How the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter is beating the shift
It’s not really that I am questioning the St. Louis Cardinals in their decision to keep slugging infielder Matt Carpenter with the team for what is expected to be the balance of his career.
But I have to wonder a little bit about the timing of it, given Carpenter’s slow start the last two seasons, his age and the fact that the Redbirds already had control of him for at least one more year thanks to a team option for 2020.
With two years and the option year pushed back to 2022, the Cardinals are committed to Carpenter now through his age 35 season and could maintain control through the time he’s 36. It wasn’t that long ago that St. Louis seemed to be allergic to paying players into their mid thirties. But now they’re on the hook with their two corner infielders, Carpenter and recent first base addition Paul Goldschmidt past the bewitching hour. I guess I have less of a problem with the fact that the Cardinals made these moves now than I do with the fact that they used their aversion to signing mid-30s players as an excuse not to pursue other players who could have helped them in the past. Either their policy is to shy away from older players or it isn’t. Which is it?
The thing that surprises me most about the Carpenter deal is that a year ago Cardinals Nation was legitimately concerned that Carpenter was toast because he wasn’t just struggling to hit .200, he was having a hard time keeping his average over the .150 mark with a .155 batting average through the end of April. Granted, it’s extremely early this year. But again he is hitting only .203 in his first 90 plate appearances with a negative Wins Above Replacement mark and 19 strikeouts compared to 10 walks.
I don’t doubt that Carpenter can turn things around. But if you pan out a little bit on his statistics, the trend gives some reason for concern. From 2014-16 Carpenter was a .272 hitter. From 2017-19, his average has tumbled to .247. His homers have increased from an average of 19 to 21 a season and his on base percentage has been steady. But are the prolonged slumps a sign that his bat has begun to erode.
The other side of the coin is that the addition of Paul Goldschmidt took away Carpenter’s best defensive position. He had to move back to third where he’s limited by arm problems. If the team finds Carpenter can’t cut it at third, there really isn’t much else the team can do with him having Goldie’s name written in the lineup card at first base in permanent marker. A couple of years ago, Carp might have found playing time at second base. But Kolten Wong runs circles around him there defensively. Plus, freed from the icy glare of Mike Matheny, Wong is playing better than ever before. He is arguably the best offensive player on the club for the first month of the new season, although Marcell Ozuna and Paul DeJong have been making their case for that title recently.
Of course, there are other things that players contribute to their team besides baseball card statistics. Carpenter is a leader on this team and the Cardinals front office may have felt it was important to secure his future with the team to give him some standing in the clubhouse. If the youngsters felt as if Carp was a lame duck because he might be gone after this season, would they have been as likely to follow a lame duck? We know the versatile infielder works ceaselessly to be the best player he can be. That’s a trait that would serve the younger players well as they try to establish themselves.
It’s not that there isn’t a reward in signing a veteran player to an extension, especially when that player is adamant about wanting to stay with the team. But it just didn’t seem like the Cardinals needed to take the risk. At least not now.
Again, I’m not panning the move. I’m just questioning the timing and what it means for the future of a roster that is littered with dead weight contracts belonging to the likes of Mike Leake, Luke Gregerson and Brett Cecil. Although Dexter Fowler has been hitting somewhat better lately, I’m not yet sold that he can keep it up, either. St. Louis just can’t afford another contract bust at this point.