I think by now most Cardinal fans know what kind of season Dylan Carlson is having. Certainly the fans who follow this website, or websites like it. He is the Cards’ number two prospect — arguably should be number one, even with the future potential of Nolan Gorman — and is not that far away from the big leagues. A couple years ago, when he was putting up roughly average numbers while really only excelling at being crazy young, maybe only people like me and possibly you (I don’t know your level of prospect interest, so I won’t presume to say for sure you cared), were really paying attention. Now that he’s beating up Double A pitching, it’s time everyone started taking note of what Carlson is doing and what his timetable looks like.
It’s that second part, the bit about the timetable, that I want to talk about this morning. I’ve alluded to this a couple times this season, but there are legitimate reasons the Cardinals may want to push Carlson a bit more this year, even beyond the fact he’s having a fantastic season.
Here’s the thing: right now, Dylan Carlson is posting a .285/.366/.517 line at Double A Springfield. That translates to a 139 wRC+, meaning he’s hitting about 39% better than the average hitter in that league. He’s come to the plate 399 times, so we aren’t talking about a minuscule sample here. We’re talking about roughly two-thirds of a season, and a guy who is substantially outperforming the competition. The fact he’s still only 20 is obviously a big deal, but I’m really only looking to focus on the performance right now.
Carlson has been hanging out in the ~140 wRC+ neighbourhood for awhile now. He opened the season with a 127 in April, jumped to a 157 in May, struggled a bit in June (well, “struggled” — his wRC+ was a still-above-average 109), but has rebounded to a stellar 168 in July. You check his stats day to day, and he’s mostly been hovering between about a 132 and 143ish mark for the season lately. He goes 0-for-3 with a walk and it falls to 136. He goes 2-for-4 with a double and it creeps up to 142. Obviously it’s been on the rise in July, but for now his season numbers have settled into a pretty solid neighbourhood.
A player hitting 40ish percent better than league average is obviously notable, but it’s maybe not a slam dunk that guy has to be promoted posthaste. Particularly when you’re talking about a 20 year old who has been promoted in-season every year of his career so far. Maybe leaving him at one level to really adjust and excel isn’t such a bad idea.
There are, however, two other factors that would suggest pushing Carlson up to the Triple A level in the very near future might be a good idea. One has to do with the roster, and the other has to do with the baseball itself.
First, of all the players in the Cardinals’ minor league system right now, there is probably no player with more invested in what kinds of decisions the Redbirds make regarding their outfield alignment and composition this coming offseason. One might be able to make an argument for Randy Arozarena, who is putting together a very good season of his own in Memphis right now and could easily justify seeing some major league at-bats before the end of this year, but long term Arozarena’s best role is still a little up in the air. Carlson, on the other hand, is one of the two most untouchable players in the system and the safest bet the Cards have right now to be a starter at the big league level at some point in the next couple years.
What that means is that when the Cardinals begin their offseason process come November, the decisions they make will both have a large impact on the career of Dylan Carlson, but will also in large part be driven by what the organisation believes they have in the switch-hitting outfielder. The Cards will have to decide what to do about Marcell Ozuna this offseason, and a large part of having the confidence to let him walk comes down to believing you have a possible star, or at least an above-average regular, on the way in the very near future. I’m sure the organisation will be trying to deal Dexter Fowler, even if they’re forced to pay some of the freight to move him, in order to open up more playing time for the future of the organisation. Again, a big part of that is thinking Carlson, within the next year or so, is going to be taking at-bats in St. Louis, to go along with guys like Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill and maybe Randy Arozarena.
Personally, I think it’s a no-brainer to make the qualifying offer to Ozuna and then let him choose to leave or stay for one more year. As frustrated as I know a segment of the fanbase has been with Ozuna’s play (the fact Christian Yelich has gone supernova only exacerbates the situation), there is no such thing as a bad one-year deal for a 29 year old who has given you about four and a half wins over a season and a half’s worth of plate appearances. He’s almost guaranteed to get over $50 million on the free agent market, even with the recent issues some players have had, and so the QO could have significant value in terms of a future draft pick. I see no bad outcome in putting the qualifying offer out there.
