I have no idea if the Cardinals would have to send Dylan Carlson to Washington in a potential trade package for Juan Soto. Carlson’s name is being cited in most fantasy–trade suggestions, but I’m not wild about the idea. I’d urge caution.

Why?

– First of all Carlson is just as young as Soto (23). Technically Carlson is two days older than Soto, but let’s go ahead and call it a tie.

– I’m not suggesting that Carlson is as good as Soto offensively. He is not. But in evaluating the two outfielders, Carlson is better defensively than Soto. And Carlson is the superior baserunner by a significant measure.

– That’s why, if you look at the FanGraphs version of Wins Above Replacement, you’d see this: Soto ranks 4th among MLB outfielders with 2.3 WAR, and Carlson is 7th with 2.1 WAR. Does that surprise you? It surprised me, and I’m usually on top of this stuff.

– Since the start of the 2021 season, Soto has 9.3 WAR to Carlson’s 4.7. There’s obviously a gap – advantage, Soto – but what about value for the dollar? Soto already makes substantially more money, and his salaries over the next two seasons will make Carlson an even larger bargain by comparison. But let’s go back to the WAR comparison since the outset of 2021. Though he made his MLB debut late in 2020, Carlson was a rookie in ’21 and 2022 is his second year. The 2021 season was Soto’s third in the big leagues; this his fourth year. I would expect Soto in season three and four to have more WAR than Carlson in (full) season one and two.

– Carlson can’t become a free agent until the end of the 2026 season. Soto can become a free agent after the 2024 season. If Soto walks as a free agent, he’d be a Cardinal for two-plus seasons. Carlson would be a Cardinal for four-plus seasons until becoming eligible for free agency. In terms of cost control, that’s a pretty big difference.

– Carlson won’t be eligible for arbitration until the 2024 season. He’s making $703,000 this season, and won’t move into a higher salary class until ‘24. Soto is making $17.1 million this year and that salary will skyrocket over his final two years of arbitration in 2023, 2024. Again, it’s all relative: how much value are you getting for the size of the investment? Carlson is certainly more payroll friendly at this stage of his career … and likely will stay that way … even into free agency.

– Carlson isn’t at Soto’s level offensively. If you look at the last two seasons – Carlson’s only two full MLB seasons – he has an adjusted OPS that puts him 15 percent above league average offensively. Over that same time frame Soto is 68 percent above league average in OPS+. There’s a similar difference in park-and-league adjusted runs created.

– May I dare suggest that Carlson is still developing and will improve offensively? Keep this in mind: Soto entered the majors in 2018 at age 19. He has 2,423 MLB plate appearances. Carlson came to the majors late in the 2020 season and has 1,054 plate appearances. I know that Carlson can be frustratingly inconsistent, but this dude has considerable talent and lots of upside. He’s not close to reaching his peak, but he’s already an above-average player in all three phases of the game: offense, defense and baserunning.

– Since the 2021 All-Star break, Carlson has a .335 onbase percentage and .458 slug for a .793 OPS. He’s about 22 percent above league average offensively over that time. And he has 17 homers and 37 doubles in about 502 at-bats over that time. That doesn’t make him Soto at the plate, but the switch-hitting Carlson is moving upward offensively as he gains experience.

– Since his cold opening month to start the 2022 season, Carlson has a .286 average, .362 OBP, .485 slug and a .848 OPS since the beginning of May. And Carlson is 42 percent above league average offensively since the beginning of May. And he’s played terrific defense in center field. Soto doesn’t play at all in center field – and is a minus defender in right field according to Fielding Bible. In fairness, Fielding Bible rates Carlson below average defensively in right field, but he’s a “plus” center fielder and that provides extra value … just because of the difficulty and importance of playing center. If Carlson’s future is in CF, the Cardinals figure to be very happy with an above–average center fielder who will post a good OBP and above-average power. And he would do this at relatively low cost, which we can’t say about Soto.

Jul 26, 2022; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Dylan Carlson (3) hits a solo home run against the Toronto Blue Jays during the first inning at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

I’m guessing that what I’ve written here will be misinterpreted, misunderstood and mocked by some. Soto Mania is making some people crazy. But I couldn’t make the point any clearer, and I’ll offer it one more time: this is about contract control, cost control, and value for the dollar relative to performance.

Carlson has the edge on defense and on the base paths. Soto is the more dynamic offensive player and a big-time OBP machine, with a career onbase percentage of .426. But for Soto to stay in St. Louis beyond 2024, the estimated cost of a long-term contract extension will be $500 million or higher. Carlson, on the other hand, will be playing really good baseball at a fraction of that cost.

As my friend John Denton of MLB.com wrote: “Carlson’s versatility also extends beyond his spectacular defense. Not only is he a switch-hitter, but he’s one of the few MLB players who have hit in all nine spots of the lineup this season. He has the speed to be in the leadoff spot, the disciplined eye to bat No. 2, the pop to hit in the middle of the order and the reputation to hit down in the order and protect sluggers Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and Tyler O’Neill.”

True. And Carlson could be doing all of these things for a long time in St. Louis.

If the Cardinals want to go for Soto, it would be fun to have him here. If the Nationals want a cost-controlled Carlson – who already has proven he can get it done in the majors and likely will continue to improve – I understand why. I’ve explained his appeal in this column.

If the Cardinals (in theory) trade Carlson away, they’ll be giving up a proven player who ranks 14th overall among all MLB outfielders in WAR – and 6th in the NL – since the start of last season. The Cardinals have a crop of legitimately exciting prospects. But that’s the thing about prospects: you don’t really know how good they’ll be in the majors until they play in the majors. And even then, it might take a while to determine their quality once they reach the show.

With Carlson the Cardinals already know what they have, and they realize that Carlson is a 23-year-old, cost-controlled, highly-rated outfielder who could become an upper-tier center fielder. He has shown that he belongs, and his best major-league days are ahead of him.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app which is available in your preferred app store.

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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.

 

Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz

For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.