Since it was announced on Saturday that twenty year-old super-prospect Jordan Walker would make the St. Louis Cardinals’ Opening Day roster, the overall reaction from St. Louis fans has been overwhelmingly positive. Walker, a consensus top-five prospect in all of baseball and the most ballyhooed St. Louis Cardinals prospect since no more recently than Oscar Taveras, is an immediate jolt of energy for the Cardinals–a physically imposing potential superstar who by all accounts has the maturity to handle the spotlight of the big leagues. Keeping Jordan Walker with the AAA Memphis Redbirds would have been a defensible decision–after all, he has never faced AAA pitching and would not be required for addition to the expanded, 40-person roster until after the 2024 season–but it was one that the Cardinals ultimately rejected because they have so much faith in his talent. It’s difficult, as a fan, to not find that optimism contagious.
But every move that a baseball team makes comes with an equal, opposite reaction. If Walker makes the team’s starting lineup, which he almost certainly will starting on Thursday, that means another player is removed from it. By making the team’s 26-player Opening Day roster, it keeps another player away from it. Adding him to the expanded roster will mean that the Cardinals are forced to clear a spot on the roster, either by designating a player for assignment or putting a player on the 60-day Injured List. And while the third answer is not yet known, we likely have a good idea about the other two.
When Monday’s Spring Training lineup was announced, multiple Cardinals reporters (John Denton of MLB.com, Jeff Jones of the Belleville News-Democrat, and probably others whom I missed) indicated that they believe said lineup (aside from the starting pitcher) would likely mirror what the team fields on Thursday for the first game of the regular season. Said lineup includes Jordan Walker in right field, a pair of players who have been primarily corner outfielders in their big-league careers but recently served as center fielders at the World Baseball Classic comprising the remainder of the outfield (Japan’s Lars Nootbaar and Canada’s Tyler O’Neill in left and center, respectively), infielder-by-trade Nolan Gorman serving as designated hitter, and Dylan Carlson on the bench. This would make the full Cardinals bench, based on the Monday lineup, in alphabetical order: Alec Burleson, Dylan Carlson, Andrew Knizner, and Taylor Motter. Absent from this group is Juan Yepez, who was optioned to AAA as one of the final cuts of Spring Training.
The two biggest position player prospects of the last decade for the Cardinals, aside from Jordan Walker, were Oscar Taveras and Dylan Carlson. Because of Taveras’s premature death at 22 following a rookie season in which he struggled mightily at the big-league level, most retrospective analyses of the prospect theorize either that Taveras was the bust that he was at least over 248 MLB plate appearances in 2014 or, more frequently, that Taveras was an inevitable superstar, dreaming on the hope that his promotion brought in the first place. But there is also a fairly good chance that Taveras, like Dylan Carlson, would have materialized into a perfectly fine, not particularly exciting MLB player. The other top outfield prospects in 2014, after all, were a mix of good MLB players (none I would categorize as S-tier superstars, with the possible exception of the #1 guy if you assume perfect health), role players, and busts–Byron Buxton, George Springer, Jackie Bradley Jr., Gregory Polanco, Albert Almora, and Clint Frazier. Carlson is something of a cautionary tale at this point about assuming a top prospect–and make no mistake, when Carlson was a top-ten Baseball America prospect and a top-twenty MLB and Baseball Prospectus prospect entering the 2020 and 2021 seasons, he was seen as one–is assured future superstardom.
It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that if Dylan Carlson is more or less what his 2020-2022 MLB stats say they are, he’s been a bit of a disappointment at the big-league level, but it would also be unfair to label him a bust. This is the same Dylan Carlson who was a finalist for National League Rookie of the Year in 2021 and, even in a relatively lackluster sophomore campaign, still managed to be a precisely league-average hitter by wRC+ and OPS+ and was a serviceable enough defensive option in center field that the Cardinals felt comfortable flipping Harrison Bader for Jordan Montgomery at the 2022 trade deadline. Over Carlson’s first two full seasons in MLB, he was the 26th best outfielder in baseball by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement; logically, this should make him the best outfielder on a bad team or a second or at least a third outfielder on a good team. Instead, at least to start the season, he appears to be the odd man out of the Cardinals outfield.
Carlson’s displacement is not necessarily an indictment of the outfielder who is still just entering his age 24 season: one of the outfielders in the Cardinals’ likely Opening Day starting lineup, Tyler O’Neill, is one of the 25 outfielders who has outpaced Carlson since 2021, and Lars Nootbaar has gone from non-prospect mostly known for having a funny name to revelation in 2022 to international superstar in the early months of 2023. Because Dylan Carlson has stayed in the Majors long enough to not match the arguably unrealistic expectations of him, he has reached, unfairly, a level of disappointment–that he was casually mentioned as a deal-breaker in Juan Soto trade rumors has led to a perception that he is overrated by the Cardinals (never mind that Carlson-for-Soto straight up was almost certainly never on the table and that, among others, Jordan Walker would have likely been heading to Washington had such a trade come to fruition).
But Carlson is also likely still one of the most valuable trade chips on the Cardinals. Even if he is merely an average-ish player, average-ish players who make the league minimum and will not reach free agency until after the 2026 season do not grow on trees. The MLB Trade Simulator, hardly a scientific metric but one that provides at least some directional value, has Carlson as the second-most valuable trade piece on the Cardinals, behind only Jordan Walker. FanGraphs put Carlson in their top fifty by trade value last July, and while he did have some struggles at the plate late in 2022, there wasn’t really anything that happened to him which should too dramatically impact his value.
