What happens to Carlson when O'Neill returns?

July 18th, 2023

ST. LOUIS -- Fighting back tears and speaking through a wavering voice because he knows the frustrating fate that awaits him once the crowded Cardinals outfield becomes whole again, lamented his lack of opportunities to be an everyday player with a club that just might deal him before the MLB Trade Deadline.

Carlson’s fingerprints were all over the Cardinals’ 6-4 victory over the Marlins on Monday with him making a stellar catch to open the game, registering hits from both sides of the plate, and brazenly going from first to third on a couple of instances. Still, Carlson did all that knowing he will be shifted back into a reserve role when the Cardinals activate Tyler O’Neill on Tuesday and award him the starting job in left field.

Oddly, Carlson has been plunked with pitches six times in the last 24 games. But none of those dings hurt worse than manager Oliver Marmol informing him on Monday that his outfield slot was being taken away again -- this time in favor of O’Neill.

“I mean, it's definitely tough,” said Carlson, who was battling his emotions as he spoke following the Cardinals' third straight win. “I feel like I can really help this team, but opportunities have been scattered and it hurts, honestly. I just try to do what I can to be ready for these guys and ultimately try to help us win.

“That's always been my goal since I got to the big leagues -- to help this team win,” Carlson continued. “I always felt like my production and performance would come from that focus and being in that mindset. Obviously, with my opportunities being more limited and sporadic, I guess it makes it a little harder. I want to be an everyday player, I'm a competitor and I'm someone who wants to be out there. I feel like I can do a lot of things. So, when those opportunities are there, I’m trying to do what I can.”

Ultimately, those opportunities could come elsewhere -- a jarring thought for the 24-year-old outfielder, who was a Cardinals first-round pick in 2016 and someone who has only played for one pro franchise. MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand reported that Carlson has surfaced as a potential trade target for the Yankees, per a source. By announcing that their starting outfield would consist of Jordan Walker, Lars Nootbaar and O’Neill, the Cardinals were, in essence, declaring to the baseball world that Carlson can be had in a trade.

“We’ll get [O’Neill] back sooner than later and that’ll impact somebody going out,” Marmol said. “At the end of the day, we’ll find appropriate at-bats for guys, but this is where we’re at and there’s no way around it. Certain guys need to play the outfield … and T.O. is going to play.”

Once the team’s starting right fielder and a focus of the future and later the center fielder who made former Gold Glover Harrison Bader expendable because of how he thrived defensively, Carlson has been bounced around this season. The arrivals of Walker and Alec Burleson made the outfield even more crowded, and Carlson -- a .293 hitter with an .837 OPS from the right side -- has been the one most often squeezed out.

Consistent opportunities were rare in April and May, but Carlson’s game blossomed in June (.289 and three home runs) when he was in the lineup more. A May 14 ankle injury -- one that came as he was leaving the batter’s box following a single -- was another setback that marred his season.

Carlson said what gave him pride was being ready to contribute when the team turned to him after Walker was demoted and O’Neill went on the 60-day injured list. Ready to go again on Monday, he gave the Cardinals two hits, three runs scored, an RBI and the running catch to rob Miami’s Luis Arraez in the first inning.

“I take a lot of pride in it,” Carlson said of his preparation. “It's about staying hungry and I’ve tried to make the most of [his opportunities]. I had an unfortunate ankle injury that you really you can't control. Luckily, you’ve got a lot of great guys in this clubhouse so that makes [the frustration] a little easier.”

One of those teammates on Carlson’s side is Nolan Arenado, who added: “D.C. played a great game today and D.C.’s not a complainer. He just shows up and works and competes and that’s why we love him. D.C.’s a great baseball player and we’re glad he’s here.”

When another chance comes along -- in St. Louis or elsewhere -- Carlson is vowing to be ready, saying: ”It’s no secret that we have a lot of talented guys on this roster. It hasn’t always gone my way, but I’ve just got to stay ready for my opportunity.”