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Derrick Goold is the lead Cardinals beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and past president of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

2019 Cardinals spring training

Cardinals prospect Dylan Carlson tracks the ball during a defensive drill at spring training in Jupiter, Fla. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

He went to elementary school a short walk from Elk Grove High, where his father, Jeff, coached baseball, so every afternoon Dylan Carlson, not yet 10, toddled over to be around his dad and their California hometown team. A boy among young men, Dylan hopped in the batting cage and followed their lead. He hit off the tee, righthanded, until he spied one of his dad’s players hitting from the opposite side of a tee.

Dylan copied the lefthanded swing, and he’s been switch-hitting ever since because his father never said to stop. That was never the coach’s style.

At a time when some kids are held back to be older, bigger, more mature members of their grade, Jeff Carlson pushed his sons forward. Dylan and younger brother Tanner graduated at 17. Dylan, born in October 1998, would have been 17 on his first day of college had he not signed as the Cardinals’ first-round pick in 2016. At 10 he played against 12 year olds. He started high school at 13, possibly the youngest freshman ever to play for his dad’s team, lining up against opponents that spring four years older. Coach Carlson wanted his team to face the best pitching prospects in California, when possible, and wanted his sons to play up an age, or three.

“For me, one way you’re going to see somebody get better is to put them against somebody better,” the longtime coach explained this past week. “I wanted them challenged. Seeing the best is going to help you improve and develop as a hitter. And, you’re going to experience failure, learn how to handle failure, and survive. Dylan had to figure that out at a young age.”

Still does. Only the level has changed.

The youngest player in Cardinals’ major-league spring training and one of the youngest in the Texas League, Carlson has asserted himself at the head of his class, a group of young, swift-rising position players the likes of which the Cardinals haven’t seen in at least a generation. At Class AA Springfield, center fielder Carlson, a strong candidate for this year’s Futures Game, entered the weekend with the fourth-highest slugging percentage in the Texas League (.534) and fifth-highest OPS (.891). He’s the one 20-year-old in the league’s top 40 in OPS. At 19, Cardinals prospect Nolan Gorman is the only teenager in the top 10 for the Midwest League in OPS (.889). Teammate Ivan Herrera, an 18-year-old catcher, would join Gorman with a .896 OPS if he had enough plate appearances to qualify.

The Cardinals have two of the youngest position players in the Texas League, Carlson and Elehuris Montero (20). The arrival at Low-A Peoria of Malcom Nunez (18) and Jhon Torres (19) gives the organization four of the youngest position players in the Midwest League. The gathering of barely of not-yet-twentysomething talent comes as a storm of young players, like Atlanta’s Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna Jr., arrive in the majors – and stay. From the batter’s box at Double-A, Carlson looks up and doesn’t just see the possibilities ahead. He sees peers already ahead.

“I think it’s awesome that there are guys getting it done at the highest level who are my age,” Carlson said. “It gives you that goal to not only get there but to succeed when you do get there. It also gives you that confidence that, hey, someone else is doing it, someone else who is young is doing it. So, why can’t I do it? It does the reverse, too. It gives you that little push, that kick in the butt: ‘Hey, there are guys already there at your age. C’mon. What’s keeping you?’”

This past season, five position players age 21 or younger played at least 100 games in the majors – the most since Jason Heyward, Giancarlo Stanton, and three others had at least 100 games in 2011. Washington’s Juan Soto, Carlson’s contemporary in the 2016 Gulf Coast League, debuted at 19 last season. Already this year, Fernando Tatis Jr. (20) and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (20) have made their big-league debuts.

At one point last year, Atlanta had the three youngest players in the majors with 21-year-old starter Mike Soroka, who faced the Cardinals on Saturday at Busch Stadium, with fielders Acuna and Albies. That duo led all major-league players, 21 or younger, in WAR with 4.1 and 3.8, respectively. Acuna won the Rookie of the Year Award a month before his 21st birthday.

“As an industry we no longer get so hung up on age. It’s the level. It’s how are they performing at that level,” said Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos this past week. “Like anything, you’re asking your development staff, ‘Can they handle it? Is this the right time to do it?’ What you hope is the player is so dominant that you have to be challenged at the next level. We’re seeing young guys, impactful, young, talented, dynamic players that are helping teams win.”

From 2005 through 2019, players age 23 or younger had a season of at least 4.0 Wins Above Replacement 70 times, topped by 20-year-old Mike Trout’s 10-win season in 2012. The Cardinals were one of three NL teams without one. Colby Rasmus’ 3.6 WAR in 2010 came closest. In the past 20 years, Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina both made their debuts at 21, as did the late Oscar Taveras. But the Cardinals have not had a 20-year-old position player appear in at least 50 games since Garry Templeton in 1976. From this current bumper crop of batters, the Cardinals see a few that could impact the majors at 21 or 22.

