The consternation was understandable. The St. Louis Cardinals by most accounts were the favorites to swing a blockbuster trade for Juan Soto, one of the great young hitters in the annals of the game whom the Washington Nationals dealt away earlier this month. Leading up to the Aug. 2 deadline, however, the San Diego Padres were the team that landed Soto in exchange for a sheik's ransom in young talent. The Cardinals, meantime, focused on fortifying a rotation that had been diminished by injuries and offseason neglect and on retaining what may be the most impressive young core in the game today.
While the wisdom of the Cardinals' and Padres' contrasting approaches can't be rightly judged for some time, the deadline turned out to be a disappointment for those who expected Soto to land in St. Louis. Again, that's a perfectly defensible reaction. Soto is an elite performer, and he's still just 23 years of age. Even if doesn't sign an extension with San Diego, they'll get his services for two seasons and change and, presumably, three postseasons. As for the Cardinals, they'll be judged by how the young players they didn't trade contribute to the success of the big-league club, both now and in the years to come. That particular side of things merits further exploration now that we have a wee bit of distance between the present moment and the emotions of the deadline.
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Dylan Carlson is perhaps the most notable name here, in part because he was so often name-checked in reports about a potential deal for Soto. Some reports had it that the Cardinals were unwilling to discuss Carlson as part of any Soto trade, but that doesn't really pass the sniff test. Yes, Carlson is an important piece in St. Louis, but he's not the sort you declare to be off limits in that scale of blockbuster. Sure, it's reasonable to think Cardinals lead operator John Mozeliak may have at some point said something along the lines of, "If you want all that, then you can't have Carlson," but that's probably the extent of it.
In any event, Carlson right now looks like the primary center fielder of the present and future for the Cardinals. Carlson, the former No. 33 overall pick, was a consensus top-20 overall prospect coming up through the minors, and he reached the majors at the age of 21. At this writing, the switch-hitting Carlson has a career OPS+ of 106 through 278 career games at the highest level, so he's been an above-average hitter. What distinguishes him right now, though, is the progress he's made defensively in center.
Carlson has been a primary right fielder in the majors, but the injury to Harrison Bader (and eventual trade to the Yankees) pressed him into center-field duty. His good speed, outfield instincts, and expert tutelage from Willie McGee have allowed Carlson to thrive at that up-the-middle position. Despite having manned center for just 370 defensive innings in 2022, Carlson ranks fourth among center fielders this season with 7.0 defensive runs saved according to Sports Info Solutions. Statcast's Outs Above Average, probably the best public-facing defensive metric, also sees Carlson as a clear plus in center thus far. The numbers square with the eye test, as Carlson's reads and tracking skills have noticeably improved.
Yes, he needs improvement against right-handed pitching and more broadly with his quality of contact, but he's still just 23. Carlson's blend of defensive value at an up-the-middle position and upside at the plate make him a worthy long-term piece, which is why St. Louis is treating him as that very thing.
There's also slugging infielder Nolan Gorman. Gorman, 22, is the seventh-youngest player in the National League this season, and he's thrived as a rookie: a 122 OPS+ with 13 home runs in 66 games. He's also graded out very well in terms of batted-ball metrics. Thus far, he's been comfortably above the league mean in terms of average exit velocity, max exit velocity, percentage of batted balls classified as "barrels," and hard-hit rate. Throw in his excellent power numbers coming up through the minors and the fact that he was younger than his peer group at every rung, and Gorman profiles as a hitter who could contend for the home run crown at his peak.
Gorman, a natural third baseman, is playing second base for the Cardinals, and the metrics are predictably unimpressed with his work at the keystone. It remains to be seen where his permanent defensive home is, but the bat will play anywhere and play very well.
Elsewhere, Brendon Donovan, 25, is a multi-positional lefty bat who can play all over the diamond and has good on-base skills at the plate. Then there's Andre Pallante, the 23-year-old right-hander who's been a valuable swingman for the Cardinals this year. He's got a four-pitch repertoire, strong ground-ball proclivities, and a willingness to work in any role. Lars Nootbaar, 24, has emerged as the Cards' primary in right field thanks to his good glove and ability to produce against right-handed pitching. The 24-year-old Juan Yepez is recovering from a forearm strain, and when healthy he's a viable "lefty killer" in the DH role or occasionally at an outfield corner.
But wait: That's not all!
The Cardinals' farm system remains one of the strongest in the game right now, and that's the case even after Gorman's graduation to the majors. Here's how our own prospect maven R.J. Anderson characterizes the current state of the Cards' minor-league system:
'The Cardinals are one of the best teams at blending analytics with traditional scouting. That alchemy has seen them unearth two of the best hitting prospects in the minors, in third baseman/outfielder Jordan Walker (who has elite raw strength) and shortstop Masyn Winn (a former two-way player). This year's first-round pick Cooper Hjerpe is a polished lefty who should move quickly and may have a better career than some of the arms drafted ahead of him. Righty Tink Hence is enjoying a boost of helium right now, and the Cardinals have a slew of others who should continue climbing prospect lists, including righty Gordon Graceffo and Michael McGreevy. Don't sleep on outfielder Alec Burleson, either: he'd be in the majors with many other clubs, having already established himself as capable against Triple-A pitching."
Our thanks to Mr. Anderson, who, truth be told, really had no choice but to grant an interview to the outlet that employs him.
Anyhow, Walker, thanks to his immense power numbers and big numbers as a 20-year-old in the Double-A Texas League, will almost certainly be a top-10 overall prospect going into 2022. As well, Graceffo and Hence have frontline stuff. The system right now is a blend of elite upside and depth, and it's one of the best on both counts.
A Soto deal likely would've cost then Walker, Winn, and one of those big arms, in addition to talent already at the big-league level. The front office determined that was too high a price to pay. If even a handful of these young players realize their potential and do so during the Cardinals' (seemingly eternal) contending window, then that position will be sound and maybe even prescient in retrospect.