The concept of breaking out is nothing new to Dylan Carlson.
Heading into the 2016 Draft, the then-17-year-old switch-hitting first baseman/outfielder -- who played for his dad, Jeff, at Elk Grove (California) High School -- was a relatively unknown talent to many on the outside looking in. He wasn't ranked among MLB.com's top 200 Draft prospects and was widely viewed as average in most of his tools but with room to grow, given his age, 6-foot-3 frame and long-running baseball background.
"I grew up around the baseball field," Carson said. "The dream was to play in the Major Leagues. Honestly, I could tell you since I was eight years old, it's been the goal ever since then, and I've never had a doubt about it."
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His potential for growth is exactly what jumped out to the Cardinals, who had three Draft picks in the 23-34 range in 2016. They'd scouted Carlson's Elk Grove teammate Nick Madrigal the previous spring and marked down Carlson as a potential future pick.
"We spend a lot of time researching, and since that was my first Draft, I was catching up and learning about our process and who our scouts had liked," said Cardinals scouting director Randy Flores. "The first time I remember discussing him in detail was in January, and at that point, we had put him down as a player who could make the jump."
Three years later, Carlson has fulfilled at least part of that promise and made his biggest jump yet. After entering 2019 outside the top-100 ranks, the game's No. 24 overall prospect is this season's MiLB.com staff pick for the MiLBY Breakout Prospect of the Year.
Carlson had an inkling that he wasn't going to college at Cal State Fullerton, where he'd eventually commit, when he was invited to the 2015 Under Armour All-American Game at Wrigley Field. Riley Pint, Forrest Whitley, Jesus Luzardo, Kyle Muller and Alek Manoah all pitched in the game. Jo Adell, Carter Kieboom and Taylor Trammell were just some of the future stars playing the field.
"The guy who hit after me in our hitting group was Bo Bichette," Carlson said. "He was hitting balls way out of the stadium. Another guy I watched a lot and was wowed by was Seth Beer. For me, I was just trying to make the most of it."
A long way from playing for his father back home, Carlson batted seventh and started at first base for the National side in an 11-5 victory. Because of his size, Carlson made sense as a big target at first through his college days, but scouts who believed in his athleticism wanted to get some outfield looks if they were going to talk their bosses into an early-round pick. As a result, Carlson played more center field as a senior, and that's when Flores' phone started ringing.
"I'll never forget with our national crosschecker Roger Smith, I had this discussion with him and he said he was excited about Carlson as an outfielder," Flores said. "He said he has good footwork, his arm has good carry on throws to third base. It was all there. I started laughing because I wasn't sure, but Roger said he'd seen him take infield and outfield. And as Carlson was given opportunities in the outfield, you could see the instincts he had that made the move so easy."
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Though the external rankings didn't reflect it, Carlson said he was told by a few clubs he could expect to hear his name in the first three rounds that June. The Cards came calling at No. 33 in the first round -- the pick they received as compensation for losing John Lackey to free agency -- making him their second selection behind Delvin Perez. He eventually signed for $1.35 million, a bit lower than the slot bonus. To this day, the Cardinals insist they were buying into the upside of a player who still wouldn't turn 18 until the October after the Draft.
"We look at a lot of factors," Flores said. "What's the type of competition he's facing. Is he someone that's able to do multiple positions? Does he have some tools? Has he played in something like the Under Armour or Area Code Games? Where's he headed? In this case, it was Fullerton, which is pretty good. The track record spoke for itself. We knew this was someone that had been a baseball rat, and with the growth we had seen matched with the future physicality and the school he chose, it led us to believe he was worth that range of a pick."
It took some time for that upside to blossom into the potential five-tool star Carlson is seen as today. Three years, in fact.
Now a full-time outfielder, Carlson didn't post a season OPS above .738 in his first three seasons in the St. Louis system. Given the offensive environments in the Midwest and Florida State Leagues, he was still considered an above-average hitter with a 101 wRC+ at Class A Peoria in 2017 and a 112 wRC+ at Class A Advanced Palm Beach in 2018, but these aren't numbers that scream future star.
"Being able to sit and really trust the process was hard at first," Carlson said. "The first year in Peoria was the toughest one for me. Just because I felt like I was so much better than what I'd shown. Then moving to the Florida State League, you really had to come to terms with it being part of the process and that growth will come because it is a tough hitters league. I really had to focus on the process instead of the results. This is the year I wanted to make a splash."
The power was the most identifiable tool that could make a jump in 2019. Because of his general athleticism and ability to hit from both sides, Carlson believed pop would be a big part of his game. He just needed to get out of the FSL, where his nine homers in 2018 were still third-most on the Palm Beach roster that year.
The solution? See how the big boys do it.
Still big believers in Carlson's promise, the Cardinals extended him a non-roster invitation to Spring Training for the first time ahead of his age-20 season and got him 44 at-bats in Grapefruit League play. He was one of the last seven players to be reassigned to Minor League camp on March 25, and he used that time to watch as many Major Leaguers as he could to try to solve what he could do to make the jump himself.
"I'd say I was a lot more prepared this year than past years," Carlson said. "Going back to Spring Training, I noticed the way guys watched video and the things they looked for while watching video and how they knew themselves and the types of hitters they were. I really tried to translate that into the season."
Opening at Double-A Springfield, where he would be the fourth-youngest player in the Texas League, Carlson quickly used that video work and some discussions with hitting coach Brandon Allen to identify a strategy that could unlock his slugging ability.
"I really thought power was part of my game, but I don't think I was going about it the right way," he said. "I was going up there trying to maybe hit the way they were going to pitch to me, as opposed to playing to my strengths. So if I knew an off-speed pitch was coming early in the count, I'd swing at it, instead of taking it and knowing that I could get something better later in the count."