For the first time in at least 25 years, seven of the Cardinals’ top 10 prospects according to Baseball America are position players. All are at full-season affiliates now.

Two are 20. Two are teenagers.

“I tell the minor leaguers every spring,” said John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, “we’ll go as fast as you want to go.”

To prepare the organization and the hitters, the Cardinals made a move this past winter with this wave of talent in mind. The hiring of Jeff Albert as the Cardinals’ major-league hitting coach was designed to have him install “an overarching strategy and thinking about hitting,” Mozeliak said. The goal was to create an infrastructure and “philosophy” throughout the organization “as these guys take big steps forward.” The whole program coordinates hitting coaches at each level, a minor-league offensive strategist, and former All-Star Ryan Ludwick roving the minors and talking with hitters. All of them draw on the same message.

Carlson got an early and long look at it during spring training as one of the last cuts from big-league camp. The lessons there have informed his approach in Springfield, and his production.

“I had an approach (before) but sometimes I would lean away from it and play into the pitcher’s strengths,” Carlson said. “Now, I try to stick to my strengths and pick a certain area of the plate and try to dominate. The big thing in major-league camp was swing at strikes. Handle pitches that you can handle. That has been my big focus. It’s part of my intent now. The shift in my mentality that has been key to trying to make myself a complete hitter.”

During a recent visit with the Springfield club, the strategist George Greer approached Carlson after a home run to ask about his approach. Carlson explained how he scouted the pitcher and his trusted pitch and expected to be “jammed inside.” So from the left side of the plate he prepared for that pitch and when he got it “jumped all over it.”

Greer patted him on the back.

“Well, thank you very much,” the coach said. “Carry on.”

A highly respected college coach and widely regarded hitting guru, Greer described how developing hitters always starts with the scouts who identify them because “you can’t go to Lowe’s to build a house if there’s no lumber there.” That raw lumber, however, is moving quicker and arriving younger because of Development 2.0. As much as tee drills and heavy bats are a part of the work, Wi-Fi and smartphones have revolutionized development – and accelerated it, Jeff Carlson and Greer both said.

“They’re giving guys more information between games and in some cases between at-bats than ever before,” Greer said. “One off days these guys are going fishing like we did, they’re watching video. The whole thing has been sped up, but only to that point because they can handle the challenge. This group doesn’t get paralysis by analysis.”

There is a crossroads of hallways at the Cardinals’ spring training complex – one way leads to the minor-league side, the other to the major-league offices and clubhouse – and it was near this juncture that Carlson found Matt Carpenter and Paul Goldschmidt studying video this spring. He watched them watch video of opposing pitchers, and eventually started asking questions about what they were looking for. How they decoded it. How they used it. Those answers he now uses at Class AA to scout opponents.

In the cages all spring, it was like being back at Elk Grove after school – he was the kid studying the bigger boys for things to borrow.

Albert encourages the use of a heavier bat, so Carlson does that for his first round in the batting cage each day. Carlson watched switch-hitter Dexter Fowler step into the tee as if finding a rhythm for a moving pitch. Carlson now does the same. Fowler joked that Carlson kept trying to best him in “exit velocity contests.” Earlier in his career, Carlson used the first round of batting practice on the field to get loose and hit the ball where it was pitched. He saw big-leaguers, like Yadier Molina, use that first round to exclusively drive the ball to the opposite field. Carlson now does that, too. It’s the next frontier for his lefthanded swing.

“There are so many more steps that are part of the game as you keep moving up,” Carlson said. “Guys are really, really, really sharp at this level. It’s more strategy, I’ve noticed. In A-ball guys rely on their talent a little more and here having a mental edge is the separator.”

That’s a lesson Carlson learned at an early age, as a freshman facing seniors, a 10-year-old standing in against adolescents. As he met the challenge his father encouraged, Carlson found “I had to really use every edge I could against more-advanced competition.” He found it through strike-zone savvy and discipline. That skill plays up. Last summer, he rose to the level he played by slashing his strikeout rate. He’s improved that again this year with almost twice as many times on base (71) as strikeouts (37) and two and half times as many total bases (93).

This trend, his ongoing work in center field, and his showing in spring training has placed Carlson in the conversation for the Cardinals’ 2020 outfield plans. He’ll be 21. When he arrives that challenge will feel familiar, but maybe he’ll encounter something rarer on the ballfield.

He’ll probably be playing against kids his own age.

“It’s inspiring,” Carlson said. “It’s motivating.”