With Saturday’s bizarre news that semi-veteran St. Louis Cardinals utility bench player Yairo Munoz has left the Cardinals organization, the Cardinals find themselves with an open roster spot on the team’s MLB bench. Munoz wasn’t simply a Spring Training invite–he is a man who spent nearly the entire 2018 and 2019 seasons on the Cardinals roster. The results were mixed–he was a decent hitter in 2018 and a quite poor one in 2019 and while he wasn’t a very good fielder, he could at least hang at several positions. But he was a fairly safe bet to make the Cardinals. Obviously, that is no longer the case.
New MLB roster rules have strictly codified positionality in ways they had not before–teams have 26 roster spots with a maximum of 13 devoted to pitchers, and for all practical intents and purposes, teams will likely default to thirteen position players in the way, say, an NHL active roster will default to 18 skaters and two goaltenders even though they could have more backup goaltenders if they so chose. The most directly analogous player to Munoz who remains on the Cardinals roster is Tommy Edman, who had largely usurpsed Munoz’s role on the Cardinals last season. Edman was always going to be the preferred option in 2020, but with Munoz absent, it further drives home the team’s desire to keep Edman as their version of prime Ben Zobrist, a guy who can wander around the field and fill in wherever he is needed at the time. With Munoz gone, there is more of a need for Tommy Edman to fill in innings in the infield, and thus seemingly less opportunity for Edman in the outfield, where he started several playoff games in 2019.
The Cardinals will assuredly bring back Tommy Edman for the 2020 season (they could by definition put Tommy Edman on the Memphis Redbirds roster; they could also put Jack Flaherty on the Memphis Redbirds roster; neither is going to happen). They will surely employ a backup catcher, probably Matt Wieters while Andrew Knizner remains fresh in Memphis. Infielder Brad Miller is on an MLB contract and seemingly has the inside track to a roster spot. Teams typically aren’t wont to give out $2 million contracts that don’t even last to Opening Day of the first year. That leaves the Cardinals with two bench vacancies and zero true outfielders.
Harrison Bader and Dexter Fowler spent the majority of the 2019 season in the Major Leagues, and given Bader’s Gold Glove finalist status and Fowler being on a MLB contract, they are locks to crack the MLB team. And even if we are to assume Tyler O’Neill, who alternated between the big leagues and the minors last season, cracks the MLB roster, the Cardinals will still have a need for two more position players.
Let’s assume one of them will be a real-life outfielder (not a Tommy Edman outfielder). On the 40-man roster, the Cardinals have an option in Lane Thomas, who played well in 44 MLB plate appearances last year but, well, it’s 44 plate appearances. There is Austin Dean, whose sample size is a bit meatier but has not been particularly productive–it is generally not a great sign for a baseball player if the Miami Marlins are trying to avoid giving him playing time. And there is Justin Williams, who has more MLB plate appearances than I do and that’s really all there is to say about him.
Elsewhere on the 40-man roster, there is MLB experience, but nothing too unimpeachable. Edmundo Sosa continues to linger on the 40-man roster, having cups of coffee in each of the last two seasons. Rangel Ravelo had 43 plate appearances with the Cardinals, including a home run that went five million miles at Coors Field that seemingly convinced some Cardinals fans that Rangel Ravelo is an ascending offensive threat and not a guy who was 30% below-average at the MLB level with no positional versatility.
And the more I look at the MLB bench outlook, the more impossible it becomes to justify ignoring Dylan Carlson. Dylan Carlson should be on the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster.
Despite the tone of my Dylan Carlson-related post last week, I don’t actually believe Dylan Carlson is a guaranteed superstar. For all I know, Dylan Carlson is going to struggle to hit big-league pitching in a not dissimilar fashion to the most recent hitting prospect on the Cardinals in the same territory of renown as Carlson, Oscar Taveras. But I do trust projections generally, and projections systems view Dylan Carlson highly: per the ZiPS system, Carlson projects to be the second-most valuable outfielder on the Cardinals, behind Harrison Bader, and he projects to be just a tick below Dexter Fowler and Tyler O’Neill by offensive production. Because Dylan Carlson has never played Major League Baseball, there’s quite a bit more uncertainly about what he will be than there is about, say, Dexter Fowler, but this can be viewed either way. It would be difficult to argue that an outfielder other than Carlson has the most upside of the candidates for the 2020 team.
In Spring Training, Dylan Carlson has done everything to prove his worth. Spring Training statistics are not Major League Baseball statistics, but it’s the closest thing we have, and Carlson has raked–in thirty-four plate appearances, Carlson has a .357 batting average, a .471 on-base percentage, and a .536 slugging percentage. If Carlson were some late-twenties career minor leaguer who was given very little attention in the minors, I would take these numbers with a grain of salt. As we talk about an acclaimed minor leaguer, I am still going to proceed with caution, but I’m at least considering that this is a sign of something real.
The major elephant in the room with regard to Dylan Carlson is service time manipulation, and for the sake of this post, I’m going to ignore whether keeping a player in the minor leagues beyond when one normally would in order to game the system and get an extra year of team control over a player is ethical (it isn’t) or whether intentionally keeping the best players away from Major League Baseball is a good idea (it isn’t) but whether it makes smart baseball sense in a purely selfish, Cardinals-centric way. And my answer is…I’m not sure. I understand the logic, and as far as miscarriages of justice go in terms of manipulating service time go, the Cardinals doing it to Carlson would still pale in comparison to what the Chicago Cubs did with Kris Bryant or what the Atlanta Braves did with Ronald Acuna Jr. or what the Toronto Blue Jays did with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. But if we are to assume Dylan Carlson would only not make the team in order to save money (and I will grant that this is a big assumption), this also means the Cardinals would go several weeks without Dylan Carlson. The 2015 Cubs didn’t think this would be a big deal regarding Bryant, because the Cubs didn’t expect to win 97 games that season.
But the Cardinals are a very borderline team for winning the division and/or making the playoffs and some fractional loss of Carlson’s value could easily make the difference. Any rational Wins Above Replacement model would note that Carlson is worth less than one additional win over, say, Austin Dean over that small of a period of time, but WAR rarely work out that precisely. It’s not as though the Cardinals would simply subtract the WAR difference from what would be their record and that is their number of wins. And the benefit for the Cardinals, or any other team, is not quite as simple as “you get another year”–Super Two eligibility would mean that, if the Cardinals manipulated Carlson’s time, they would still get three years of signing him to league minimum-ish contracts but then have four years of salary arbitration. By the end of the arbitration cycle, players still make less than they would as free agents, but they aren’t exactly cheap. Mookie Betts, in his final year of arbitration, will earn $27 million. Kris Bryant will earn $18.6 million in 2020 and still have another year of arbitration ahead, which will almost certainly put him well into the twenties of millions.
Maybe the Cardinals truly don’t think Dylan Carlson is ready. He has, after all, barely played in AAA, and he’s still only 21 years old. I’m not necessarily going to assume the worst motives of the organization, though I will still approach the Cardinals with the same healthy skepticism with which I would approach any other organization. With that said, if the Cardinals believe Dylan Carlson is already capable of being a regular starting outfielder in the Major Leagues, the Cardinals should make that happen immediately.