Yesterday afternoon, Springfield Cardinals outfielder Dylan Carlson was promoted to the Memphis Redbirds. As somebody with bare-bones knowledge of the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor league affiliates, a system promotion that does not involve being promoted to the Majors normally wouldn’t be a big deal to me. But over the last 4 1/2 months of professional baseball, no player has had a more meteoric rise for the Cardinals than Dylan Carlson.
Carlson, the #33 overall pick of the 2016 MLB Amateur Draft (as compensation from the Chicago Cubs for their signing of John Lackey), entered the season as a known but not elite prospect, missing national Top 100 lists and being relegated to lists of Cardinals prospects. But in 2019, Dylan Carlson took a monstrous leap forward in his first season with the AA Springfield Cardinals. In 483 plate appearances, he hit 21 home runs and managed a triple-slash of .281/.364/.518. His wRC+ of 143 ranks in the top ten among qualified hitters in the Southern League. But that doesn’t tell the full Dylan Carlson story. Here are the top ten by age.
- Chris Gittens (1B, Yankees): 25 years, 6 months, 12 days
- Ka’ai Tom (OF, Indians): 25 years, 2 months, 18 days
- Daulton Varsho (C, Diamondbacks): 23 years, 1 month, 14 days
- Abraham Toro (3B, Astros): 22 years, 7 months, 27 days
- Seth Beer (1B/OF, Diamondbacks): 22 years, 10 months, 29 days
- Drew Waters (OF, Braves): 20 years, 7 months, 17 days
- Darick Hall (1B, Phillies): 24 years, 0 months, 22 days
- Patrick Leonard (1B/3B, Brewers): 26 years, 9 months, 27 days
- Dylan Carlson (OF, Cardinals): 20 years, 9 months, 24 days
- Bobby Dalbec (3B, Red Sox): 24 years, 1 month, 18 days
The only player in the same vicinity as Dylan Carlson in terms of age is Drew Waters, who was a preseason top 100 prospect who has vaulted into the upper reaches of updated, in-season lists. Carlson is following a similar path. While it is unlikely that Dylan Carlson will play at Busch Stadium before he is able to legally purchase a Busch, at this rate, he may not miss the cut by much. He may be a service time manipulation candidate. And while I do not condone service time manipulation, it is refreshing as a fan to know that the team has a prospect who could merit such consideration. It’s been a while.
With his promotion, Carlson catapulted into the conversation of MLB or MLB-ready outfielders on the Cardinals. The active roster includes four players listed as outfielders–Randy Arozarena, Dexter Fowler, Marcell Ozuna, and Lane Thomas–as well as two more infielders, Tommy Edman and Yairo Munoz, who have logged not-insignificant time in the outfield this season. Two more MLB outfielders, Jose Martinez and Tyler O’Neill, are on the 10-day Injured List. Three more outfielders with MLB experience comprised the pre-Carlson Memphis Redbirds outfield: most notably Harrison Bader, but also Jose Adolis Garcia, who is having a terrific offensive season, and Justin Williams, who played briefly for the Tampa Bay Rays before being included in the Tommy Pham trade.
Before even factoring in Dylan Carlson, the Cardinals have, when everybody is healthy, nine MLB-experienced outfielders from which to choose, eleven if you count Edman and Munoz. Marcell Ozuna is a pending free agent and will likely not be re-signed by the Cardinals (I would guess that, barring anything dramatic over the next month-and-a-half, the Cardinals will extend a qualifying offer), but there is still a surplus of outfielders. It seems very unlikely that only one of these outfielders will not be in the organization by Opening Day 2020.
And in a vacuum, it makes sense that the Cardinals should trade from a position of strength to bolster a position of weakness. If the Cardinals can churn out 2-3 Wins Above Replacement outfielders, and you can get a starting pitcher of similar cost and team control who is slightly worse but would be replacing a Replacement Level starting pitcher, it improves the team to do so even if it is technically a “loss”.
It is the logic that compelled many Cardinals fans to become furious upon learning that the organization refused to part with Harrison Bader and/or Tyler O’Neill (plus others, though “others” is doing a lot of ambiguous work in this phrasing) in a potential deadline deal for New York Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler. On paper, the trade makes absolutely no sense–Bader has been worth nearly 5 WAR per full season for his career, O’Neill has the most raw power in the organization and will become a free agent no earlier than following the 2024 season, and Wheeler was under contract for two more months while coming off an injury and posting an ERA over four and a half and a FIP over three and a half. But if Bader and/or O’Neill were destined to be overtaken by the other outfielders in the organization while Zack Wheeler would easily have a role in the 2019 rotation (the latter is definitely true), none of that mattered.
But the assumption is that the outfielders are all going to be what we expect them to be. Most Cardinals fans have (rightly) been airing grievances for the last year-plus about trading Tommy Pham to the Tampa Bay Rays, but the underlying logic behind the trade–that the presence of Harrison Bader made the 30 year-old center fielder expendable–is now being applied to trading Harrison Bader. And this trade came just a year after the Cardinals determined they had a surplus of starting pitchers and a shortage of outfielders, hence trading Marco Gonzales for Tyler O’Neill, which itself came a few months after the Cardinals paid market value, or perhaps slightly more, for free agent outfielder Dexter Fowler.
And before Fowler, the Cardinals were allegedly set at outfield for the forseeable future thanks to the presence of Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty. These were supposed to be the locks that would solidify the Cardinals outfield for a generation. And two years after their breakthrough 2015, they were traded for pennies on the dollar.
The Cardinals have a tendency to sell low, but this is less about the team selling low on outfielders (Bader would really be the only example of this, among the current crop) and more about assuming the players who aren’t sold will perform up to expectations. It is assuming that Dexter Fowler, who was among the worst players in Major League Baseball in 2018, will not regress back toward that level into his mid-thirties. It is assuming that Randy Arozarena’s Memphis numbers (which include a .427 batting average on balls in play) hold up and that Lane Thomas’s below-average Memphis offense is an abberation. It is assuming that Jose Martinez, already a terrible fielder, won’t get worse into his thirties. It is assuming that Dylan Carlson, who played his first AAA game yesterday, is an absolute lock for MLB stardom, when the #51 prospect per MLB.com five years ago is an outfielder the Cardinals also quickly traded away in Stephen Piscotty.
I am excited about the future outfields of the St. Louis Cardinals, not because I think they’re going to have seven league-average-at-worst outfielders in half a decade from which to choose, but because I like the odds of a few of them to become stars. But we don’t know who those will be. And while I am not opposed to trading one or more of them, it is also not a necessity. You can never have too many good outfielders.