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Cardinals shouldn’t trade Dylan Carlson

Assuming they don’t get fair value, which they won’t, they should hold onto him

Colorado Rockies v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

I do this weird thing where I seem to formulate opinions in response to other Cards’ fans. Way back in 2012 or 2013, Lance Lynn was one of my favorite Cardinals’ players. This has been completely lost to history and some of you may not even believe me, but Lynn was.... kind of hated by the fanbase at the time. My opinion of Lynn was nearly a direct response to that. He was underrated because his ERA didn’t match his advanced stats, and I ended up defending him and you do that enough and you grow an attachment.

I point this out because a similar thing is happening with Dylan Carlson. I do not think Carlson is hated. But initially I was one of the Carlson skeptics because people expected him to be amazing out the gate. I didn’t think he should make the team out of spring training in 2020 and even as I defend him, I don’t think he’s a centerfielder. In fact, I am 100 percent on board with Tommy Edman playing CF. I’m not saying he should play center field on Opening Day, but as soon as Masyn Winn is in the majors, Edman should play CF.

I suppose I’m a weird person to make the case for Carlson then. As the tide has turned more against him or maybe apathy towards him, I find myself switching sides. And when I say sides, I mean generally speaking everyone is either high on a player, low on a player, or somewhere in the middle. I don’t mean for or against a player. My stance, as I said in the beginning of this, seems to be a response to where the fanbase lands. It’s just like an impulse for me.

There are reports that the Cardinals are shopping both Dylan Carlson and Tyler O’Neill. I should be more in favor of this is if I don’t think Carlson is a centerfielder and Tommy Edman is. However, when I look at what Carlson is as a player, what he is likely to be, I have so much trouble imagining the Cardinals getting anything even close to what Carlson should be worth in a trade. O’Neill maybe. Carlson, not a chance.

I don’t know what ZiPS is going to project for Carlson, but last year they projected 2.5 fWAR in 576 PAs. I imagine both are lower now. Carlson was a 2.5 fWAR player in both his second and third seasons before injuries and the Cardinals burying him relegated him to just 255 PAs and 0.2 fWAR. Steamer, the only projection system out right now, has him with 1.2 WAR in just 255 PAs, which would be 2.7 WAR in 576 PAs.

It seems extraordinarily likely that Carlson will project to be at least an average outfielder with probably a bit more potential than that. Last year’s 80th percentile for Carlson was 4.1 WAR. Carlson has been around for a minute, but it’s easy to forget he will be 25 next season. I could list a whole bunch of players who hadn’t even debuted at Carlson’s current age, but you probably know that already.

If Carlson is at least an average player and he is under team control for three years and he’s getting paid $1.8 million in his first year of arbitration (what MLBTR projects), his surplus value is.... a lot. Or should be anyway. He’s going to get maybe $15 million in arbitration total, and if he gets more than that, he’s probably better than an average player. I know trade value doesn’t work like this, but if say he’s 2 WAR in 2024, and then maybe 1.8 in 2025, and 1.5 in 2026 - which given his age, I think it’s more likely it’ll be closer to 2, 2, and 2, but for the sake of argument, his on field value would be $53 million in value. That’s in theory, $38 million in surplus value.

Do I think the Cardinals need to wait to trade him until they get that amount? Absolutely not. That is not my argument. Maybe I’m underestimating the market for Carlson, but it feels like if he were to be traded, it’d be for pennies on the dollar. And while I personally don’t feel like he’s a centerfielder,* he won’t embarrass you out there.

*I’ll defend my take. Carlson has been a negative defender in the corners and as far as I know, there’s no such thing as a player who is better in center than the corners. He’s probably not actually negative in the corners, but the flipside is he’s probably not a positive fielder in center. Also, he’s very slow for a centerfielder. His best attribute is his sure hands, but every time I see him make a great play, I notice how long it took him to get there. Just my two cents.

Does the Cardinals’ current set up suggest Carlson is a 4th outfielder? Yeah. But who cares? The Cardinals are paying him $1.8 million. The theoretical argument to trading him is that you’re wasting him on the bench. I will point out that a 4th outfielder will get about 400 PAs in a given season and that he is insurance for injuries, even if he’s an injury risk himself.

And also, the main argument to trading someone who shouldn’t be on the bench and should be a starter is trying to maximize value. A player’s trade value is higher than what he could realistically give you on the field given how blocked they are. But this argument doesn’t work if the player’s trade value is about the same as his current role, which I suspect it is.

Also, the Cardinals appear dead set on trading Tyler O’Neill, so he might not actually be the 4th outfielder. But even if he is, it seems more worth it to me to make him the 4th outfielder, or maybe starter 3B of the outfield, and just see if something clicks. Maybe he repeats what he did in his first two full seasons, maybe he unlocks a better level. Both situations should result in better trade value honestly.

But the cost is so minimal. He is more proven than Alec Burleson and definitely a better defender, and if you’re high on Victor Scott II, there’s no reason for you to pencil him in for a single plate appearance this year unless he truly forces his way on. He’s still 25, he barely got a chance to do anything last year, and I think the greater potential value to the Cardinals is on the team than whatever he would return in a trade.

The funny thing about my argument is that if Carlson were to be traded, I don’t have a lot of fear that the Cardinals would regret it. If you suppose the Cardinals get something approaching fair value, I don’t know that he has a ton of potential if I’m being honest. And I don’t know if you should ever really regret trading someone who is a 2-3 WAR player. But this all supposes they can get close to fair value for him and that is harder to believe.

At the beginning of the offseason, I said I wouldn’t trade Carlson unless he helped bring back a starter, and that holds true now, and became way less likely when the Cardinals filled out their entire starting 5 before the Winter Meetings. So I think the Cardinals should hold onto him for at least one more year. Cause what are we missing out on? A reliever? Surely the 400 or so PAs Carlson might take is going to be worth more to the Cards than that. You’re not getting an elite reliever for Carlson I wouldn’t think.

And besides, they can always trade him later if they want. You can’t undo a trade once it’s been made.