However, I also think it’s not a particularly hard decision to let Ozuna leave. He’s been a solid enough player, on pace for a very good season this year prior to his unfortunate injury, but it seems pretty clear at this point that Ozuna is a good player, but not a great one. That 2017 season was, in fact, a bit of a fluke, and while you might get another one of those out of him over the next five years, that’s not the player you’re getting every year. Most years you’re getting a 110-115 wRC+ hitter with good left field defense. That’s a damned fine contributor. That’s also not a core player you absolutely cannot lose.
A big part of being okay with Ozuna leaving, though, is believing your pipeline of talent can produce a comparable player. A 2.5-3.0 win player may not be an essential piece you go out of your way to hang on to, but if there are none of those coming anytime soon, maybe you can’t so cavalierly let a Marcell Ozuna take his one-year offer sheet and head out for the territories. If you have a Dylan Carlson knocking on the door to the big leagues, though, then that’s a different story.
As such, it would behoove the Cards to get as much information as they possibly can about just what sort of timetable they might be able to expect from him. It probably doesn’t change what you do about Ozuna if you’re worried Carlson might not be ready to go until late 2020 or something — one does not typically make a five-year commitment to solve a five-month problem — but at the same time, Carlson’s ETA affects what other moves the Cards may be pondering in addition to letting Ozuna walk. Ozuna will likely be working on a five-year time frame, but there are other options in the outfield who are on much shorter deals, and what you would be comfortable doing with them has everything to do with how soon you think your next long-term fixture is going to show up.
The second part of this question of when to move Carlson up has to do with the baseball. Specifically, the major league baseball, which has had such a dramatic effect on offense at the big league level the past handful of years, has made its way to the Triple A level this year. Unsurprisingly, offense in Triple A has risen, pretty significantly. However, while it is expected that same baseball will creep down to Double A in 2020, this year the minor league ball is still being used at that level. Thus, while Carlson’s offensive breakout in the Texas League this year does have a lot to do with the cozier ballparks found there, as opposed to the cavernous facilities and suffocating conditions of the Florida State League, it does not have anything to do with the ball.
This creates an interesting incentive. A player doing well in Double A, but maybe not so unbelievably well that you simply cannot justify keeping him there, may have, in the past, remained at the same stop for the whole of the season. After all, while there is obviously some benefit to moving him up and seeing what he looks like against higher-level competition, there’s also plenty of benefit in letting him face the league multiple times in Double A, letting teams get a book on him, make adjustments, and then attack him in some manner to which he will have to respond with adjustment or improvements of his own.
If, however, there is some unique factor at the Triple A level which does not exist at the Double A level, as there is in this particular season, then there is a major impetus for the organisation to move a player to that level. We’ve seen Dylan Carlson hit in terrible conditions, and we’ve seen him hit in much friendlier conditions. We know now that he does, in fact, have enough power to excel in the Texas League, even if the FSL was still a real pain in the ass. What we do not know, yet, is what he looks like hitting the ball in use at the major league level.
Again, this is all about information. The Cardinals will very likely be making major decisions regarding their medium- to long-term outlook in the outfield this offseason, and not only would pushing Carlson to Triple A give them better info on how close he is to being major league ready, it would also give them their first real look at how he hits in the most major league-similar conditions available in the minors.
The Cardinals have allowed Carlson to sit in Double A for quite a while this season, even as he mostly excelled and outpaced his opposition. He’s seen the whole of the Texas League multiple times now, and the adjustments have all been made. Four hundred plate appearances is not, admittedly, a large sample in terms of a career, but playing in an eight-team league 400 PAs means plenty of repetition in terms of opponents. Considering how important Carlson is going to be to the decision-making process the Cards will be engaging in this offseason, and how long the shadow those decisions will cast on the organisation will likely be, they need to know as much as possible about where their next best chance at a star is right now, and who they think he might be down the road.
The best way to do those things is to make room in Memphis, and move the kid up. The organisation has been aggressive with him all along, and have very prudently slowed things down and been patient this season after pushing him right out of the gate in 2019. It’s been long enough now, though; Dylan Carlson is too good for Double A, and the Cardinals need to see him at the next stop. Too much is riding on his talent and timetable not to accelerate his timetable again.