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Cardinals 2020 Player Preview: The Freewheelin’ Dylan Carlson

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New York Mets v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

It feels a little odd to write a player recap when baseball is on the shelf until at least May, but we’re committed to giving you content. With that said, on with the show!

The Cardinals drafted Dylan Carlson 33rd overall in 2016 with the compensatory pick for departing free agent John Lackey. Carlson was just 17 at the time, wasn’t in the MLB Pipeline top 200, and was less ballyhooed than fellow 2016 draftee Delvin Perez. He wasn’t a consensus first rounder. Despite lacking the prospect cred of some of his draft year peers, Carlson proceeded to produce everywhere he played. That’s particularly impressive given how much younger he was than his leaguewide peers. To wit:

  • 2016: 115 wRC+ in the Gulf Coast League, 2.6 years younger than league average
  • 2017: 101 wRC+ in low-A Peoria, 3.3 years younger
  • 2018: 126 wRC+ in 13 games in low-A Peoria, 2.4 years younger
  • 2018: 112 wRC+ in high-A Palm Beach, 3.4 years younger

In those three years, he displayed an advanced feel at the plate with an impressive BB/K and swinging strike rate, though he had yet to appear on top prospect lists. Once freed from the barren offensive wasteland of Palm Beach, Dylan went electric in 2019. He was 3.8 years younger than league average in AA and a whopping 6.3 years younger after his promotion to AAA. That never stopped him before, nor did it stop him last year.

2019 Stats

AAA: 79 PA, .361 AVG, .418 OBP, .681 SLG, 5 HR, 9 RBI, 22.8 K%, 7.6 BB%, .448 wOBA, 161 wRC+

AA: 483 PA, .281 AVG, .364 OBP, .518 SLG, 21 HR, 59 RBI, 20.3 K%, 10.8 BB%, .387 wOBA, 142 wRC+

His stellar 2019 forced prospect mavens to take notice. By mid-season, he leapt to #52 on MLB Pipeline’s list and #40 on The Board at FanGraphs. Baseball America’s end of season list had him all the way up to #16, and is now #10 entering this year. John Mozeliak compared him to Albert Pujols and Oscar Taveras.

His season brought him the following projection from Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS:

2020 ZiPS Projections

563 PA, .246 AVG, .321 OBP, .430 SLG, 18 HR, 66 RBI, 23.6 K%, 9.2 BB%, .317 wOBA, 97 wRC+, 1.4 fWAR

Considering all of the prospect hype surrounding him, that projection might seem a little on the low side. However, Carlson is entering his age 21 season and has yet to log any MLB at-bats. Of the 52 players age 21 or younger with a ZiPs projection, Carlson’s 1.4 is sixth best, trailing only Juan Soto, Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., Fernando Tatis, Jr., Jo Adell, and Isaac Paredes.

After his 2019 breakout, he came to spring training just one stop away from arriving in St. Louis. His impressive spring before the stoppage served notice that, even if he didn’t make the MLB squad, any minor league time this season was likely to brief. There’s bountiful opportunity in the Cardinals outfield this year after the departure of Marcell Ozuna and Jose Martinez. Harrison Bader has struggled against righties in his career, Dexter Fowler’s typical season produces approximately 120 games played, there’s moderate uncertainty in left field with Tyler O’Neill, and Lane Thomas has had erratic production throughout his career.

Think of all of that uncertainty. Now imagine having a swiss army knife outfielder who could bat both right and left-handed and handle all three outfield positions effectively, all while taking professional at-bats and carrying enough discipline at the plate to keep him productive even when the hits aren’t falling. That type of player would be the shelter from the storm for an outfield with so many question marks. That player is Dylan Carlson.

The only mild concern for Carlson is a middling 88 mph average exit velocity last year and a max. EV of 105. (Important public service announcement: FanGraphs now has average EV and max EV for hitters, and spin rate for pitchers, found on their Board). You’d like to see more loud contact. Regardless, he spent the entirety of spring training asserting that he has a place, especially with impressive defense:

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Before the stoppage, Dylan Carlson’s time had arrived. Granted, the stoppage complicates matters in ways we can’t even comprehend, particularly for minor leaguers and especially players on the cusp like Dylan Carlson. Whenever the season resumes, he’ll have an impact on the 2020 Cardinals.