Matt Carpenter, 35, has been the top storyline of Cardinals camp so far. Much is being said and written about Carpenter’s effort to regenerate his bat and make himself viable for considerable playing time after two down seasons.
Since the start of the 2019 season Carpenter has batted .216 with a .704 OPS. The classic Carpenter onbase skill (.332 OBP) was pretty good, but his power waned to a .372 slugging percentage over two seasons. And while Carpenter continued to finesse walks at a high rate (13%) his two-season strikeout rate spiked to 26.8 percent.
All in all, Carpenter’s offensive performance across 2019 and ‘20 came in at eight percent below league average in park-adjusted runs created. Not good … but hardly horrific.
I’m always fascinated by the tantrums thrown by irate Cardinals fans when Carpenter is cast in even the faintest of positive light.
These spring-training stories about an aging veteran’s determined effort to restore his vintage swing and return to his glory days of spring and summer have been written since the advent of professional baseball. These proud-veteran comeback stories are nothing new. This is a ritual. It is predictable. And Carpenter’s searching for renewal under a warm Florida sun should not be a source of hostility or angst.
When Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak speaks about Carpenter’s potential for rejuvenation in optimistic tones, he is doing what baseball people do: supporting their team, the individual players, and supplying obligatory passages from the annual spring-training “Hope Springs Eternal” trope.
Let’s not forget about spring customs, be it the promising rookies who catch an eye and draw attention … or the former veteran leadoff man and catalyst that’s working hard to catch a second career wave.
This is normal and harmless. Young and inexperienced players want to be older and more experienced players. The older guys want to be young again. If these familiar spring-training narratives are so distasteful or disgusting to you, then you haven’t really followed baseball and should probably look for another sport.
Mozeliak was on the Carpenter campaign trail earlier this week, telling MLB Network Radio that the “best-case scenario” has Carpenter winning the second base job.
My goodness … I think I can hear the sound of all of those heads on fire, sizzling with rage.
“He was an All-Star there years ago, but has done it,” Mozeliak said. “He does have some confidence at that position. Matt is looking at this kind of opportunistically. I know he’s excited about the challenge.”
Here’s the deal: if Carpenter is given the full opportunity to compete for the second-base spot, it is no cause for protest. If Carpenter hits well enough to genuinely give a boost to a questionable offense, then his below-average defense would be acceptable. At least until it’s time to protect a lead in the late innings.
But if Carpenter doesn’t get on base at a high clip and blast his way through the Grapefruit League with an impressive display of offense, and he’s handed the second-base gig over Tommy Edman … well, let me put it to you this way: I’ll be hollering about it as much as you do.
A team that’s embarrassed itself offensively over the past two seasons cannot fool around with soft-spot sentimentality or payroll politics when setting a regular lineup. Play the best dudes, period.
If Carpenter can hit again, then there are all sorts of ways to get him at-bats.
–The switch-hitting Edman was fragile against RH pitching last season, posting a .642 OPS (yuck.) His performance against righties was 19% below league average offensively in park-adjusted runs created And Edman was 27% above average vs. lefties in 2020. If Edman isn’t effective against RHP and Carpenter’s bat comes to life, it makes sense to give Carpenter plenty of starts at 2B against RH starting pitchers. But only to a point.
–Defense has to be a factor. If Carpenter isn’t walloping RH pitchers, and Edman isn’t pounding RH pitchers, then you play the best defender there.
–And even if Carpenter starts at second when the Cardinals are facing a RH starter, how long will that pitcher be in the game? Many managers seem inclined to limit starter innings this season. So the Cardinals figure to see some LH relievers enter the game earlier. We’ll see how it plays out.
–If the young outfielders struggle offensively, Edman can be redeployed in a corner OF spot, giving Carpenter opportunities to play second base.
–When Paul DeJong needs rest — and he should get more down time than he has in the past — then Edman can move to shortstop, with Carpenter plugging in at second.
–Carpenter can DH vs. RH pitchers in American League ballparks.
–First baseman Paul Goldschmidt and third baseman Nolan Arenado won’t take many days off, but Carpenter is the primary backup at both spots. So he’ll get some starts at first, and get some starts at third.
–Carpenter’s two-year contract with the Cardinals will expire after the season, unless he receives 550 plate appearances in ‘21 to kick in an $18.5 million vesting option for 2022. That’s an obvious factor in any playing-time decisions in ‘21.
It really comes down to this: if Carpenter overcomes his recent history and the odds to stimulate the Cards offense, it’s stupid to keep him on the bench. And Edman’s versatility can open playing-time opportunities for Carpenter. I don’t know why anyone would oppose the idea of having Carpenter play a lot if an increased role is warranted by his offensive performance. If he Carpenter doesn’t hit, the Cardinals won’t be able to justify extensive playing time.
For the record, I’m pessimistic. But that doesn’t matter. Being optimistic over Carpenter doesn’t matter, either. This is all about performance. Nothing but performance.
Thanks for reading …
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For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.