How will the addition of clubhouse nuncio Matt Carpenter impact the development of Alec Burleson?
Let’s explore the issues, the potential problems, the concerns:
1. There are only so many at-bats to go around, and both players are limited defensively. There’s not much difference between them. Over the past two seasons both Carpenter and Burleson have been used most often at first base but have received playing time in left field and right field. Burleson has played more in the corner outfield than Carpenter – but in 2021 the Cardinals used Carpenter for 214.2 innings at second base, and 37.2 innings at third.
I don’t have to tell you about the quality of their defensive work but … a few notes: Carpenter has been slightly below-average at first base. Burleson has played average defense there in support of starter Paul Goldschmidt. Burleson is awkward as an outfielder. That’s a polite term.
Via OAA (outs above average) last season Burleson was five below average in left field, and two below average in right field. Theoretically Burleson gives the Cardinals more flexibility because he’s played a lot more corner outfield than Carpenter over the last two seasons. But according to a story written by John Denton of MLB.com, the Cardinals made something clear to Burleson at the end of last season: he must improve defensively. Burleson has been working on his defense this offseason so we’ll get an updated look at his defense (and weight) in spring training.
2. Carpenter and Burleson swing from the left side. What about the platoon-split advantage? Here’s the assumption: Burleson and Carpenter should be effective against right-handed pitchers. But we shouldn’t count on it.
Using park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+) Burleson was 10 percent below league average against RHP in 2023. And while Carpenter muscled righty pitchers as a Yankee in 2022 – the Yankee Stadium Effect – he was 25 percent below average vs. RHP in 2021, and 18% below average when facing RHP in 2023.
I believe Burleson will improve against right-handed pitching but he needs plenty of MLB at-bats to get there. And if that doesn’t happen in the majors, they’ll have to put him at Triple A Memphis for a reset.
Both hitters have done OK against left-handed pitchers, but in Carpenter’s case much of the success was derived from his inflated offensive numbers at Yankee Stadium in 2022. And though Burleson has hit .267 (with scant power) against lefties in the majors, that’s based on only 32 plate appearances.
Are the Cardinals overestimating the platoon-split advantage that Carpenter and Burleson supposedly bring in plate appearances vs. right-handed throwers? It certainly seems that way. Carpenter has one advantage over Burleson: a high overall walk rate – even against lefties.
Burleson is still only 25 and should improve. At age 38, Carpenter’s upside is much lower.
3. What does the Carpenter signing mean for the bench brigade? If the Cardinals carry 13 pitchers on their regular-season roster – the allowable maximum until Sept. 1 – it leaves only four position-player openings for the bench. If the Cards keep Carpenter and Burleson, the other two spots will be taken by No. 2 catcher Ivan Herrera and fourth outfielder Dylan Carlson.
In this scenario, the bench wouldn’t include a standard reserve middle infielder. Brendan Donovan, a starting player, can move around and set up at several positions, but shortstop is his weakest area. And he’s coming off arm surgery.
Tommy Edman can take shifts at shortstop in relief of Masyn Winn, but the Cardinals covet Tommy’s defense in center field.
The Cardinals can use a bench spot for a utility infielder – possibly Jose Fermin – but this would almost certainly displace Burleson. I don’t think the Cardinals signed Carpenter to release him at the end of spring training. They need a backup behind starting catcher Willson Contreras. The Cards also need Carlson because he can play in all three outfield spaces. I don’t see room for Luken Baker. There may not be a meaningful role for Burleson.
I’m not looking to be negative here, but this prospective bench seems short on power, matchup dexterity, and excitement. And if the Cardinals go with Burleson and Carpenter, the idea of turning to late-inning defensive options to protect leads is … well, asinine. And while Fermin played more than 1,000 innings at shortstop in the minors, he’s better at second base. Since the start of the 2021 season Fermin has logged only 22 games and 178 innings at shortstop.
4. With Carpenter on the roster, how will manager Oli Marmol get enough at-bats for Burleson? That’s the big question. And it will be another challenging puzzle for Marmol to solve. And because Carpenter and Burleson play the same positions in the field, the Cardinals have another logjam to deal with. But bringing Carpenter back is something Marmol wanted to do. Does that make Carpenter more of a priority than Burleson? Maybe. But we’ll see.
– Designated hitter. Last season here’s how Marmol distributed plate appearances at DH:
* Willson Contreras, 18.5 percent
* Nolan Gorman, 16.7%
* Paul Goldschmidt, 12.8%
* Alec Burleson, 12.3%
* Brendan Donovan, 11.4%
* Nolan Arenado, 9%
* Luken Baker, 8.7%
* Jordan Walker, 4.1%
Juan Yepez, Lars Nootbaar, Dylan Carlson, Tyler O’Neill and Michael Siani collectively handled 2.5 percent of the other DH plate appearances. Yepez, O’Neill and Siani are gone.
