Benhamin Hochman: Cardinals' top prospect Dylan Carlson will be fine, if he adjusts to adjusting

©St. Louis Post-Dispatch

In lieu of bubble gum sticks, Topps does something else unique and pretty sweet with baseball cards these days. The company created a line of cards called Topps Now. Whenever something noteworthy happens in baseball, Topps unveils a card commemorating that accomplishment — and the card is only available for 24 hours on Topps.com.

Well, when the St. Louis Cardinals’ top hitting prospect got his first hit, Topps made a card.

But before the Dylan Carlson card was delivered to all St. Louisans, Carlson was already shipped back down to the team’s alternate training site in Springfield, Missouri.

It wasn’t a surprise move — toward the end there, he looked frustrated and overwhelmed at the plate — but it was a startling finish to his first run with the big club.

He’ll be back. He’s been humbled. And at least from this column space, confidence remains that he will be a high-caliber outfielder for the Cardinals.

But, man, the Cardinals sure could’ve used a high-caliber outfielder this year.

Carlson (.162 batting average) is still adjusting to adjusting. That’s the thing about the big leagues — everyone is talented, so to stay afloat, it’s about making ASAP adjustments to offensive approaches. For all the talent he has — and the switch-hitter swings a violent bat — he didn’t have the experience to adjust to the way pitchers were attacking him … which was with offspeed pitches.

“The league adjusted and started treating him like he was a 15-year All-Star and pitched him tougher than anybody in the league,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt told reporters via Zoom. “A lot of soft stuff, and he just started to expand a little bit.”

The good news is — the 21-year-old Carlson needed experience, and now he’s got some. He’ll go down to the Springfield site and with a chance to take a deep breath, he’ll analyze his at-bats from the bigs. Whether the Cardinals make it to the playoffs or not, this is a weird year, so it’s good that they let Carlson gobble up some weird-year at-bats. Because in 2021, he’s that much closer to breaking out, thanks to what he went through in 2020 — he accelerated his progress, even if it looked like a step backwards.

And this is the reality — many top prospects struggle at first. Some don’t. Albert Pujols was an All-Star that first week on the big club. But many (many) other prospects have a tough go in their first go-around. We’ve seen it in St. Louis. Shoot, we’ve seen it in every pro sport in St. Louis, not just baseball.

And while Carlson didn’t look great at the plate, he played extremely smooth defense — at all three outfield positions, too (that isn’t an easy thing to do). He has a big-league arm. He’s an offensive defensive player, hunting outs out there.

And for all the frustration at the plate (12 hits in 74 at-bats and only five walks, which made for a .215 on-base percentage), there were a few times where he just crushed the ball off the bat. Some, alas, were outs. But those swings, I believe, were harbingers, such as the 108.3 mph lineout off of Dallas Keuchel, a former Cy Young winner.

“I think the writing’s on the wall,” Paul Goldschmidt said after Carlson’s first weekend with the Cardinals, “for him to be a great player for a long time.”

But the “long time” might not begin until 2021, which hurts the 2020 Cardinals.

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©2020 St. Louis Post-Dispatch