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Should the Cardinals call up Dylan Carlson?

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It’s still a tricky thing to answer given the outfield depth

Washington Nationals v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Cardinals mostly come out looking okay with a 60-game schedule and the designated hitter being put into place. Due to the nature of the roster construction, the designated hitter will be advantageous to a team with too many outfielders and two starting caliber third basemen. There should be no playing of Tommy Edman in the outfield in 2020.

The Cardinals roster was largely settled during spring training, with really one major question mark: will Dylan Carlson make the team? That question was probably also settled, but Carlson lit the world on fire in spring training, at least opening up the possibility that plans would change. The Cardinals have also not really done the service time manipulation game much - Colby Rasmus made the team out of spring training, Oscar Taveras came up when he probably would have qualified for Super Two instead of after, Jack Flaherty could have been kept down for like another week and we’d get an extra year from him. So there was always the possibility.

It still didn’t appear like he would make the team and I wouldn’t exactly call it service time manipulation but a convenient convergence of interests that would make it look very much like service time manipulation. Namely, the Cardinals had other young prospects or prospect-age outfielders who have already proven themselves in the minors and need some playing time in the majors. Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, Justin Williams, not to mention the virtually guaranteed playing time of veteran Dexter Fowler and some innings for Edman.

There is a very good chance Carlson is in the top five of those outfielders, but if you accept Fowler is a certainty for playing time (which would be true for the beginning of the season at the very least) and that Bader is a must-start for his defense, that left literally one spot open between Tyler O’Neill, desperately in need of a regular run of playing time at this point, Tommy Edman, who had no real starting spot at the time, and Lane Thomas, who seemed to deserve to be the fourth outfielder. The interests aligned to where it also made sense to keep Carlson down.

Things have changed, but have they changed to the point where it makes sense to change the plan? Edman is no longer a factor in the outfield, or at least he shouldn’t be. But you still have the trio of Fowler definitely getting playing time, Bader definitely getting playing time, and O’Neill definitely deserving playing time to see what he has. The DH spot is open, but I mean that’s going to Matt Carpenter. You still have Lane Thomas and Rangel Ravelo as well, not to mention Brad Miller taking one of these spots a couple times a week probably.

It’s here where I will also point out that Dylan Carlson had 19 total games played in AAA. Yes, there’s also spring training, but we all know about the unreliability of spring training. Has he done enough to prove he’s a major leaguer? Absolutely. But there’s a wide range of outcomes even for the category of “MLB player” from below average to All-Star to MVP candidate. He’s unlikely to be the latter categories immediately.

And the projections... do not suggest a player who is all that separated from O’Neill and definitely worse than Bader. ZiPS has Carlson as a 1.4 fWAR player over a full season and O’Neill as a 0.6 one in less than 500 PAs. But it has O’Neill as the better hitter, so the difference is almost all defense. O’Neill may very well be a trash defender, but he’s super fast and the sample size is stupid small, so I do not trust that one bit.

The crux of the matter is simply that it’s not a matter of whether or not Carlson is one of the five best outfielders: he certainly is. It’s would you rather play O’Neill or Carlson? And your answer very well may be Carlson, but Carlson has 19 AAA PAs to O’Neil’s 996 PAs, so it’s very hard to argue that O’Neill doesn’t deserve some serious playing time, whereas you could very easily justify Carlson’s exclusion for now.

And you might be saying: but Carlson can play instead of someone else. In theory sure. In practice, at the very beginning of the year, Matt Carpenter will start at DH, Dexter Fowler will start at RF, and Harrison Bader will start at CF. I will not say that’s going to be the status quo for the whole season - although honestly, the season is so damn short that if you are a manager and have the logic of who you should start, your answer probably shouldn’t change based off 40-50 games. Which, really, is why I and many others argued for O’Neill to get two months of consistent playing time.

I’m clearly making the argument that Carlson shouldn’t start the season and by virtue of me saying not much should change based on two months, then am I in effect arguing Carlson shouldn’t be up at all this year? I can see how my argument would seem to lead that way, but injuries happen, underperformance happens, and the Cardinals should really just bring him up at some point so we don’t have to go through this whole thing again next year.

So when to bring him up? Well someone will get injured at some point. And he’s clearly the first guy to get called up when that happens. As the case has been made before, the Cardinals seem to be going with 17 pitchers for their 30 man roster, which leaves 13 position players. You have the starting 9, Brad Miller, Thomas, Ravelo, Matt Wieters, and hell if you want a 14th, it might even make sense to bring up another middle infielder like Edmundo Sosa since both Edman, Ravelo and Miller can play OF in a pinch, whereas the backup shortstop would really just be Edman and he’s ideally starting at 3B everyday. (Miller is so bad defensively in the infield, he may actually be better suited in the outfield in fact)

Anyway, it’s a tough spot for Carlson, who still isn’t even on the 40 man roster. The way service time is designed, and I’m not sure of the way around this, the Cardinals wouldn’t even be hurt if they kept him down a week or two. He’d play for a good portion of the 2020 season and still not be credited with a full year, which wouldn’t be meaningfully different than if they brought him up in June for the original schedule. Which was the original plan and I imagine will roughly be the equivalent plan in 2020.