The St. Louis Cardinals drafted Dylan Carlson with their first overall pick (#33) in the 2016 draft. Carlson was only eighteen, and he was fresh out of high school. MLB.com ranked him as the team's sixteenth-best prospect in 2017, and he rose to as high as #1 in the organization in 2020 and 2021 (#13 in all of baseball in 2021).
Carlson's calling cards were his ability to play center field, his switch-handedness at the plate, his pitch recognition, his strong arm, and his above-average speed. It seemed like the Cardinals had found a true five-tool player for the foreseeable future. His rookie season in 2020 was rough; Carlson made his debut on August 15th during the COVID-shortened season. He finished the year with a .200/.252/.364 slash line, three home runs, and thirty-five strikeouts to just eight walks in 119 plate appearances.
Carlson's sophomore year in 2021 went much better. He hit .266/.343/.780 with eighteen home runs and average defense across all three outfield positions. He exceeded the 600 plate appearance mark, and all signs pointed to Carlson continuing to improve; however, injuries began to hamper his ability to perform on the field. Carlson had ankle and oblique issues throughout 2022, and he never quite returned to the heights he reached in 2021.
That brings us to today. John Mozeliak has stated on multiple occasions that he intends to use Dylan Carlson as a fourth outfielder. With Tommy Edman's defensive successes last year and a young Masyn Winn chomping at the bit at shortstop, Carlson is the odd man out in the grass. Lars Nootbaar and Jordan Walker will fill in at left and right field, respectively. Rumors swirled that the Cardinals could trade Carlson this offseason, but the team needs him as an insurance piece in center field.
Carlson's average exit velocity has snuck up since his rookie season (87.4 MPH in 2020, 89.3 MPH in 2023), but his line drive percentage has conversely gone down each year (34.2% in 2020 to 22% in 2023). The most noteworthy statistic for Carlson could be his struggles as a left-handed hitter. His average is a .070 points lower, and he is essentially a non-factor from a power perspective from the left side of the plate. I don't think Carlson should scrap switch hitting altogether, but some adjustments need to be made to hit right-handed pitchers.
Baseball-Reference projects Carlson to see 376 plate appearances next year with a slash line of .252/.334/.403 with just nine home runs. This is much closer to his 2021 season than the past two seasons have been, and I think that this is about what we should expect from Carlson. He will be limited in plate appearances due to his apparent inability to hit right-handed pitchers, his injury risk, and his role as a reserve.
Steamer projects Carlson to have 275 plate appearances with a .258/.343/.422 slash line and a wRC+ of 111 and seven home runs. I would also love for that projection to become reality. Those offensive statistics paired with his defensive abilities would make him a 1.5 fWAR player, strong for a fourth outfielder. Should he see 400 plate appearances like Baseball Reference projects, that immediately makes him a 2.0-2.5 fWAR player.
Jordan Walker hits much better against right-handed pitchers, so Carlson could platoon with him when a lefty is on the mound. This would allow Walker to get some rest and allow Carlson to stay fresh. Lars Nootbaar is very balanced against both righties and lefties, and Edman prefers hitting against left-handed pitchers, so Carlson couldn't platoon with them.
I haven't given up on Dylan Carlson just yet. The outfield is quite crowded, but Dylan should be able to find his way to 350 or 400 plate appearances. His defensive versatility, plate discipline, and power potential are all still there. If Oliver Marmol can place him in areas for success and if he can stay healthy, we could be seeing a resurgent Dylan Carlson in 2024.