Dylan Carlson and Tyler O’Neill are the clear spring breakouts for the Cardinals. Both of these young outfielders are raking at the plate as the look to secure their place on the 26-man roster. Carlson is slashing .417/.533/.625/1.158 and O’Neill is slashing .300/.440/.650/1.090. so far in Spring Training. Spring results are not everything, and they are hardly things from which conclusions should be drawn; however, these stats seem to match up with the overall talent level of the players. Obviously these numbers are not sustainable, but Dylan Carlson is a top prospect (#10 according to Baseball America) and Tyler O’Neill is a former top 100 prospect as well. Additionally, both of these players have posted impressive minor league statistics and O’Neill has shown flashes at the big league level. It seems likely that this Spring Training success is not simply a flash in the pan, and due to this, the pair should get a chance to start for the Cardinals in the regular season and lock down their places on the roster.
It is becoming increasingly likely that one of these two players will be the Cardinals starting left fielder to open the 2020 season. The Cardinals entered camp with an open competition for the job, and both players have currently done more than enough to seize it. Lane Thomas has also had a strong spring, as he has a .921 OPS in 24 at bats so far; however, it is likely that the organization has a higher view of Carlson and O’Neill due to their prospect pedigrees. Additionally it seems more likely that O’Neill will be the opening day starter in left field because Carlson has not had much exposure to any competition above the AA level. Even though he crushed AAA pitching in his brief Pacific Coast League cameo, the Cardinals might want to see him gain more experience there before he plays in the big leagues. However, there is another option that would allow both of these Spring Training to be in the starting lineup consistently — play Carlson in right field.
There is little doubt that O’Neill is MLB-ready, but there is more doubt about Carlson. However, with the way that impressed at every level, including Spring Training, despite being much younger than the average competition, it seems likely that he would be able to perform at a higher level than Dexter Fowler in right field. Fowler was worth just 1.5 wins above replacement last season, and he struggled in an injury-marred 2018 season. For a player who is nearly 34 years old, that is not a good sign. Clearly Fowler’s best days are behind him, and it is unclear if he will be able to improve upon his limited production last season. While there is still a significant amount of money left on his contract for the next two seasons, if the Cardinals want to improve the team in 2020, Dylan Carlson, or even Lane Thomas, is likely a better option.
An outfield consisting of Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader, and Dylan Carlson has significant potential at the plate and in the field. Each of these players has the potential to be above average with the bat and the glove, as well as provide plenty of speed on the bases. This is a significantly more exciting outfield than any combination containing Fowler. Having a player in O’Neill who is a legitimate 30-40 home run threat with a full season of at-bats, as well as a defensive wizard in Harrison Bader, and a top 10 prospect in Dylan Carlson would provide the team with the potential for a top 5 outfield in the MLB. Additionally, it would give the Cardinals a chance to look at the future of the outfield and decide if any changes need to be made. Admittedly, it is a bit ambitious to push Carlson to the MLB right now considering that he is just 21 years old and has just 79 AAA plate appearances under his belt. However, if he is ready then he should not be kept out of the lineup, especially by a 34-year-old Dexter Fowler. Additionally the Cardinals have Lane Thomas as well as Fowler who can step into right field if Carlson is put into the lineup but proves to need more seasoning in the minor leagues.
While I would love to see Carlson on the Opening Day roster, I do not think that it will happen. I fully expect the Cardinals to stick with Fowler in right field to begin the season, and O’Neill has earned the chance to start in left field. Additionally, Harrison Bader’s job appears to be safe, although he could have a short leash if his struggles at the plate continue in 2020. With this being the case, the Cardinals will not put Carlson in the MLB until there is a starting gig open. Because of this, I still expect him to open the season in Memphis, but that does not mean that we will not see him in the big leagues this year. If Fowler struggles out of the gate or somebody gets hurt, then it will be very tempting for the Cardinals to promote Carlson and give him the chance to stake his claim on an outfield spot. Another issue working against Carlson is his service time clock. The Cardinals can gain an extra year of control over Carlson by allowing him to start the season in the minors. However, if the Cardinals want to field the best team. then Carlson should be in the starting lineup instead of Fowler.
Using Fowler and Thomas as fourth and fifth outfielders while playing three young, dynamic, high-ceiling players in the outfield give the Cardinals the potential for one of thebest outfielders in all of baseball. At the very least, Bader will play great defense and O’Neill will hammer a lot of home runs. Carlson could struggle, but he clearly has potentially elite skills, and I would expect those to shine through. At worst, the Cardinals would have a productive outfield with this trio, but at best, they would have an elite outfield both at the plate and in the field.