How about Ken Rosenthal, stirring the pot on The Hot Stove?
In his Tuesday column at The Athletic, Rosenthal introduced the idea of Matt Carpenter returning to the Cardinals in 2023.
After making a remarkable comeback as a hitter for the 2022 New York Yankees, could we see Carpenter come back to St. Louis, his mostly happy baseball home during his first 11 major-league seasons?
Rosenthal said that Carpenter-Cardinals was just his speculation, and nothing that he’d been told specifically. But Ken went on to offer several pertinent points.
“Carpenter’s deep and enduring connections to the Cardinals would seem to make a potential reunion feasible,’ he wrote. “Carpenter was a roommate in rookie ball with Cardinals manager Oli Marmol. His transformation last offseason included a visit to the Marucci’s baseball performance lab in Baton Rouge, La., with Cardinals stars Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, as well as hitting sessions with former teammate and new Cardinals bench coach Matt Holliday.”
Rosenthal concluded: “The retirement of Albert Pujols potentially creates an opening for Carpenter, who turns 37 on Nov. 26. And the departure of hitting coach Jeff Albert also could enhance the possibility. Carpenter did not blame Albert for his struggles in his latter years with the Cardinals, but said, ‘I just never bought into (analytics) like I should have.’ “
And it can’t be ruled out.
I take this seriously for three reasons: (1) Rosenthal’s immense credibility; I trust his information and his instincts. And (2) he has a healthy and positive relationship with Carpenter and a good, professional working relationship with the St. Louis front office. In other words, Rosenthal isn’t going off on a crazy rumor-mongering trip with this. He wouldn’t put the Carpenter-Cardinals stuff out there unless he believed the possibility had merit. And the third reason? Carpenter had an extraordinary 2022 season for the Yankees. More on that in a couple of minutes.
Rosenthal is right: Carpenter has many friends and allies in the Cardinals family. Friends and allies who also have clout. The Marmol-Holliday aspect to this is compelling, and Holliday definitely played a role in Carpenter’s resurgence during the late stages of a career that had flamed out.
But a Carpenter-Cardinals homecoming would be risky.
Not so much because of the money involved. And I have no idea what that would be … other than a one-year deal. It depends on what Carpenter wants, and what the Cardinals are willing to do. But I’d imagine he’ll be in line for offers from other teams, and won’t have to settle for a minor-league, “make good” contract that offers a chance to make the big-league roster in spring training.
But if the Cardinals bring Carpenter back, and have him decline and drift back into his 2021 state of futility at the plate, the St. Louis front office would be the object of scorn and ridicule. That’s especially true if the Redbirds reunite with Carpenter and cast him as the left-handed bat they were seeking for their lineup-depth mix in 2023.
In 2021, Carpenter’s offense faded to a .169 batting average, .305 onbase percentage, .275 slug and a .581 OPS. He struck out 31 percent of the time. His OPS+ (63) was 37 percent below league average offensively. Over his final three seasons here, Carpenter had an OPS+ of 82 … or 18 percent below league average.
After making an offseason tour of hitting academies, working with multiple batting instructors, and spending learning time with Holliday and Cincinnati first baseman Joey Votto, Carpenter signed a minor-league deal with the Texas Rangers. M-Carp started the 2022 season in Triple A, asked for (and received) his release, and signed with the Yankees. Hmmm … what was going on here?
What followed was a sensational and stunning comeback. In 47 games and 154 plate appearances for the Yankees, Carpenter batted .305, posted a .412 OBP, slugged 727 and generated a 1.082 OPS. He hit 15 homers, cranking one out every 8.5 at-bats. He lowered his strikeout rate by 10 percent, maintained his walk rate at peak-career levels, and delivered the highest home-run percentage (9.7%) of his career. All of this was absolutely remarkable.
The Carpenter revival crashed after he broke a foot on Aug. 8. He didn’t play again until the start of the postseason and had a dreadful struggle at the plate, going 1 for 12 with nine strikeouts. His swing wasn’t sharp, his timing was off, and the rust was too problematic to overcome after his lengthy stay on the IL.
Carpenter was a hitter of mass destruction at Yankee Stadium, batting .388 with a .524 OBP and 1.082 slug in 63 plate appearances. He had a .1605 OPS and nine home runs in the Bronx, and triggered a HR at a preposterous rate of one every 5.4 at-bats.
Carpenter wasn’t as almighty on the road – but still plenty damn good. In 91 plate appearances away from Yankee Stadium he batted .253 with a .333 OBP and .506 slug and homered every 13 at-bats.
Carpenter cooled off after the All-Star break, but had only 59 plate appearances before injuring the foot on a foul ball. For whatever the small sample size is worth, Carpenter hit .225 with a .316 OBP and .429 slug after the All-Star rest stop and homered only twice in 49 at-bats. In 40 plate appearances on the road after the ASB, Carpenter hit .143 with a .229 slug and one homer.
Does that raise any questions?
It’s tricky. No one expected Carpenter to sustain his astonishing first-half performance, but he leveled off pretty quickly when the schedule resumed on July 21.
I’m not sure what’s reasonable to expect from Carpenter in 2023.
He’ll benefit from the elimination of defensive shifts, which ate up ground balls and line drives put into play on the right side by his left-handed swing.
Looking at the Statcast metrics, Carpenter had an expected .568 slugging percentage on fastballs last season – that’s great – but his expected slug on fastballs in 2021 was .524. But in 2021, the quality contact on fastballs didn’t lead to much damage by Carpenter; his actual slug on fastballs was .322.
And though his barrel percentage increased by 2.2% from 2021 to 2022, there was no real change in his launch angle, average exit velocity and hard-hit rate.
Here’s Carpenter’s projected 2023 season from Baseball Reference: 302 plate appearances, 11 homers, .221 average, .324 OBP, .411 slug and .735 OPS.
The possibility of a Carpenter return is intriguing. But what’s the reality? Do the Cardinals buy into what Carpenter did in 2022? Do they have confidence that his dramatically improved hitting will last through 2023? Given the obvious fondness the Cardinals have for Carpenter, can they disregard the personal side and make the decision based on honest professional projections?
Nolan Gorman enters into this. He’ll have to take a lot of his at-bats at DH, because his second-base defense won’t be up to speed (or snuff) when defensive shifts go away in 2023. Do the Cardinals really want to push Gorman to the side in a reduced role to make space for the 37-year-old Carpenter. Many questions.
Ken Rosenthal certainly has given us something to talk about.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app which is available in your preferred app store.
“Seeing Red,” my weekly podcast on the Cardinals with Will Leitch, is available on multiple platforms including Apple and Spotify. Please subscribe.
Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
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.