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Hochman: Humble and hungry, Dylan Carlson visits St. Louis for a weekend. When will he return for good?

Hochman: Humble and hungry, Dylan Carlson visits St. Louis for a weekend. When will he return for good?

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Some arrived with a Sharpie, others wanted a selfie.

Some told him they have him pegged for left field, others for right.

And as he signed balls and bats and even a boy’s cast on his broken arm, Dylan Carlson said quietly from his table at Winter Warm-Up: “Four-hundred people bought a ticket to see me, and I haven’t even played in the Major Leagues.”

Even Dylan Carlson doesn’t fully understand the hype that is Dylan Carlson.

Now, sure, he knows he’s good. He was there. He was there when he obliterated baseballs into oblivion. But even for the Cardinals’ top prospect, there was something about being in St. Louis, in the flesh, to experience the fans. And for the fans, there was something about experiencing Carlson in the flesh — he’s really real, he’s really ours and … he’s really nice!

Fans asked him if he was ready for the season, and then Carlson asked them the same question. He asked what color pen they’d like him to sign with — and where on the item they’d like him to sign. He high-fived little hands and shook big ones. One man handed him a photo of Paul Goldschmidt — “You sure you want me to sign that?” Carlson politely asked (the man hurriedly scrounged through his stack of photos to find the one of the phenom).

“It was a real honor to be able to see all the fans’ reactions, how excited they were to just see me,” the 21-year-old switch-hitter said. “I just think that’s really cool and something I’ve never experienced. I had a really fun time.”

Writing his name over and over was a rite of passage. It was Carlson’s first Winter Warm-Up, the winter before he’ll likely spend his first summer in St. Louis. He’s the best hitting prospect in the organization since the late Oscar Taveras. In 108 games for the Class AA club, Carlson had an on-base percentage plus slugging percentage of .882. That is splendid. Then, in 18 games in Class AAA, his OPS was 1.098.

On Sunday, manager Mike Shildt said if the Cardinals don’t re-sign left fielder Marcell Ozuna, “We’ve got guys who can compete — and definitely Dylan is one of them.”

The others include Tyler O’Neill and Lane Thomas. Dexter Fowler will start the season in right. Of course, even if Ozuna does return, a case could be made for playing Carlson in center field, instead of Harrison Bader or Thomas. Shildt cautioned: “I can’t rule out the fact that Dylan could be a center fielder, but I haven’t seen him enough to say, yes, he can definitely be an everyday guy at all three positions.”

Last spring, Carlson caught the attention of so many people with his attributes and his attitude. He approached camp with the demeanor of the least-talented prospect, working hard and constantly showcasing his desire to learn. Carlson hung around the batting cage even when he wasn’t hitting, just to watch the approach of the big-leaguers. He cherished lunch with Goldschmidt or film sessions with Matt Carpenter. Oh, but he was also arguably the most-talented hitting prospect.

“For such a young guy, his baseball IQ is through the roof,” said his Memphis teammate Jake Woodford, also in town for Winter Warm-Up. “You know what he can do on the field. For me it was more off-the-field stuff. Conversations about how certain guys were pitching him and what adjustments he felt like he needed to make. He asked me to watch at bats. Just small stuff like that from a young guy that you just appreciate and take note of.”

So, Carlson will be back in big-league camp next month. John Mozeliak, the president of baseball operations, pointed out that the club wants to also give opportunities to “players who are running out of options or are running out of time.” And Mozeliak cautioned that whether Carlson begins 2020 in Memphis or St. Louis will depend mostly on playing time.

“When we were together talking about Taveras, for example, people would ask, ‘Why not just bring him up?’” Mozeliak recalled. “And I would always be like, ‘Well, if he’s going to get six out of seven starts that week, then, of course, but if he’s not, then it really doesn’t make sense.’ And so I think in Dylan’s case, here’s an exciting player. I mean, from a physical standpoint, what he’s able to do, even at his age, is eye-popping. So in terms of trying to put a timeline on what that looks like, I think that’s not really fair to him or to us. But knowing that he’s there? Pretty exciting.”

And that’s why the hundreds of fans flocked on Sunday to meet the ballplayer.

One kid smiled so wide, you wondered if the braces were going to pop right off his teeth.

One fan asked Carlson to sign with his middle name (James), another asked him to sign his favorite Bible verse (Philippians 4:13 — “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”). And when one fan asked Carlson to sign a bat with the inscription “future silver slugger,” it made a couple onlookers perk up. On one hand, perhaps that was getting ahead of ourselves. On the other hand, why not have the future star shoot for the stars?

A fan from Springfield, where the Class AA club plays, told Carlson about the time his wife got a selfie with Carlson — “she talked about it for a month!” Another fan from Springfield reminded him that Carlson homered in both games he attended.

“You should’ve gone more!” Carlson exclaimed.

And one fan summed it up by saying: “We’ll see you in St. Louis, man.”

Here was this older fan, seeing Carlson in St. Louis for the first time, but dreaming of the first time Carlson is in St. Louis for good.

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