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Dylan Carlson is a 2020 fantasy baseball breakout candidate

Heath examines the fantasy baseball potential of Dylan Carlson.

Getty Images/Pete Rogers Illustrations

In the real world, some people describe me as a pessimist. Some optimists have considered me thus, at least. Me, I call myself a realist. A glass isn’t half empty or half full—it’s just a half a glass of water, man.

That said, I seem to be surrounded by optimists. People who are constantly telling me to look at the “brighter side” of things. Maybe I am drawn to those people? Or maybe I AM more pessimistic than the average bear. Who can say, really? The answer would likely depend on the worldview of the person you asked.

At any rate, I’ve done the unthinkable. All of my optimistic friends will be proud. I have discovered a SILVER LINING for this damned pandemic. Drumroll...

I have more time for fantasy sports now. More time meant saying yes to a full redraft of the MLB—a 30-team, 50-round monstrosity of a draft. It spanned over three weeks and 1,500 players were drafted. Engaging in said endeavor really tested my baseball knowledge and forced me to expand my knowledge of prospects (long a weakness of mine as a fantasy baseballer).

So as I walk into Week 7 of my state’s stay-at-home order, I find myself in my first baseball dynasty draft, ever. That may be hard to believe, but my full focus historically has been on redraft and on daily fantasy. And since I currently have neither...dynasty it is!

Currently I’ve amassed enough background knowledge to spit out some names at you. I know who the obvious guys are, and I have slightly more background knowledge of Braves prospects, since that’s my team. But I can’t tell you on a fundamental level what sort of players these guys are. So it’s time to starting changing much of that, one guy at a time. Today, I chose to get to know Dylan Carlson of the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Basics

Age: 21.5
Height: 6’3”
Weight: 205
Bats: Switch
Position: CF/RF/LF
Drafted: 2016 June Amateur Draft - Round 1, Pick 33
2019 levels: AA-AAA

Carlson is No. 39 on the Fangraphs Top 100 Prospects list for 2020, as well as the No. 2 prospect in the Cardinals system. Here’s an introduction on Carlson from the Cardinals themselves, after Carlson made a name for himself in 2019:

Position: Left Field?

What sticks out from the jump is Carlson’s size. He’s a big dude for a center fielder, but he profiles more like someone who will slide into left field in the future based on arm strength. He reads like a guy the Cards could use in center field in a pinch—a la the Braves and Ronald Acuña Jr. in 2020—but someone they’d prefer to use on the corners. Harrison Bader’s studly defense in center field will play a part in this, too. Of all the Cardinals’ eleventy billion MLB outfielders, Bader’s playing time actually seems the most assured. When you slash an anemic .205/.314/.366 and still post 1.8 WAR, you know the glove is saving your tail. Anyway, based on skill set and what the Cards currently have at the MLB level, Carlson seems destined for a corner outfield spot, likely left field. But the hustle and willingness to learn mean that he’s versatile and can cover all three outfield spots.

The need for speed...

To be a big dude, Carlson has shown an ability to run. His speed output was modest in his first three pro seasons, with steals totals of four (201 PA), six (451 PA), and eight (498 PA) over his first three stints. Then 2019 happened, as Carlson stole 20 bags between Double-A and Triple-A over 126 games (562 PA). That’s pretty darn tantalizing to me, as 20/20 players don’t grow on trees in the MLB. For reference, only nine big league players managed that feat in 2019. And it may be a hot take, but Carlson’s overall success rate on thefts by level isn’t as ugly as I thought it would be...

2016: 4-for-6 (66.6%)
2017: 6-for-12 (50%)
2018: 2-for-2 (100%)
2018: 6-for-9 (66.6%)
2019: 18-for-25 (72%)
2019: 2-for-3 (66.6%)
Total: 38-for-57 (66.6%)

The largest sample at Double-A is also the best success rate, and 72% is right at the MLB average. For reference, the MLB success rate on steals of all qualified hitters in 2019 was 73%. And Carlson has shown the willingness to run, which is too often overlooked. In the above video you can hear him talk about wanting to be a complete player. Running is a part of that. At his peak, perhaps Carlson chases some 20/20 seasons. And if the speed dwindles as he continues to fill out, maybe he’ll turn into a guy who gives us 10 or so each season. I mean, we are counting on 10 or so swipes from a guy like Avisail Garcia this year, a man who outweighs Carlson by 45 pounds. So Carlson has a little room to grow and still be able to chip in.

