Cards confident in Carlson as franchise CF

August 4th, 2022

This story was excerpted from John Denton’s Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ST. LOUIS -- If it hadn’t already become quite apparent over the last six weeks as  was scurrying back for catches near the wall, racing forward for diving grabs or sprinting from gap to gap to prevent extra-base hits, the kid with the California-cool attitude (and the game to match) is the Cardinals' center fielder. In the present. And the future.

That thought seemed more and more likely the better Carlson played while replacing injured 2021 Gold Glover Harrison Bader throughout June and July. It became even more of a reality last weekend when the 23-year-old Carlson was told directly by team president of baseball operations John Mozeliak he would not be traded -- regardless of how many times the Nationals asked that he be included in a potential blockbuster deal for superstar slugger Juan Soto.

Mozeliak then doubled down on Carlson’s future as the Cardinals center fielder when he traded the injured Bader to his native New York to play for the Yankees, who made 6-foot-6 lefty Jordan Montgomery available upon getting Frankie Montas from the Athletics. Bader, a fan favorite for years in St. Louis with his Gold Glove defensive play, his effusive swagger and his curly blonde locks, didn’t necessarily lose the center-field job as much as Carlson took it away.

Carlson rewarded the faith placed in him by the Cardinals’ brass in the hours after the MLB Trade Deadline passed by hitting his seventh home run and making two more highlight-worthy catches. Afterward, he candidly admitted Mozeliak’s promise that he would remain a Cardinal -- and that he was the franchise’s center fielder for years to come -- meant a lot to his confidence.

“That was a weight taken off me, and it took some of the unknown out of it for me,” Carlson said. “There are so many unknowns at that time [before the Deadline], so for him to reassure me, it meant a lot to me. This game is hard enough as it is, so that was a cool thing for him to do.”

The fanbase’s angst directed at Carlson over the failed pursuit of Soto is misguided, at best, and is downright foolish in totality because a potential deal never hinged completely on the inclusion of the center fielder. Mozeliak wouldn’t go into details about the talks between the Cardinals and Nats regarding a Soto blockbuster, but he did say St. Louis was out of the pursuit even before Deadline day.

The trade could have hinged on the inclusion of several Cardinals assets -- such as young Major Leaguers Nolan Gorman, Andre Pallante or Carlson or elite prospects Jordan Walker, Masyn Winn, Ivan Herrera, Matthew Liberatore or Alec Burleson. A refusal to include any of those players likely could have canceled the Cards' chances of landing a generational talent such as Soto.

A Padres franchise that came up short on a Max Scherzer/Trea Turner trade in 2021 ultimately was willing to surrender a host of young MLB talents, promising prospects and the deed to Coronado. That’s a bounty the Cards were never comfortable paying. That stumbling block, maybe even more so than the $500 million extension Soto will command -- and agent Scott Boras will demand -- kept the Cardinals from ever being in serious contention in the Soto sweepstakes. The farm system has been the lifeblood of the organization for years and it is why the Cardinals consistently stay relevant. Nothing -- not even an opportunity to acquire a talent such as Soto -- was going to get them to jeopardize something that has consistently delivered through the years.

As for Carlson, the former first-round Draft pick and a son of a baseball coach is just starting to scratch the surface of a career that many within the organization believe will be truly special. As he’s shown already, he can play multiple positions well and he has the versatility to bat anywhere in the lineup. (Note: He is one of a few MLB players to hit in all nine spots in the order this season.) None other than Cardinals star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt would willingly buy into Carlson’s future in the years to come.

“He’s impressed me by making some great plays and we’ve all seen what he can do at the plate,” Goldschmidt said. “Maybe he kind of sewed that [starting center-field job] up the last couple of months by getting that opportunity to play there. He made some unbelievable plays, and he’s going to be a great player for us.”