There is a lot of enthusiasm about Sam Carlson right now, and there should be. This feels a bit rude to Evan White. The Mariners’ first round pick is a talented player that scouts agree has a good (if confusing) profile, and is immediately one of the two or three best prospects in the entire organization, only obviously trailing Kyle Lewis. Nowhere is the Mariners farm system flush, but if most positions in the organization are hungry for talent, starting pitching looks like your Neopets do right now. Bad Mariners, you didn’t feed your Grundo.
Andrew Moore looks ready, but he still faces questions about his ceiling given velocity that doesn’t jump off the page. Nick Neidert looks fantastic in High-A and is in High-A. Max Povse, Rob Whalen, and Chase De Jong are the only other SPs in MLB’s Top-15 prospects, and while all three are barely 23 years-old, none have performed at a level that would suggest they are top of the rotation starters. Is Sam Carlson different?
In terms of potential, the answer appears to be a firm yes. To expand on that conclusion, I’ve looked at as much information as I can find on Carlson. I take pride in my ability to evaluate pitching mechanics and quality, but there are also folks who do that as their full-time job, so I’ll certainly defer and refer frequently to experienced scouting in my evaluation.
When you are a high school pitcher that merits a pick in the first two rounds of the MLB draft your numbers should jump off the page. A USA Today All-USA First Team winner, Carlson shredded the highest level of Minnesota’s high school baseball, 68 Ks in 34 innings and a 0.41 ERA. It’s better than him doing terribly, to be sure, but these numbers should be near the bottom of the tiers of things used to evaluate a draftee’s potential, and so they shall be here.
John Sickels of Minor League Ball profiled Carlson and was not only effusive in his praise of Carlson’s strength and improvement, but noted that, although banking on high school pitchers is always a risky venture, Carlson doesn’t do much to exacerbate risk. He has the size and frame you would want in a starting pitcher. His motion is straightforward and doesn’t have much excess noise that makes you think “well that’s weird.” Of course, weird can be fine, weird is just tougher to do repeatedly, but as far as I can find from scouts who have watched him, his mechanics seem consistent in-game. He maintains his weight on his back leg for a long time and drives well towards home plate.
In earlier videos it looked as though Carlson might finish a little early and upright, but it looks better in this video from late May. As Jason Churchill notes here, occasionally not finishing his slider in particular can limit its effectiveness, and seems like a likely point of emphasis for the organization. Sickels also notes there have been passing concerns that Carlson throws a bit too much across his body, which was more noticeable in video I found from 2016 like this but still seems to remain, albeit to a lesser degree. The largest possible concern comes at the very end of the loop above, where Carlson jerks his head back up rapidly after finishing the pitch. It’s a bad habit, and one that is certainly fixable, but can lead to health issues if unaddressed.
Mechanics are a process, and the current organization has had successes in developing players through mechanical adjustments (James Paxton, James Pazos, Thyago Veiera) and struggles (Nate Karns, 2017 Dan Altavilla), so it’s anyone’s guess if they see much worth tinkering with or not. Carlson enters as a high school arm without much baggage, which is all we can really ask for.
Mmmm. The creamy nougat we’ve hungered for. Carlson was Baseball America’s seventh-ranked RHP (21st overall), and ended up being the 18th RHP taken, the 24th pitcher selected, and of course the 55th overall selection. Carlson’s progression has been rapid. This time last year as a 17 year-old, Carlson was throwing 88-92 mph with his fastball. Through training and growth, Carlson, now 18 and a half, has built up to consistently sitting 92-94 with reports of reaching 96-97. At 6’4, 205 lbs, he has a frame that can be built on. Not to suggest Carlson will see the same jump as James Paxton has, but the Mariners ace was listed at 6’3, 200 lbs entering the University of Kentucky. Paxton has since grown and built himself into a 6’4, 235 frame and added three to five mph to his fastball. Carlson does not need to do that to be effective, but it’s a nice perk of potential.
Let’s look at Carlson’s three(ish) main pitches, his fastball, changeup, and slider:
As Carlson describes here, he recognizes he gets a significant amount of arm-side run on his standard fastball. That’s great, especially considering the velocity he’s already able to generate. As I mentioned above, the various reports I can find have Carlson’s fastball between 91-95, and touching a bit higher. MLB.com notes that his fastball already was a plus pitch due to its sinking, tailing movement, and that the added velocity and movement has not harmed his strong control of the pitch. Carlson also will work in a two-seam fastball when he’s looking for a grounder or a bit of extra bite. I’ve not seen anything highlighting this pitch in particular, but every instance I’ve seen of him throwing it has resulted in a pitch well out of the strike zone, so I suspect it will either be ditched or a work in progress in the minors.