Marmol spread it around in 2023. He didn’t have a primary DH. If the plan is to try and accommodate both Burleson and Carpenter, the DH spot is the easiest way to go. But somehow I don’t think it will be that simple, especially if the Cardinals have to slot Gorman at DH more frequently to ease the strain on lower back.
Last season Burleson had 140 plate appearances as a left fielder, 89 as a DH, 53 at first base and 38 in right field. If Burleson is more capable defensively, he can be rotated into left field and right field. The Cardinals would be smart to avoid using Carpenter out there.
Carpenter did play some games in the outfield corners for the Yankees in 2022 – amounting to 50 plate appearances, but the Padres kept Carp away from the outfield. He had 35 plate appearances for San Diego at first base and his other PA came at designated hitter or through pinch hitting. Carpenter received the largest share of the DH plate appearances – 28.3 percent – for the Padres.
How much will the Cardinals utilize Carpenter at third base, first base, and second base? Their willingness to make him a multi-position defender would set up Burleson for more DH time. And Burleson could get other plate appearances when used as a right or left fielder.
5. Will Burleson improve and earn more at-bats? Again, the amount of playing time depends on the state of Burleson’s defense and offense. It also depends on (A) Carlson’s offensive performance and (B) injury-based need. But if Burleson has become more suitable and acceptable for corner-outfield service, he can exceed 350 plate appearances as a DH-outfielder. With perhaps some first base mixed in there. Burly had 347 plate appearances in 2023. If Burleson’s bat comes alive with a higher hard-hit rate and increased power, the Cardinals will want to take advantage of the improvement.
Burleson is a terrific contact hitter who struck out in only 13 percent of his plate appearances last season. He was in the 91st percentile for lowest whiff rate, and in the 95th percentile for lowest strikeout percentage. He had an overall contact rate of 84.5 percent, and a strike-zone contact rate of 91.1%.
But there were problems. Burleson is aggressive to a fault and must be more selective. He’s eager to rip away and this leads him to chases too many pitches out of the strike zone. Burleson’s chase rate (37.1%) put him among the worst 19 percent of MLB hitters in 2023.
When he connects on non-strikes, the quality of the contact suffers. His average exit velocity is lower. The chase flaw limits his hard-hit and barrel rates. But the skills are there. Even though Burleson’s chase rate went up by more than three percent after the All-Star break, he raised his performance in other areas. His hard-hit rate increased from 38.4 percent before the break to 42% after the break. He barreled a higher percentage of pitches.
From July 15 until the end of the regular season Burleson batted .273 with a .325 onbase percentage and .417 slugging percentage. Before the All-Star break he batted .222 with a .281 OBP and .369 slug.
The bottom line? According to park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+), Burleson was 22 percent below average offensively before the All-Star break and three percent above average after the break. He made progress. And if Burleson wants to make a case for more playing time, his bat is his best friend. He needs to be a line-drive machine in spring training and go from there.
Another question – which we can’t answer now – concerns Carpenter’s job security if he fails to hit. Will the Cardinals keep him on the 26-man roster all season? That’s what happened in 2021.
If Burleson heats up his hitting and Carpenter stays old and cold, will Marmol shift his thinking and give more opportunities to Burleson? Or will the Cardinals activate their usual Nostalgia Clause, look the other way with Carpenter, spin the media, and go with the usual “bad luck” excuse to justify M-Carp’s presence?
The Cardinals may have some younger hitters waiting on the runway in 2024: center fielder Victor Scott and infielder Thomas Saggese. Will one – or both – be stuck in neutral while the Cardinals hold a roster spot for Carpenter. Hey, if Carpenter produces and exceeds expectations, there’s nothing to fuss about.
And I repeat: Burleson has to display improvement on offense and defense and prove that he belongs in the majors. It’s up to Burly to make his own argument – a convincing case — for a spot in the big club’s lineup.
I respect Carpenter. I get the “leadership” aspect to the signing, but that can only go so far. If Burleson demonstrates he’s worthy of more at-bats, the Cardinals can’t hold him back or ship him to Triple A. The Cardinals can’t block Burleson in favor of a light-hitting Carpenter. And they can’t block prospects that have earned a promotion to the bigs to help the Cardinals win games. An important aspect of leadership by a manager is doing what’s best for the team by using the best players.
Thanks for reading …
A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
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All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus, Sports Info Solutions and Cot’s Contracts unless otherwise noted.
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.