Additionally, Carlson has posted healthy walk rates and high OBPs in the minors, with a .342 OBP as his lowest mark aside from his first season of pro ball (.313). And during his 79 plate appearances at Triple-A in 2019, Carlson posted a hefty .418 OBP—but that came alongside an unsustainable .429 BABIP. At Double-A in 2019, his .315 BABIP was normal and he managed a 10.8% walk rate and .364 OBP. If that Double-A line or something similar is what he settles into at the big league level, it’s an obvious boon to his stolen base prospects.

The Power

Speaking of the 20-homer part of that equation, we should address the power. First off, Carlson’s strikeout rate is solid for a a guy we may be looking to for home runs. A 25.9% K-rate in rookie ball was his worst mark, and he followed that up with a 25.7% rate at Class A Peoria in 2017. Then he had a big jump in 2018, cutting that rate down to 17.5% and posting a gargantuan 17.5% walk rate at the same level. That was a small sample, only 57 PA. But 10 walks against 10 strikeouts and the .191 ISO were enough to get him the jump to Class A Advanced Palm Beach, where he managed a double-digit walk rate again (11.8%) and held steady with a 17.7% strikeout rate. He only had nine homers and six steals at that level, covering 99 games. In fact, up to this point in his professional career, the power was a question mark. But for his efforts in 2018 he was rewarded with an invitation to Cardinals 2019 Spring Training. And then Carlson’s 2019 happened.

Carlson pasted the Double-A Springfield level last season, slashing .281/.364/.518 with 21 bombs in 108 games (483 PA). To boot, he was the second-youngest position player in the Texas League, at only 20 years old.

Carlson was promoted to Triple-A Memphis in August of 2019, where he continued to mash. He slashed .361/.418/.681 with five homers and two steals over 18 games (79 PA). Across the two levels in 2019, Carlson set career marks in hits (143), batting average (.292), runs scored (95), homers (26), doubles (28), triples (8), RBIs (68), and stolen bases (20). So we have a 26/20 player across Double-A and Triple-A from last year, a kid who was lavished with awards by season’s end: Texas League Player of the Year, Cardinals Minor League Player of the Year and Organization All-Star, Breakout Prospect, Best Offensive Player, and yada yada yada.

As for what we had in 2020, Carlson acquitted himself well in Spring Training. He slashed .313/.439/.469 over 39 at-bats, and the heat is officially on for the wholly average cluster of incumbent Major League Cardinals outfielders. So in my mind, here’s the question:

What drove the spike in power in 2019 and can we trust it? I don’t really know. But the man sure does have a sweet swing.

For starters, he’s a switch-hitter. Here’s the left side:

And while that similarity may be more due to pitch location, it’s still a fun comparison. Here’s another look at the lefty side:

And here’s just an awesome thread from @cardinalsgifs on Twitter, where you can see both swings:

From the left side, I’m not going to make any crazy comparisons and say he looks a wee bit like Christian Yelich.

I would never say anything asinine like that.

Anyway, I will say that there’s a lot of bat speed and athleticism there, and that’s a nice launching point—especially when you consider that the left side is not even his natural side.

The right-handed swing is his natural side, and to me it looks like he’s not afraid to go opposite field. Check it:

Honestly I haven’t found many great videos on the right-handed swing, but here’s a look from last year’s Futures game, where Carlson roped a single:

Look, in all the time I’ve spent researching Carlson, I haven’t found anything to suggest that he made a major mechanical tweak or altered his swing path or anything like that to justify his 2019 breakout. Instead, from what I can tell, he’s just a guy growing naturally into his power.

Conclusion and 2020 Outlook

Carlson sounds like a mixed bag in the prospect world, due to being a fringe type of guy (unranked) until his 2019 barrage. Now he’s the No. 2 prospect for the Cardinals and knocking on the door of the big leagues. If we do get baseball in 2020 and that comes with any sort of expanded roster size, I think you can bet your sweet you-know-what that guys like Tyler O’Neill and Dexter Fowler are instantly on the hotseat. Heck, even Harrison Bader in center field, if he continues to struggle with the stick and Carlson makes a splash.

I think I’m leaning toward being positive about Carlson’s chances. The tolerable strikeout rate, double-digit walk rates, high OBPs, ability to switch hit, versatility at all three outfield positions...all of that plus his apparent work ethic are really enticing to me. Factor in that he’s been one of the youngest guys at recent levels—while still smashing—and I’m even more excited. Still only 21 years old, Carlson looks like a guy with the MLB floor of a league average hitter with some speed. But if he continues to harness his power and retains some foot speed for a few years, we could be looking at an annual All-Star—someone you’d count on for 20/20 production in fantasy baseball circles.

While I only just joined my first dynasty league and missed out on drafting Carlson, I’m in “buy” mode on him from here onward.