Feature Photo: Dylan Carlson, OF, Cardinals
The St. Louis Cardinals haven’t been shy about challenging their 2016 first-round pick (#33 overall), Dylan Carlson. The 18-year-old outfielder is the youngest player on the roster of the Class A Peoria Chiefs and is one of the youngest players in the Midwest League. While the 2017 season hasn’t been smooth sailing for the 6-foot-3, 195-pound native of northern California, Carlson is holding his own amongst competition that is, on average, three years his senior.
Carlson’s 2017 season got off to a roaring start. Batting second in the season opener against the Burlington Bees (Angels), the switch-hitter launched a home run from the left side of the plate off of right-handed starter Sam Pastrone. The home run was a glimpse into what made him a coveted prospect coming out of Elk Grove (CA) High School.
A first baseman going into his senior season, Carlson made the move to the outfield last year, and helped lead the Thundering Herd to a section championship by hitting .407. Carlson also pitched for Elk Grove, posting a 1.44 ERA. He rescinded his verbal commitment to play collegiately at Cal-State, Fullerton to sign with the Cardinals for a $1.35 million bonus, almost $600,000 under the pick’s slotted value.
Dylan’s mother, Caryn Carlson, says that she’s incredibly grateful for the opportunity her eldest son has in front of him with the Cardinals. The winning tradition and rich history of the St. Louis franchise held significant appeal for to the family.
“He knew he wanted to go to the Cardinals. It’s just a dream,” she said. “But to even be at this level right now, it’s so surreal for me. We’re so proud of him, he’s such a humble kid.”
Carlson’s head coach in high school was his father, Jeff Carlson, who says his son is a student of the game.
“He’s advanced, as far as his approach at the plate,” Carlson said. “He reviews his at-bats. He’ll call me to go through his at-bats, and his pitch selection. He’s really good at picking up spin and adjusting to what he needs to adjust to on the pitchers.”
The Midwest League can be notoriously difficult on hitters, especially younger hitters coming from warmer weather climates. In 2016, the average slash line in the Midwest League was .249/.317/.355. Consequently, it isn’t surprising that Carlson has experienced some ups and downs in the early going this year, though the trend is up lately.
In early May, an ugly slump dropped Carlson’s slash line to .159/.295/.317 with three home runs in 79 plate appearances. However, since May 8, Carlson is batting .250 and has seen his slash line bump up to .211/.338/.330 through May 22. Carlson hasn’t panicked about his early season struggles, and he has focused on maintaining consistency at the plate.
“How I approach the game is something I’ve been working on; the way I approach my at-bats, the way I approach every situation [at the plate],” Carlson said.
Carlson has also shown impressive patience at the plate for a young hitter. Through May 21, Carlson had a 14.4%. His strikeouts are still high – 32.6% – but he is seeing a lot of pitches in each at-bat. In the series that I viewed in early May, Carlson took pitches early in his at-bats, frequently falling behind only to battle back to work into a hitter’s count. More than once, he started 0-2 and ended up either making solid contact or working a walk.
Carlson is mature both mentally and physically. He fills out his 6-foot-3 frame already and his current gap power should project to more over-the-fence pop as he matures. He’s flashed that power potential in his short time with the Chiefs, hitting three home runs through mid-May. Carlson has a quick bat and the ball jumps off the barrel when he gets a hold of it, even though there’s plenty of swing-and-miss in his game. He projects as a low-average, high-OBP hitter, with 20-home-run potential.
Chiefs’ manager Chris Swauger says Carlson’s advanced approach at the plate belies his age.
“I’ve seen an incredibly mature player, especially for an 18-year-old,” Swauger said. “I was impressed with the general at-bats that he’s taking. How he’s working counts, how he’s working pitchers. He had an at-bat [recently] where he saw seven breaking balls, two of them were strikes, and he ended up working a walk.”
Carlson is also focused on his baserunning. Although only an average runner, when on the bases he is always looking to take the extra base, pushing the defense with his aggressiveness when the situation presents itself.
“I’ve worked a lot on my baserunning, and continue to try to get better at it,” Carlson said. “It’s an important part of the game. It’s just something I try to better myself at each day.”
Carlson’s general baseball IQ has made an impression on Swauger.
“He’s still got a way to go, but the well-roundedness of his game is impressive,” Swauger said. “He’s a good player that doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses.”
On defense, Carlson is still learning the outfield, and he’s played all three outfield positions for the Chiefs this season. He was a first baseman and pitcher for much of his high school career, but the Cardinals projected him as an outfielder when they drafted him. Carlson played 41 games in center field in the Gulf Coast League (Rookie) last season. For a player new to the position, he has picked up the nuances of playing the outfield grass rather quickly.
During that series in early May, Carlson showed solid instincts in the outfield, and his athleticism played well. He took good routes and chased down fly balls with smooth effort. Carlson is still prone to the occasional misplay, of course, but he appears to have the tools to be a solid defensive outfielder. Thanks to his former life on the mound, Carlson has a throwing arm that easily grades as average for the outfield. While he seems destined to continue to play all three positions in the lower minors, he’ll ultimately be best suited at one of the corner spots due to his size, speed, and projected power.
Carlson won’t turn 19 years old until October and is likely to spend the entire season with Peoria. The Cardinals will be patient with his development, but Carlson already shows the maturity and feel for the game that the Cardinals’ organization values.