It didn't take long for that to show up in games. Carlson homered four times in April and finished the month with a .287/.343/.511 slash line. He had previously slugged above .500 only once in a full month in his career, all the way back in August 2016 in the Gulf Coast League. He would hit that mark again in May, July and August of 2019.
"Toward the end of April and into May is when you could really see people paying attention," said Springfield manager Joe Kruzel. "We played Northwest Arkansas so many times that they were trying to figure him out early, but by the time we played some of the other teams in our division like Tulsa and Arkansas, even they had heard talk of what he was doing and knew they needed to prepare. It was probably around mid-May when everyone knew what they were dealing with. It was him and [Gavin] Lux and [Dustin] May that probably got the most talked about by scouts around here."
Having hit .286/.369/.512 with 10 homers in the first half, he was named a Texas League mid-season All-Star, the first such honor of his budding career. Soon after, he was selected to the Futures Game in Cleveland, where he'd play in his first Major League park since the Under Armour game in Wrigley. He again batted seventh but started this showcase in right field, instead of first base, and finished 1-for-2 with an RBI in the 2-2 tie.
On Aug. 15, the Cardinals promoted the 20-year-old to Triple-A Memphis, having seen enough from him at Springfield. The Texas League had, too. Carlson finished his time with Springfield hitting .281/.364/.518 with 21 homers and 18 stolen bases in 108 games. He would eventually be named Texas League MVP, no surprise given he finished as the league leader in slugging and second in OPS (.882).
"This year, one of the big things they tried doing was throwing off-speed in hitters' counts," he said. "So I tried to make more of an effort to lay off the rough pitches and capitalizing on their mistakes, instead of rolling over on a pitch. I would say I was a lot more patient or selective. Those would be the words, I guess. I really tried to make the most of the situation, knowing I could hit later in the count."
"They tried a lot of different ways to attack him, but they just couldn't execute them," said Kruzel. "He would always find a way to do something else. 'Oh, you're going to do that, then I'll do this. Oh you'll do this, then I'll do that.' He looked locked in from the first days with us right up until we sent him to Memphis. And in all fairness, he looked pretty locked in with Memphis, too."
Indeed, Carlson's momentum wasn't slowed by a move to the Minors' top level. He hit .361/.418/.681 with five homers in 18 games with the Redbirds. From his Aug. 15 debut onward, he tied for third in the Pacific Coast League in hits (26), tied for fourth in total bases (49) and tied for fifth in extra-base hits (11). He finished with 26 homers, five more than he had hit in his previous three seasons combined.
But beyond just the hitting, what made Carlson's season such a promising breakout were some of his other tools. While he was slugging more, he was also stealing more bases with what's seen as average speed. Carlson's 20 thefts between Memphis and Springfield were more than double his previous high of eight, and his 28 attempts also blew his previous high of 12 out of the water.
"My manager made it real clear from the start," he said. "He wanted to be more aggressive and test the waters. He gave me that freedom to run. I really wanted to see what I was capable of doing, too. I wanted to take off and be smart about it and obviously make the most out of each situation.
"This year, I felt more prepared every time I got on base. I knew the pitchers' times. I knew how the catcher threw. That's opposed to how I used to be when I was more relaxed and approached the game more lax. I was reacting more to the game then, instead of being prepared and making things happen."
Defensively as well, Carlson seemed to solidify his place as a potential center fielder. He played primarily in the corners in 2018 with Palm Beach but moved back up the middle this season with positive results. Carlson made 94 of his 115 defensive starts in center field in 2019, picking up four outfield assists at that position. It's still possible he moves to a corner long-term, but the Cardinals seem pleased with his chances to keep the more premium position as an option.
"He's got good closing speed and arm strength," Kruzel said. "His reads and jumps are both above-average, I would say. They'll have to figure out what best fits him, but the last thing I want to see happen is all he does is play center field and then he gets up to the Majors and they want to try him somewhere else then. The way he's played, he'll be ready for when the opportunity comes."
Carlson, who worked extensively in the spring with Cardinals coach Willie McGee, credits his long time around the game with helping him with some of the intangibles of defensive play.
"I just think my knowledge of the game gives me the one-up there," he said "Knowing what the hitters are trying to do or what the pitchers are trying to do to get them out. I try to learn and know everything that's going on in the game. For me, I think my knowledge and baseball IQ helps me formulate a plan and gain that extra step out there, as opposed to relying on just my abilities."
An award-winning hitter. A good basestealer. A solid defender. Those are the makings of any big-time prospect. The fact that all three popped in the same big year is the definition of a breakout.
Cubs utilityman Robel Garcia wasn't on anyone's radar coming into 2019.
The 26-year-old switch-hitter played four seasons in the Indians system from 2010-13, topping out at Class A Lake County, before heading over to Italy to play there. The Cubs noticed him as part of the Italian national team during a fall tour of Arizona and signed him as a flier last October. He was in the Majors nine months later.
Garcia finished with a .284/.369/.586 line over 98 games between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa. Like Carlson, his 27 homers in the Minors trumped his previous high of six, set in the Arizona League in 2011. Garcia still hit for power in the Majors, producing five homers and a .500 slugging percentage in 31 games, but he struggled in other offensive aspects, striking out in 43.8 percent of his plate appearances and hitting only .208. Still, he provided some additional value on the defensive end by playing six different positions between the Majors and Minors -- all but pitcher, catcher and center field.
The fact that Garcia, who is now ranked as the Cubs' No. 26 prospect, made the Majors at all is the type of stuff celebrated in Hollywood. For now, the fans' selection as the 2019 MiLBY Breakout Prospect will do nicely.
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.