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BenFred: Cardinals' rising star Carlson looks ready to swing away at NL Rookie of Year race

BenFred: Cardinals' rising star Carlson looks ready to swing away at NL Rookie of Year race

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Cardinals face Reds in Cincinnati on opening day

St. Louis Cardinals left fielder Dylan Carlson (3) is congratulated by right fielder Justin Williams (26) after hitting a three run homer during the first inning of an opening day Major League Baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds at the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati on Thursday, April 1, 2021. Pitcher Jack Flaherty leads the Cardinals into their first game of the season. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com

CINCINNATI — It sure looks like he’s ready. Sounds like it, too.

I’m not talking about the loud clang Dylan Carlson created Thursday when he planted a Luis Castillo sinker into Great American Ballpark’s right-field foul pole with such force that a new paint job might have been on the to-do list during Friday’s off day.

I’m talking about how Carlson looks more than worthy of the National League rookie of the year conversation he’s stirring, and about how he sounds like a 30-something-year-old veteran despite being only 22.

Carlson has tasted success and failure. He has felt the joy of a promotion to the major leagues and the disappointment of a departure. He went down and got right. He returned and thrived, playing splendidly for the Cardinals in the pressure-packed cleanup spot in the 2020 wild-card series loss to the Padres. He processed it all during the offseason and turned in a spring training that looked similar to the ones often produced by the most established players — a slow start followed by a flipped switch and late flourish.

Then Carlson turned game one of 162 in 2021 on its head with his very first swing, and acted as if he had done nothing but successfully knotted his spikes.

“I’m going up there looking for pitches I can do damage on,” Carlson said after his three-run home run in Thursday’s six-run first inning set the tone for the Cardinals’ 11-6 win against the Reds.

“Being ready to hit in any count. In that situation, with runners on base, I knew he was going to come after me and try to get ahead. So, I just went up there looking for something to hit.”

He hit, all right.

Castillo’s first pitch to Carlson was placed in the center fielder’s power zone. Last season, it might have been a pitch Carlson took for a strike. Plate discipline is great. Passing on pitches you can muscle, Carlson decided this offseason, is not the kind of hitter he wants to be.

The homer left his bat at 106.4 mph. After it caromed off the foul pole the Cardinals had a 6-0 lead. By the time Carlson trotted the bases and performed a triple fist bump and cobra-style forearm flex with catcher Yadier Molina in the dugout, the Cardinals’ win probability had soared to 92 percent.

“Big blow,” manager Mike Shildt said.

“Huge for us,” added Paul Goldschmidt.

Now that Shildt has revealed his regular-season thoughts on the lineup, it can be said with certainty that Carlson appears to be the biggest X-factor for this offense.

Shortstop Paul DeJong is getting a chance to answer his runners-in-scoring-position issues once and for all hitting cleanup behind the one-two punch of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. Slugging left fielder Tyler O’Neill’s strong spring has him hitting after DeJong. Carlson has been slotted seventh, behind Molina, despite the fact he occupied the cleanup spot by a matter of default in last season’s playoffs, and performed admirably while doing it.

“I really don’t have any control over where I hit in the lineup,” Carlson said. “I’m just going to go out there and put together the best at-bat I can. I feel like I can help the team win. Wherever the manager thinks I should hit, that’s where I’m going to be.”

It’s easy to imagine Carlson rising to leadoff if Tommy Edman struggles, or second if Shildt decide to move the Arenado-Goldschmidt pairing down a notch to potentially up their RBI production, or cleanup if DeJong leaves Arenado and Goldschmidt stranded too many times, or fifth, or even sixth. See what I mean by X-factor? No one has as much potential range as Carlson.

You can see the switch-hitting, speedy Carlson winding up just about anywhere. Being able to say that about your No. 7 hitter means one of two things. Either he’s hitting too low in the order, or the lineup is loaded. The latter could be argued in game one. Will it stay that way? We’ll see.

“I think it shows you the depth of what you are seeing,” Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said when asked for his thoughts on Carlson hitting seventh. “It’s well documented, well written about, well spoken about last year that our offense struggled at times.”

(I think that might have been a reference to the 1,000 columns I wrote about the offense this offseason.)

“When you look at making an acquisition like Nolan Arenado, you are hoping you are achieving a deeper lineup because of that,” Mozeliak continued. “But it also goes back to the outfielders. It’s this emergence of talent or emergence of impact on our club. When you look at those outfielders and a lineup of nine, someone is going to have to hit seventh. I think it shows you the depth of it. More importantly, I hope it shows the impact the outfielders are going to make on this lineup. That’s something we will all see over time.”

So far, so good. Carlson’s home run deflated the Reds in the first. O’Neill’s two-run homer on a hanging breaking ball from reliever Cam Bedrosian added crucial insurance in a homer-happy ballpark. Right fielder Justin Williams didn’t get a hit, but his crashing catch into the right-field wall robbed Nick Castellanos of an RBI and secured the first out of an inning that could have gone sideways on starter Jack Flaherty if something good did not happen there.

“Our club is anchored by Goldy and Arenado,” Mozeliak said. “And then when people talk about how is your club going to be better offensively, or what is going to be the difference between 2020 and 2021 — I think it’s really the emergence of some of these younger (outfield) players. That’s really the bet we are making. From O’Neill, to Dylan Carlson, to Justin Williams, you are going to see some impact from an offensive standpoint. Obviously, losing Harrison Bader (forearm) from a defensive standpoint is a significant loss, but we do feel like we have the depth to protect ourselves out there regardless and I do think the offensive upside is pretty exciting. That’s the belief we have.”

The easiest of the outfielders to believe in happens to be the youngest. Carlson’s ready. He looks and sounds like a legitimate contender for NL rookie of the year.

It’s easier to envision him winning the award than it is to envision him hitting seventh by the All-Star break.

Ben Frederickson

@Ben_Fred on Twitter

bfrederickson@post-dispatch.com

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