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‘He’s a huge piece of the puzzle’: Cardinals curious to see how Carlson looks at leadoff

JUPITER, Fla. — When Dylan Carlson arrived this offseason and unfolded from his car to hit at the personal batting cage Nolan Arenado maintains about 20 minutes from his home in Southern California, the switch-hitting outfielder made an immediate impression on his host.

“OK, he looks stronger,” Arenado recalled. “His swing is faster. But one thing, too, he’s become more of this year is — he’s more athletic. I think that’s huge. He looked stronger, his swing not so mechanical. It’s athletic now.”

What Arenado saw from the start of their workouts together has the Cardinals intrigued about how they could start their offense.

Carlson, prepping for his second opening day in the majors, hit leadoff for the first time this spring Friday against the Washington Nationals and will continue to see starts atop the lineup in the coming week. It’s not a new spot for the 23-year-old right fielder, but it is potentially a new look for the Cardinals after relying on Tommy Edman to take 76% of the team’s 740 plate appearances at leadoff in 2021.

Manager Oliver Marmol described leadoff as just another one of the competitions in camp and agreed that it’s become a duel between two switch-hitters. Carlson will get a run at leadoff or, depending on production elsewhere in the lineup, could begin the season hitting fifth.

His spot in the order may not yet be clear, but one thing is.

The Cardinals want Carlson prominent.

“He’s a huge piece of the puzzle, man,” Arenado said. “The way he’s carried himself this spring, the way he’s going about his business, his work, how hard he’s hitting the ball. IF we get him doing what we all think he’s capable of doing, we’re going to be in a great spot.”

What the Cardinals seek most from the leadoff spot is a scout — someone to go out first, report back on what they see, and whenever possible blaze a trail for others to follow him home.

Last season, the Cardinals’ leadoff spot ranked below average in generating offense. Edman had a .308 on-base percentage, .312 in the leadoff spot, though he supplemented his production with the second-most doubles in the league (41) and team-high steals (30). Overall, the tip of the Cardinals’ lineup produced a .313 on-base percentage that was the fourth-lowest in the majors and a .728 OPS that ranked 20th. That’s not the opening act the Cardinals want ahead of their showstoppers — Paul Goldschmidt, Tyler O’Neill, and Arenado — three righthanded hitters, two of whom got MVP votes and the third, Arenado, who had 105 RBIs.

“Obviously it’s the person who is going to get the most at-bats in the game,” Carlson said about leading off. “It’s important. It’s important to get on for those guys behind you, allow them to see what pitches he has working, trying to identify what’s in store for the day.”

Marmol said neither candidate “has the upper hand when it comes to setting a tone.”

They do offer different styles.

Edman, a contact hitter with speed, does not have the walk rate commonly attached to a leadoff hitter, and that’s in part because of how pitchers challenge him with the bats looming behind him. He gets pitches to hit. Opponents tested him up in the zone with velocity, had success, and Edman is working to adjust, Edman recently made a change so that he starts his swing mechanics earlier at the plate so he doesn’t rush and has better timing from “a good powerful position.”

He took a handful of at-bats Friday on the back fields against pitchers and will again Sunday to accumulate at-bats and refine the approach. Twice this spring, he has eschewed switch-hitting and batted righthanded against righthanded teammates — Miles Mikolas and Jake Walsh — in order to see how he connects with fastballs and sliders like they throw.

Carlson brings a higher walk rate to the leadoff spot, a .328 OBP from last season, but a swing geared from both sides to grow into more slugging, a rising OPS.

That is behind the Cardinals moving Carlson up front.

If opposing pitchers are going to challenge the Cardinals’ leadoff hitter because Goldschmidt is on deck and O’Neill and Arenado loom next, then walk rate isn’t the measure. The ability to take advantage of those strikes is. It’s damage as a deterrent, the threat of hitting for extra bases that leads to getting on base for the boppers.

“No one hates leading off with a homer,” Marmol said. “Doubles and homers are great in the leadoff spot, too. I don’t want to think because the kid has power he can’t set the tone in the leadoff spot, too, and he has to hit fifth. It’s a matter of what is best for the individual that day based on who is pitching and for the team. Those things go hand in hand.”

On his way to finishing third for the NL’s Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year Award, Carlson hit .266 with 65 RBIs, a .437 slugging percentage, and 21 home runs.

“I definitely felt that I left some out there as far as home runs,” he said. “I definitely think I’m capable of doing more at the dish, no doubt.”

The beginning of that Arenado saw when Carlson visited in the offseason.

The young outfielder had started growing strength into his frame and yet his swing looked more lithe. It was like going from print to cursive. Arenado returned several times to the description “athletic” — and said he saw it in games this spring. A week ago, Carlson drilled a pitch from the right side that left his bat at 107.3 mph and landed 420 feet away for a home run. On Friday, in the Cardinals’ 5-4 victory against the Nats, Carlson started zero-for-two leading off innings. In the fifth, he ignited a two-run rally with a line drive single. He took second on a wild pitch and scored on Goldschmidt’s double.

Carlson’s single came from the left side off his bat at 103 mph.

“Just different,” Arenado said.

“I would bet on that,” Marmol said when asked if Carlson could mature into more power. “This is a guy who will continue to add just speed to what he’s doing. I think he’s laying a great foundation for being just an overall hitter. And there’s a couple of notches he could turn to let it eat a little more. Physicality and confidence. Just feeling like a looseness of I belong here.”

Where that puts him in the lineup is only partially based on his personal production. The Cardinals intend to let matchups guide several lineup decisions, and there will be times when Edman has the better numbers or Harrison Bader does, and either could hit No. 1. For Carlson to hit leadoff, that also means the Cardinals found someone else to hit fifth as protection for Arenado. Newcomer Corey Dickerson, at designated hitter, and shortstop Paul DeJong are being measured for the middle.

How they perform will give the Cardinals’ lineup depth.

It could also influence who gets things started.

“Something you definitely have to take serious,” Carlson said.

Definitely someone you have to take serious.

St. Louis Cardinals' Dylan Carlson, right, scores near Washington Nationals catcher Riley Adams, left, on a single hit by Paul Goldschmidt in the fifth inning of a spring training baseball game, Friday, March 25, 2022, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

St. Louis Cardinals’ Dylan Carlson, right, scores near Washington Nationals catcher Riley Adams, left, on a single hit by Paul Goldschmidt in the fifth inning of a spring training baseball game, Friday, March 25, 2022, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Derrick Goold

@dgoold on Twitter

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