The movement on Carlson’s breaking ball is significant. In speaking with the folks at Perfect Game, Carlson outlines his grips and basic mentality on the mound, but unfortunately does little to clarify if the pitch is really a curveball or a slider. He calls it a curveball, but his grip and the way he throws it almost identical to his fastball are more similar to a slider. The pitch was viewed as a weakness prior to this season, which Carlson took as a personal challenge to improve. The result is a nice breaking ball that sits in the mid-80s. Most impressively, in video and according to the appraisal of scouts, Carlson can consistently place the pitch for a strike.
My personal favorite offering from any pitcher, Carlson’s change is a solid one. Around 10 mph slower than his fastball, the movement is significant and advanced for an 18 year-old. The pitch looks like a nightmare for lefties already, and pairing the tailing movement of his fastball with the sink of his change and the sweeping action of his breaking ball give Carlson three distinct angles of significant movement. His breaking ball looks more like a general swing-and-miss pitch at higher levels, however.
Sam Carlson a steal for Seattle at 55. Was #14 on my board. Low-90s, t96, curveball & changeup feel, throws strikes, cold-weather pedigree.— Eric Longenhagen (@longenhagen) June 13, 2017
For a longer demonstration from last summer and fall, Baseball America has great video here of Carlson in the Area Code Games and a few other prospect competitions. If you skip to around 1:27 of the three minute video, you’ll see some great fun live matchups, including Carlson striking out this year’s #1 overall pick, SS Royce Lewis of the Twins, with three sliders, and setting down the #14 overall pick, 1B Nick Pratto of the Royals, with fastballs and change-ups.
There have been studies done on the addictive power of finding a discount on a sale, and the euphoric feeling of nabbing a gorgeous coat at 50% off has been suggested to mimic the sensation of a natural or drug-induced high. Sam Carlson was drafted with the 55th pick in the draft after most projections expected him to be gone in the first round. In the six different scouting databases I found, Carlson was ranked 13th, 14th, 15th, 17th, 21st, and 49th. On-sale indeed. The discrepancy between Carlson’s 1st round talent and his second round selection appears to hinge on what was believed to be a strong commitment to the University of Florida. This is the only potential wrench in the Mariners plans, and one they’ve obviously planned for with their later selections. Wyatt Mills, the team’s third round selection, flummoxed the MLB Network staff as the pick came in live, and understandably so. As a senior reliever, Mills has essentially no negotiating power and will likely sign well under the slot value of the pick, freeing up somewhere from $300-550,000 extra to allot Carlson, whose second round selection is slotted $1.2 million.
If Evan White will sign a bit under his $3.3 million slot value and/or the Mariners can snag a few extra dollars from the $133,000 allotted to their 10th round pick, SR RHP Randy Bell, or JUCO LHP Max Roberts who went in the seventh and is slotted $192,200, Carlson should be a Mariner.
Scott Hunter says M's willing to go over slot (which is $1.2M) to sign Sam Carlson — and they're very optimistic he will sign soon.— Adam Jude (@A_Jude) June 13, 2017
It’s not like they’re going to say “we don’t think we have a chance to sign him,” but the reports are promising. It’s also a good sign that the team had Carlson at the game Tuesday night in his home state of Minnesota, result of the game aside. Carlson was decked out in M’s gear, and speaking with players and manager Scott Servais. I would expect something in the $1.5-2 million range, and err towards the higher side, since this draft class hinges on securing Carlson and his upside.
Sam Carlson was a great value where he was picked. So was Alex Jackson. So was Kyle Lewis. So was DJ Peterson. So was Taijuan Walker. Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t. Sam Carlson has all the ability to be a very good starting pitcher for the Mariners. In a few weeks, when signings are confirmed, assuming the Mariners sign Carlson, many Top-10/Top-30/Top-100 lists will be updated, and Carlson will likely top all of them among Mariners pitchers. Our own Ethan Novak (spoilers) puts Carlson in at second in the entire system behind Kyle Lewis, but universally one thing can be agreed upon: Carlson gives the Mariners a prototypical top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher prospect. There is no such thing as a pitching prospect, so they say, so this candle must be held close and with care, but as you set it on your bedside table for the night and lie down, feel free at last to dream.