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Evaluating Dylan Carlson’s Roster Fit

Dylan Carlson could be a key cog in the Cardinals future outfield or he could be dangled as part of a retool to bring back pitching help.

MLB: JUN 28 Astros at Cardinals Photo by Rick Ulreich/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Recently I wrote about Ivan Herrera as a potential trade candidate. It may seem weird for a team at the bottom of the NL Central to trade a top 5 prospect but with the Cardinals likely pursuing a retool to remain competitive next year (and potentially this year if they can turn things around in a weak division), it could make sense.

The reasoning is simple. His path to playing time is blocked, at least in the near future, and he could bring back a good return as (likely) the only top 5 prospect the Cardinals would be willing to trade.

He’s not the only one who fits this profile, however. To me, Dylan Carlson falls into the same bucket.

As we start getting close to the trade deadline, Carlson is the most interesting player on the St. Louis Cardinals roster. Not Paul Goldschmidt (he’s not getting traded, guys). Not Jack Flaherty, Jordan Hicks, Chris Stratton, or any of the other free agents to be. Not Tyler O’Neill either, although I do think he has a good chance of getting traded.

It’s Dylan Carlson because he’s the perfect blend of talent, cost-control, and potential availability to be really interesting.

So with that in mind, I want to evaluate the decision the Cardinals have at the trade deadline. Keep Carlson or shop him? Let’s find out.

The Argument to Keep

I could write just about a million things in this section but I’ll start with the fact that Dylan Carlson is still just 24 years old which means there’s a great chance that he hasn’t yet reached his peak. And that’s what I believe.

In 2021, Carlson was a 2.7 WAR player with a combination of a solid bat (115 wRC+) and suspect glove (1 DRS, -3 OAA). But then in 2022, while dealing with a nagging wrist injury that sapped his power, Carlson was just a league average bat but still put up 2.7 fWAR due to outstanding center field defense (6 DRS, 4 OAA).

Oh, and the thing about his 2.7 WAR last year was that he took fewer than 500 plate appearances. Scale that for 600 PAs, and he’s at 3.3 WAR. That’s a solidly above average starter. And this is where I want to go back to the fact that he had a wrist injury that sapped his power and made him a league average hitter.

Raise his wRC+ from 100 (2022) to 115 (2021) and there’s a good chance he’s a 4 WAR player or close to it.

So that’s the question then. What kind of a hitter is Carlson - the above average all around guy that he was in 2021 or the power starved, league average, slap hitter that he was in 2022?

As a Carlson believer I side with the 2021 version of him. And my reasoning is simple. The impact that the wrist injury had on Carlson is clearly visible in his batted ball metrics.

All you have to do is take a look at his exit velocity numbers to see it.

Dylan Carlson Exit Velocity

Year Avg EV 90% EV Max EV
Year Avg EV 90% EV Max EV
2021 88.2 101.8 109.0
2022 86.1 101.1 109.2
2023 90.4 103.2 109.1

The outfielder’s average exit velocity took a big dip last year and his 90th percentile exit velocity also took a dip. But now this year he’s back to hitting the ball harder. And not only is he hitting the ball harder but he’s consistently hitting it harder than ever before.

His average exit velocity is an all time high and would rank in the 66th percentile if he was a qualified hitter. And, yes, that’s huge for him because it’s the first time he would rank above average in exit velocity in his career to date. The one little hitch is that his 90th percentile exit velocity is still just a hair below the league average of 103.3.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, that’s basically league average power. That’s just a bit less power than you would expect from him if you only looked at his average exit velocity but it’s still a career high figure. And it’s improved pretty steadily throughout the season.

One metric isn’t the end-all-be-all but I’m fine with chalking Carlson up to average power depending on his launch angle distributions and moving on. At least for now. There’s plenty of potential for him to tick above average.

The moral of the story here - 2022 Carlson wasn’t the real Carlson at the plate.

So, from that statement, I’m going to assume that Carlson is an above average hitter. That doesn’t feel like a leap either. He was league average at his worse and he’s no longer at his worst, so he should be above average. I feel comfortable with that statement.

How above average he is obviously matters because there’s a big difference between a 105 wRC+ hitter and a 120 wRC+ hitter. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him settle in around the 115ish mark give or take 5-10 points depending on the year but what he will become is still an open question.

And then there’s the defense. Things are a little murky here. I already mentioned that he was a great center fielder last year but this year the numbers aren’t as clear this year as he currently has -3 defensive runs saved and 2 outs above average at the position.

I tend to side with OAA over DRS but it’s important to keep both stats in mind when evaluating a player as defensive stats aren’t perfect. And small sample defensive stats are even worse. So I’m going to pair his defensive stats with the eye test and say that he’s probably an above average center fielder with the potential to be even better, which he showed last year.

I’ll also argue that he’s better in center field than he is in right field. This judgement is also based on the eye test as Carlson has, quite frankly, taken some terrible routes to ball in right field this year. The stats also support this as his -1 DRS and -3 OAA career figures in right field are much worse than his 3 DRS and 5 OAA career figures in center.

So where does that leave us? With an above average hitter and an above average fielder as a premium position. There’s a real chance for a 4 WAR player in there. And a 4 WAR player is a really nice player to have. That’s really the argument for keeping Carlson. He’s good and he’s young and he’s plays well at a key spot.

