the IL multiple times when given more consistent playing time.
I won't dive deep into Carlson as a player in this, but it's obvious his struggles against right-handed pitching have really hurt his standing with the team. He's struggled throughout his big league career to the tune of a . 672 OPS, but this year it's been even worse, posting a .592 OPS in 170 PA.
With Walker and Nootbaar locked into outfield spots long-term, and names like Alec Burleson, Brendan Donovan, Tyler O'Neill, and Tommy Edman landing above Carlson on the depth chart, what is Carlson's future with St. Louis?
Dylan Carlson's future in St. Louis is muddy at best
There are a lot of ways the Cardinals can handle their outfield situation in 2024 (something I broke down recently). But if you're asking me, I struggle to see a scenario where Carlson is a part of that bunch.
Tyler O'Neill is another obvious trade candidate this offseason, but after that, it's hard to predict which outfielders will remain in St. Louis' plans. Brendan Donovan and Tommy Edman are likely big parts of the Cardinals lineup next year, but in what roles is hard to predict. Edman could be the primary center fielder, second baseman, or the utility man. Donovan could land in the corner outfield, second base, designated hitter, or most likely, a super-utility man who starts almost every day all over the diamond. But there's also a chance either of them could be in a trade for starting pitching.
Alec Burleson is viewed highly by the club. Still just a rookie, the Cardinals see a ton of potential in his bat from the left side, and he could fill a similar role as he did this year, rotating between left field, designated hitter, and the fourth outfielder.
Richie Palacios has also thrown his name into this conversation and potentially makes Carlson even more expendable for St. Louis. Palacios has shown the ability to play strong defense at all three outfield positions and play second base as well. The Cardinals likely view him as a fourth or fifth outfielder right now, but if they see him playing that role well, Carlson's value is likely higher as a trade chip than playing that same role.
This doesn't even include the potential that the Cardinals acquire a stop-gap center fielder this offseason, and the emergence of Victor Scott II, who I think will take over center field duties for the Cardinals by the end of the 2024 season. For as crowded as the Cardinals outfield was entering 2023, it's added even more names to the mix lately.
I'm not giving up on Carlson as a productive big leaguer. At the very least, he should have a long career as a platoon bat against left-handed pitching who brings good defense to all three outfield positions. I still think the potential that the Cardinals, and frankly, talent evaluators around baseball saw in Carlson is still there, but it seems like that will not be happening in St. Louis.