Cards eager to see a full season of Carlson

February 25th, 2021

JUPITER, Fla. -- has learned a lot in the past year. He learned how to be a big leaguer, making his debut on Aug. 15 and notching his first hit in the nightcap of the day’s doubleheader. He learned how to handle the mental battles that come with being sent back down to the Minors and then called back up again.

And he's been learning from Paul Goldschmidt, another soft-spoken Cardinal occupying the right side of the field with a knack for the strike zone, one who shared with Carlson recommendations for books that have a focus on sharpening mental preparedness.

“My goal still, ultimately, is to get better each and every day. So for me, that's where I'm keeping my focus,” Carlson, the club’s top prospect, said on Thursday. “I still feel like I have to prove myself every day, and that's just the way I carry myself.”

Goldschmidt, the epitome of The Cardinal Way’s blue-collar, lunch-pail attitude, seems to be rubbing off.

Carlson cares not for the recognition and honors he’s already racked up despite having just 110 Major League at-bats to his name: top prospect status, consideration as one of the best 25 players under 25, and a projection as one of the breakout and Rookie of the Year candidates for 2021.

“Somebody like a Dylan Carlson is someone that I do think over a full season … is going to be a producer in our lineup,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said recently.

Carlson’s big league debut came in the club’s return to action after its COVID-19 outbreak last season. In the 23 games that followed, he hit just .162, with four extra-base hits. He was sent back to the team's alternate training site, and after he returned 10 days later, he hit .278 though the final 12 games of the season, with seven hits for extra bases and a .936 OPS.

“Coming back up a second time, it really opened my eyes to the way the game is played up here,” Carlson said. “There is definitely a focus on playing 162 this year and getting the body prepared, getting stronger and mentally getting ready. … I'm in a really good spot.”

It’s peaks like the second half of 2020 that give the Cardinals extreme confidence that Carlson can seamlessly take over in right field amid an incredibly young outfield, with Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader and Lane Thomas the top candidates now that Dexter Fowler has been traded to the Angels.

“Just from a very simple performance standpoint, you want to see how that second stint up with a big league club is something that can just continue over,” Mozeliak said. “But I think more importantly, a lot of times with young players, it really comes down to just confidence and knowing that they belong. And I think in Dylan's case, when you look at how he played when he was up for the second time, he felt like he knew he belonged.”

Compliments about his mental makeup are the first ones Carlson receives from the organization at any mention. He’s even-keeled. He’s confident, but not overly so. He’s a hard worker, he’s dedicated to his craft and he’s a good example of how one should carry himself.

Put another way: He’s a Cardinal.

“It'd be more of a friendly reminder to get Dylan not to do too much,” manager Mike Shildt said of his message to the 22-year-old this spring, “a reminder that he may or may not even actually need.”

In the batting order, Carlson’s location for production is to be determined. A switch-hitter who got on base at a solid clip in the Minors, he could profile as a solid leadoff option to replace Kolten Wong, as could Tommy Edman, another switch-hitter with on-base acumen.

Even with the addition of Nolan Arenado to protect Goldschmidt in the lineup -- and the re-signing of Yadier Molina -- the Cards haven’t added another Major League bat in free agency because they consider Carlson's development to be an offseason acquisition in its own right.

Why? Partly because Carlson paid a visit to Marucci Sports in Baton Rouge, La., in the offseason, working with the company's technology to clean up his already great swing. He added muscle in the weight room, and he has an Opening Day opportunity within his grasp.

And partly because, at the end of the day, Carlson is still just 22, with the experience of a shortened big league season that included 162 games' worth of challenges and lessons.