The Argument to Shop

Remember what I just said about Dylan Carlson playing a better center field than right field because of his routes. Well, the problem is that Carlson doesn’t play center field.

That obviously limits his value. For starters, right field is a less valuable position but Carlson is also worse at the position. He’s not a terrible right fielder by any means but he just seems to have a tougher time reading the ball over there.

And, honestly, it’s still fine if he plays right field as long as he’s an above average hitter, which I expect him to be. So, he’s maximized at center field but it’s not that big of a deal if he slides over to right because he’s still a good player, right?

The problem with that is that he’s not the right fielder either. Or, at least, he’s not the every day right fielder. That distinction belongs to Lars Nootbaar. And there is the problem. With Edman playing center field and Nootbaar playing right field and Jordan Walker playing left field, there’s really not an every day spot open for Carlson.

Once again, when the outfield is healthy, he’s the odd man out.

That makes Carlson a fourth outfielder for now. So, the question then becomes - is Carlson more valuable in as a fourth outfielder or as part of a trade package to bring back pitching help?

Surplus value can help us figure out the answer.

Dylan Carlson currently has 0.3 fWAR and is projected by ZIPS to finish with 0.8 fWAR. Next year, ZIPS projects Carlson for 2.9 fWAR. And in his 2025 season, ZIPS projects him for 3.3 fWAR. Let’s bake in another 0.4 fWAR increase for his projection the following year (3.7) as Carlson will be in his final arbitration year in 2026.

So, for the next 3 12 years, that gives Carlson 10.4 fWAR. And I want to note that this is simply a projection. He could come in over or under (and since I believe Carlson has a 4 WAR season or 2 in him, I would think there’s a chance that he comes in over this total, but I digress) but this gives us some hard numbers to work with.

I’m then going to use the $10 million as the going rate per unit of fWAR. Again, that’s probably not perfect, but it’s a rough estimate of the going cost per unit of WAR in free agency.

So, we’ll take that $10 million per unit of WAR and multiply it by 10.4 WAR. That gives us $104 million. There’s a rough estimate of how much Dylan Carlson would be worth to another team if they traded for him right now, based on ZIPS projections.

And how much is Dylan Carlson going to make over that time frame? Let’s project again. This time I’m going use a fantastic article written by Ben Clemens at Fangraphs last year. Ben did all the leg work to give us the $/WAR being given to players in arbitration, using their WAR figures from the previous season, and that makes it easier to get a rough estimate for Carlson’s future arbitration earnings.

Ben found that hitter’s generally averaged $1.36 million per unit of the previous season’s WAR in their first year of arbitration. That number grows to $2.13 million in year two and $3.59 in year three.

Now, before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that arbitration generally doesn’t get too into the weeds in stats like WAR. Typically, it revolves around the more traditional stats like batting average, hits, RBI, games played, etc. That makes this an imperfect (As Ben acknowledged in his article) but still helpful projection.

So let’s look at Carlson now. Using the projected WAR totals from earlier, we can project Carlson’s three years of arbitration to pay him $1.1 million in year one, $6.2 million in year two, and $11.8 million in year three.

That’s a total of $19.1 million and after we factor in what’s left of his contract this year, we’re left with about $19.4 million.

That leaves us with $104 million of value for a cost of $19.4 million which gives us $84.6 million of surplus value. That’s a lot of surplus value.

And that, for me, is why the Cardinals should consider shopping him. Because either he plays as a fourth outfielder or he can probably bring back a pretty solid player to bolster a weakness of this team beyond just the current season.

If the Cardinals want to go big game hunting, or at least bigish game hunting, at the deadline they will need to give up a good player or a really good prospect.

Of the top 5 prospects in the system, the only tradeable one is really Ivan Herrera (I wrote about that situation a few weeks ago). If the Cardinals don’t want to trade Herrera (which is totally fair), then dealing a good player from a position of surplus is the way to go.

Carlson has more value on the trade market to a team than Tyler O’Neill (though both could be traded) and Nootbaar and Jordan Walker aren’t going anywhere. Edman could be valuable too but I’m going to play a hunch that the Cardinals want to keep Edman. Plus this article is focusing on Carlson so I’m not going to get into the potential of Edman to get traded.

The point is that Dylan Carlson sticks out as a player with enough value to get a good return while still being someone extraneous to this team (at least with how he’s currently being used).

If the Cardinals prefer Edman to Carlson in center field, this is probably the best way to maximize Carlson’s value to the team.


Obviously trading Carlson means that he won’t be on the team next year. That’s how trades work. And that means that if Edman is only considered a temporary center field solution, then it’s probably not wise to trade his best center field replacement.

So, really, the organization’s plans with Tommy Edman probably dictate their openness to a Dylan Carlson trade.

If Tommy Edman is going to be the long term center fielder, then I would shop Carlson and try to find a return that adds a significant piece. If Tommy is still just a fill-in or if there’s still uncertainty, then it doesn’t hurt to keep Carlson.

Really, I just want to see Carlson get the chance to start every day (preferably in center field) and prove that he can be a valuable player both at the plate and in the field.

Now, of course, I’m speculating on the availability part but the Cardinals handling of him this year doesn’t scream untouchable. He has seemed like the odd man out all year and if he truly is the odd man out then he probably has more value being part of a trade package than he does being on the bench.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. It simply depends on how the Cardinals want their outfield to look.

Thanks for reading, VEB.