The Cardinals expect to reinstate Tyler O’Neill from the injured list Thursday, and in doing so, they’ll push Dylan Carlson out of a starting job and back into a reserve role. With O’Neill occupying left field, the Cards will continue to deploy Lars Nootbaar in center field and Jordan Walker in right field. MLB.com’s John Denton writes that manager Oli Marmol has already informed Carlson of the decision.
“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,” Marmol said of the decision to push Carlson into a reserve role. “Certain guys need to play the outfield … and [O’Neill] is going to play.”
Were it just a matter of finding playing time for this quartet, it might be easier to get each player regular at-bats. However, the Cards also have first baseman/outfielder Alec Burleson to consider, as well as super-utility standouts Brendan Donovan and (when healthy) Tommy Edman. Slugger Nolan Gorman also fits into the mix at designated hitter and at second base.
It’s a large number of talented position players for Marmol to accommodate with playing time. For now, Carlson has been squeezed out of a regular role on the club, and the question becomes one of whether he’ll be squeezed off the roster entirely.
MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand reported earlier in the week that the Yankees had expressed interest in Carlson, and Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported similarly yesterday. Other clubs figure to be involved on the switch-hitting 24-year-old, given his former prospect pedigree and remaining three seasons of club control beyond the current campaign.
Because of that club control, the Cardinals don’t necessarily need to feel any urgency to make a deal. But the Cards are also in dire need of starting pitching that’s controlled beyond the current season. Miles Mikolas, Steven Matz, Matthew Liberatore, Dakota Hudson and Jake Woodford are their only rotation options with any real big league experience who are signed/controlled beyond the 2023 season. All other than Mikolas have struggled.
It’s at least possible the Cardinals could consider other trades to address the rotation needs and alleviate some of the position player logjam. However, St. Louis was staunchly against trading both Nootbaar and Donovan this past offseason, and Goold reported recently that Nootbaar remains unlikely to be available. The Athletic’s Katie Woo wrote this morning that Nootbaar is viewed by the front office as a “key member of their core.” Donovan, last year’s third-place Rookie of the Year finisher, and Walker, who entered the season regarded as one of baseball’s top 10 prospects, are surely viewed in similar fashion.
There’s certainly an argument that it’s in the Cardinals’ interest to trade O’Neill instead, but he’s hitting just .228/.303/.380 in 482 plate appearances dating back to last season. He’s far less likely to command a quality return than Carlson would, given those struggles and his shorter window of team control (through the 2024 season). They’d also be selling low on a player who hit .286/.352/.560 and popped 34 home runs as recently as 2021.
All of those factors contribute to the mounting rumblings of a possible Carlson trade. That said, it’s still somewhat remarkable that things have reached this point. It was only a couple years ago that Carlson was the Cardinals’ equivalent of present-day Walker — a former first-round pick who entered the season ranked among the sport’s top 10 to 15 prospects. He didn’t hit the ground running in his 2020 debut, but that came as a 21-year-old during the Covid-shortened season when Carlson didn’t have the opportunity to play minor league games in a competitive setting.
In Carlson’s first full season, 2021, he turned in a .266/.343/.437 batting line with 18 home runs. Defensive grades on him were rough, but it was a promising step for the 22-year-old nonetheless. His offensive production has diminished since that time, but Carlson’s defensive prowess has been on display as he’s posted quality marks across all three outfield spots. In total, he’s a .250/.333/.405 switch-hitter with plus defense dating back to 2021 — and he has three-plus years of remaining team control.
It’s rare for such players to even be available on the trade market, but the Cardinals have a knack for developing quality position players. They also have a tendency to play the hot hand with those players, one that spans nearly a decade; they’ve been going through similar hot-potato scenarios as far back as 2014 (Jon Jay, Peter Bourjos, Randal Grichuk, Tommy Pham, etc.).
On the one hand, it’s a testament to the team’s player development staff. On the other, the frequent stop-and-start approach to playing time has arguably contributed to the glut of quality bats (outfielders, in particular) that St. Louis has traded away over the years.
Carlson, for his part, acknowledged to Denton that news of his reduced role was “tough” to take; he views himself as an everyday player and emphasized that the competitor in him wants to be out there as often as possible. He didn’t outwardly call for a trade, but there’s little doubt he’s keenly aware it’s a possibility and perhaps a path to the regular role he desires.
Time will tell whether a trade of Carlson actually comes to fruition, but his blend of youth, team control, defensive excellence and still-present offensive upside will make him widely appealing. At some point — whether it’s Carlson, O’Neill, Burleson or someone else — it seems like the Cardinals will be in position to deal from their deep stock of controllable position players to address their need for pitching help.