By Kary Booher (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Photo courtesy Mark Harrell
All the attention could be overwhelming, perhaps even go to his head. That’s the natural fear.
After all, in the past few weeks alone, let’s see: two big-league sports writers with a combined 55 years’ experience on the MLB scene have come calling, while Cardinals fans of the Ozarks – either chasing autographs or just his time — have dropped knowledge about his backstory, not solely his impressive stat line.
“And we had a kids’ camp the other day and the kids were saying, ‘I love watching you play,’” prospect hitter Dylan Carlson explained, his eyes opening wide as his head shook in disbelief. “I was like, ‘That’s really cool.’”
Truth is, what’s cool is that, despite it all, Carlson has handled the attention like a seasoned veteran, not a 20-year-old.
Which helps explain why all eyes should be on Carlson as the Double-A Springfield Cardinals charge through the second half of the season. In short, he has solidified his place as arguably the organization’s top prospect and certainly its top hitting prospect (as a switch-hitter).
But more on all that in a second.
Maturity from the journey
For media looking to see a prospect who thumps his chest or creates unnecessary headlines with outrageous quotes, keep walking elsewhere. But for those hoping for a nice conversation – with some smiles about the funny moments of life in the minors, about the seriousness of fine-tuning his craft and a straightforward journey – Carlson checks a lot of boxes.
Credit the Cardinals’ scouting department, which traditionally has found high-character players – not simply those with talent. (Carlson was the 33rd overall selection the 2016 draft and signed for $1.35 million, according to Baseball America.)
For instance, just before the recent TL All-Star break, during a TV interview, it was as if movie character Durham Bulls catcher Crash Davis had found his way to Springfield and sought out Carlson as his disciple to shepherd through the season.
Asked about his sensational burst through the first half of the summer, Carlson deflected to teammates. Asked about highlights, he pointed to others who had enjoyable moments.
Then again, perhaps it’s to be expected. You see, Carlson is the son of a California high school baseball coach and, just as important, counted older players as mentors, such as big-leaguer J.D. Davis (Mets).
“I was really fortunate growing up because I was around great high school players in the Sacramento area,” Carlson said. “Luckily for me, my parents brought me up to be a hard worker and appreciate all of my blessings.”
However, unlike many other California players, Carlson refused to specialize. He played three sports in high school and didn’t play much travel ball – which now makes him all the more intriguing.
That’s not to say he arrived to the farm system overly raw. After all, he’s a coach’s son.
“For me, just being able to be around the game and to be around people who played the game the right way – and to lean on somebody who knew about the game – I’m really grateful,” Carlson said. “And we had that coach-player relationship.”
Season so far
It’s probably no surprise that Carlson has won over Springfield manager Joe Kruzel.
“In spring training (in a big-league game), he popped up straight to the catcher and I told Shildt,” Kruzel said, referring to St. Louis manager Mike Shildt, “that he was going to have a big year.”
“It was the way he went about it,” Kruzel said.
Carlson has supported Kruzel’s theory, despite being one of the youngest players in the Texas League, a cutthroat circuit where prospects can fade.
For instance, Carlson reached the recent Texas League All-Star break leading all of Double-A baseball – that’s 30 teams covering the Texas, Southern and Eastern leagues – with 53 runs scored.
This is where he ranked in other categories in Double-A:
Tied for fourth-most in extra-base hits (31) and total bases (132), eighth in hits (75) and 13th in RBI (42). Additionally, he his .493 slugging percentage and .856 OPS are 17th and 18th, respectively.
Overall, he was batting .253 with 10 home runs, 15 doubles and six triples. He has struck out 58 times in 275 at-bats.
Scouts have said, however, that Carlson needs work on handling secondary pitches.
“He just needs to go play,” Kruzel said. “And in all fairness, he’s handled it all well.”
Carlson says he’s benefitted from mentoring under Jim Edmonds, Willie McGee and St. Louis center fielder Harrison Bader during spring training and also has gained valuable insight from Brandon Allen, the Springfield hitting coach who played four seasons in the big leagues from 2009 to 2012 with the Diamondbacks, Athletics and Rays.
That said, don’t discount Carlson’s recent experience of the Texas League All-Star Game. Edmonds, McGee and Bader’s words came months ago. Playing the All-Star Game will serve as inspiration, too, especially after approaching several other all-stars.
“I just picked their brains to see what they look for in their game,” Carlson said. “It does get your juices flowing and gives you something to look forward to in the second half.”