There is a perpetual temptation, whether spoken or not, among most baseball fans that players ought to be sold low or bought high–it may not be articulated this way, but there is very little clamoring, say, for the Cardinals to trade Ryan Helsley even though he is probably at the apex of his value. In the case of Dylan Carlson, the Cardinals would not be selling high, but they would be selling while he is still valued as a potential star, which is where risk aversion comes into play–if the Cardinals were to trade Carlson, even if they got something reasonably value in return (think the trade which sent Randy Arozarena, who is an almost exact trade value comp to Carlson at this point, to Tampa Bay for Matthew Liberatore), it would be seen as the Cardinals letting someone special get away. But if the Cardinals’ outfield materializes as it could–Jordan Walker becomes the 2023 equivalent of Julio Rodríguez, Lars Nootbaar remains a solid two-way outfielder with 120+ wRC+ potential, and Tyler O’Neill regains some reasonable approximation of 2021 form at the plate and parlays his terrific speed into a great season in the field–Carlson suddenly, especially if top-100 prospect Alec Burleson manifests, becomes unnecessary even if he himself performs quite well.
The Cardinals are in a bit of a weird position at this exact moment in terms of shopping Carlson–they don’t have a pronounced lineup weakness, all five spots in the starting rotation (assuming Adam Wainwright comes back semi-soon) are manned by competent if often unexciting options, and while any bullpen could use more arms, trading a cost-controlled center fielder who has been pushed out of a starting role for bullpen help is a move that could never work. The most likely scenario for an in-season Carlson trade would be in the event of an injury–say, one of the five penciled-in starting pitchers goes down with an injury and a decent starter (ideally one with another year or two under contract beyond 2023) is made available–but this would also require a specific set of circumstances to unfold. At that point, holding on to Dylan Carlson might be the path of least resistance.
Juan Yepez, on the other hand, makes for a totally different question. Unlike Carlson, whose upside is seemingly of an MVP candidate, particularly if he can remain in center field, Juan Yepez has never been an especially acclaimed prospect and while he has some defensive versatility, said versatility is at non-premium defensive spots (he can handle first base, is passable in a corner outfield spot, and can probably fake it at third base). Yepez isn’t dramatically older than Carlson–he is 25, eight months Carlson’s senior–but his lack of defensive ability makes him a man with less of an obvious path to stardom, much less superstardom. But what Yepez can do is hit–only five Cardinals with as many plate appearances as Juan Yepez in 2022 were better hitters by wRC+–one of them is retired (Albert Pujols), two of them were bona fide MVP candidates (Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt), and the other two figure to be prominent starters (Brendan Donovan, Lars Nootbaar). And there was nothing self-evidently anomalous about Yepez’s 2022–his batting average on balls in play, a sure-fire indicator of luck, was actually a bit below league average, and preseason projections for 2023 love him–by ZiPS, Yepez projects to be the best hitter on the Cardinals other than Goldschmidt and Arenado.
The flaws of Juan Yepez as a prospect are self-evident–they are the reasons he will begin 2023 in Memphis, but his strengths are the reasons it is safe to assume we will still see him sooner rather than later in St. Louis. And Yepez is not slated to reach free agency until 2028. No, I wouldn’t expect a contender to find much more use for Juan Yepez than the Cardinals have already found, but for a team that is rebuilding and just trying to audition players who may still be around for their next good team, Yepez could be an intriguing lottery ticket. As somebody who greatly enjoys Juan Yepez as a person (you better believe I will be linking to his postseason home run, the one good highlight of the 2022 Cardinals’ postseason, at some point in this post), part of me wants this for him–Juan Yepez deserves to hit 25 home runs on a 70-win Kansas City Royals team and make a few million bucks in arbitration in a few years rather than riding the Memphis shuttle.
Of course, I also don’t know that other teams share my perception of Juan Yepez. The aforementioned trade simulation website that everyone hates seems to think they definitely do not–it says Yepez has less value than Chris Stratton, the Cardinals’ cromulent-at-best middle reliever who will make $2.8 million in this, his final season before free agency. While Juan Yepez deserves better than the Memphis shuttle, the Cardinals deserve better than a mediocre reliever rental for Juan Yepez. But if a team is willing to see a potentially good hitter with a ton of cost control, plus another remaining option year after this one for the patient, a good rental could be the next logical step for the Cardinals, or perhaps some interesting minor leaguers. Unless the Cardinals surprise me and see Yepez as the heir apparent to Paul Goldschmidt at first base (I would guess that the favorite for this right now is Alec Burleson, but also that’s still two years away at the soonest), he probably doesn’t have much of a role in the future of the Cardinals, but he’s also too good to languish.
Anyway, let’s see that bat flip. I still love it like it’s my child.
Ultimately, the Cardinals are not in a rush to move Dylan Carlson and/or Juan Yepez. But there is a case for either of them to have a real future in Major League Baseball, and it would be foolish to not allow them to achieve such a future elsewhere if it would also be to the benefit of the Cardinals.
One thought on “What comes next for Dylan Carlson and Juan Yepez?”
I expect the Cardinals will need Carlson once a) O’Neill gets hurt (again), b) Nootbar turns into a pumpkin, or c) Walker struggles against quality major league pitching, as most 20-21 year olds do.
As for Yepez, I’m less forgiving of his outfield defense than you. Like watching a bear on unicycle try to play left field. I agree he probably won’t bring back much on his own, but I don’t know who the team could feasibly pair him with to get someone immediately helpful (like a frontline starting pitcher) back in a trade, which the Cardinals will probably need by next year, if not during this season.