All eyes are on Dylan Carlson.
The Cardinals prospect, ranked #17 overall by MLB.com, is the story of Spring Training. Carlson is batting .400/.520/.650 with a 1.170 OPS, three doubles and a triple. It’s a mistake to read too much into spring training stats, but Carlson has passed the eye-test as well. I know what you all want: video of Carlson embedded in Tweets!
Here, Carlson makes a nice defensive play.
Carlson can run a little, too:
the ol' unreliable stopwatch says 10.2 from first to home for Dylan Carlson pic.twitter.com/JhItVGmBQ0— cardinalsgifs (@cardinalsgifs) March 2, 2020
And he’s shown the ability to drive the ball/taco with some salsa, even to the opposite field.
(Credit the fantastic @cardinalsgifs for those last two videos — also, please follow him on Twitter; it will make your life better — and Fox Sports Midwest for the first.)
Insert small sample size qualifier here, but Carlson looks like the most talented outfielder in the Cardinals’ organization. The Cardinals have a hole in left with no incumbent starter. There is an obvious path for Carlson to come out of spring as the starting left fielder. Yet, there remains significant doubt that will happen.
Carlson is not on the 40-man roster and that places him in a disadvantage in the outfield pecking order. From veteran Dexter Fowler to roster-eligible Lane Thomas, the Cardinals already have an abundance of outfielders that they want to see play. The club can also gain an extra year of control over Carlson by holding him out at the beginning of the season.
Isn’t talent what matters, though? The point of baseball is to win games. Talent wins, so, talent should play, right? Fans want it to be that simple.
The good news is that Dylan Carlson is not the first talented prospect to force his way into consideration for a roster spot in Spring Training, and the Cardinals have almost always sided with talent in such decisions.
Let’s take a look at a few historical models of players in similar situations. While these comps are different from Carlson in key areas, they all provide insight into how Carlson can make the club.
2001 Albert Pujols
Roster Status: NRI (non-roster invitee)
Highest Level Reached: Brief stint at AAA
Albert Pujols’ emergence in the spring of 2001 is perhaps the best comparison to Carlson today. Pujols raced through the minors in 2000, finishing up with Memphis’ postseason run. He entered Spring Training as a non-roster invitee, and drew raves from scouts, coaches and fans for his mature approach. Good luck trying to find spring stats from 2001, but my crowd-sourcing (thanks @cdunn19931) netted a .306 spring batting average, 3 homers, and the ability to play five positions. Pujols was blocked at 3b by Placido Polanco and Craig Paquette. Jim Edmonds, JD Drew, and Bobby Bonilla were set in the outfield.
How Did Pujols Make the Roster? Answer: Injury.
38-year-old Bonilla tore his hamstring late in the spring, an injury that the club expected to last about a month. Suddenly, there was a path for Pujols to make the roster and playing time available for him. Pujols was promoted, played in 161 games in 2001 across four positions, and the rest is Hall of Fame history. An injury to Dexter Fowler, Harrison Bader or perhaps Tyler O’Neill, would all but guarantee that Carlson breaks camp on the active roster.
2009 Colby Rasmus
Roster Status: NRI
Highest Level Reached: AAA
Like Carlson, Rasmus was a prized outfield prospect. As a five-tool center fielder, Rasmus was ranked by Baseball America as the 3rd-best prospect in the game entering 2009. The club had Ryan Ludwick, Rick Ankiel, and Chris Duncan as the presumptive outfield starters, but left space for Rasmus to play his way onto the 40-man and push the starters for playing time. It would have taken a complete collapse from Rasmus not to make the club out of spring. Instead, it was Ankiel and Duncan who collapsed and Rasmus would go on to lead the team in outfield games played.
How Did Rasmus Make the Roster? Answer: Planned Promotion.
The club created room for Rasmus to transition to the majors in at least a part-time role, without the pressure to immediately perform. Why is Carlson not receiving the same treatment? Rasmus had nearly a full season at AAA in 2008 and had nothing left to prove in the minors. With the possible exception of Jon Jay, there also were no prospects of the caliber of Tyler O’Neill and Lane Thomas to muddy up the depth chart.
2018 Jordan Hicks
Roster Status: NRI
Highest Level Reached: A+
Jordan Hicks was becoming a familiar name to prospect analysts and fans of the Cardinals’ minor league system in ‘16-’17. Fresh out of A ball, Hicks was chosen by the Cardinals to participate in the Arizona Fall League after the ‘17 season, a move that signaled the organization’s belief that the young fireballer was closer than his level indicated. Hicks threw 7.2 innings with a 2.35 era and an impressive 9.4 K/9 and 1.2 BB/9 during the ‘18 Spring Training. Perhaps more importantly, Hicks was routinely hitting triple-digits with his hard sinker.
How Did Hicks Make the Roster? Answer: Position of Need.
The Cardinals entered the spring with an open competition for the closer spot and a stated-desire to pit their emerging young arms against a variety of veterans (like Bud Norris and Luke Gregerson). Hicks’ stuff played and, so, the club played Hicks. Carlson also shows talent at a position of need, but its easier for a talented pitcher to make a major league roster. Teams routinely carry 7-8 relievers and can run through 12-15 bullpen arms in a season.
Other Applicable (but Flawed) Comps:
2013 Shelby Miller. An elite starter prospect, Miller received one start and 6 appearances at the end of 2012. Kyle Lohse was allowed to leave in free agency, opening the door for Miller, who was on the 40-man roster, to compete with the more experienced Joe Kelly for a rotation spot in the spring of ‘13. Miller’s pedigree won out. Like Rasmus, Miller’s advancement to MLB was largely scheduled by the club.
2009 David Freese. As Troy Glaus recovered from injury, then MLB.com Cardinals reporter Matthew Leach predicted that seven infielders would break north with the club as of March 20, 2009. David Freese was not one of them. Still, Freese continued to bounce back and forth between the minor league and major league camps as LaRussa searched for someone to fill the gap left by Glaus. Freese ended up making the roster, but he was soon displaced by Joe Thurston and sent back to AAA to get regular playing time. Injury cleared space for Freese, but LaRussa defaulted to a more senior player in the long run.
Have the Cardinals intentionally held back a talented player/high-quality prospect who appeared ready for a MLB role?
The best example might be one-time elite outfield prospect Oscar Taveras. Taveras performed well in AAA in ‘13, but injury limited him to just 47 games. He was added to the 40-man prior to the Rule 5 draft the next November. With Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, and Allen Craig entrenched in the outfield, Taveras had no path for playing time. Oscar led the Cardinals in AB’s in the spring of ‘14 and performed well - .289/.325/.421. Still, the lack of games played in ‘13 and available PA’s motivated the club to send Oscar down. He stayed in AAA until May 31, and played in 80 games the rest of the way. Were contract considerations part of the team’s decision making process? Perhaps.
There are probably other examples of comparable situations that I have missed. Discuss them in the comments! The Cardinals typically default to talent when making roster decisions. The only exception is when a player was blocked by productive veteran talent at the MLB level. Regardless, each player I considered above received ample playing time in the majors to stay on their developmental schedule. If Carlson continues to perform as he has so far, expect him to break camp with the club. If he doesn’t, expect him to receive plenty of MLB time this season anyway.