The Nostalgia Tour continues. Matt Carpenter is a Cardinal again. He agreed to a one-year contract in an arrangement announced by the team on Friday.
Were you surprised by the news? I can’t say that I expected it … but no, it isn’t surprising. Not at all. This is what the Cardinals do. From ownership to the dugout staff, the franchise just can’t let go of the past.
There’s always another “Greatest Hits” tour in the works, coming to a ballpark near you. (Busch Stadium to be exact.) The Cardinals can’t help it. They adore reunions. They love getting the band back together – well, at least parts of it. And a good percentage of the fans like it, too. The chance to celebrate older but still active Cardinals is irresistible.
Why fill an obvious need by going to get a pricey, top-notch reliever on the free-agent market when you can retrieve a player from your recent history and stage another fond-farewell season?
Albert Pujols played his final season here in 2022, and that worked out great – joys and thrills and lots of booming home runs. It was just about perfect. And the ‘22 Cardinals won the NL Central and 93 games. Bringing Pujols back was a beautiful experience.
Adam Wainwright returned to pitch for one more season, in 2023. He was 41 years old. His right arm didn’t have much life or velocity. Uncle Charlie – Waino’s famous friend, wasn’t reliable. Pitching was painful and excruciatingly difficult. It turned into an ordeal. Cardinals fans and media rooted Wainwright on with full hearts, but the hitters wouldn’t play along. They blasted Waino for a 7.40 ERA that was the highest recorded against earned-run average against a Cardinals starter in a single season – minimum 100 innings – in franchise history. At least it ended happily, with Wainwright proudly and defiantly securing career win No. 200 with a seven shutout innings against Milwaukee on Sept. 18. Thank goodness for that.
And this offseason, the Cardinals and greatest-ever catcher Yadier Molina resumed their partnership, with Yadi agreeing to come back as an advisor. No one has an exact job description for his role, and Molina isn’t obligated to be with the ballclub all season. He will come and go and be a helpful coaching/instructing/advisory presence when on the job. And fans will love seeing him. More ovations are on the way.
Former Cardinal infielder Daniel Descalso – a highly intelligent respected player – was hired as STL’s bench coach for 2024. No complaints here; it was a smart move and Descalso should make a positive difference. Also new to the Cardinals coaching lineup is all-time franchise saves leader Jason Isringhausen. At times he’ll be with the big club, and will work with young pitchers in the minor-league system, and will offer observations to president of baseball operations John Mozeliak.
The Cardinals haven’t gone outside the organization to hire their major-league manager since Tony La Russa was recruited here from Oakland after the 1995 season. There have been two full-time leaders of baseball operations – Walt Jocketty and then John Mozeliak – since Bill DeWitt Jr. took over as owner-chairman in 1996.
The same front-office operation has been aligned – at least for the most part but not entirely – for a long time. That’s why fans and media were so pleased by the addition of advisor Chaim Bloom, the former Rays and Red Sox executive. He’s highly regarded for his work in developing an advanced pitching program that can enhance the trajectory of young arms.
The outdated Cardinals desperately need to modernize, and Bloom’s hiring was viewed as the second coming of Branch Rickey.
OK, so I exaggerate a little. But finally – finally! – there’s a fresh voice and perspective in the baseball-management group down at Busch Stadium.
Now the Cardinals are doing it again, going back in time to reconnect with Carpenter. He’s 38. And outside of a startling, red-hot streaking summer with the Yankees in 2022, Carp hasn’t hit much since the 2018 campaign.
Look, I won’t lie to you.
Personally, I have great appreciation and respect for Matt Carpenter.
He’s been one of the best dudes I’ve covered during my decades of chronicling the Cardinals. He’s the proverbial class act. The stand-up guy who never ducked and ran from the clubhouse to avoid speaking to the media during tough times. After bad losses and during ugly losing skids, Carpenter was always there to speak for the team when other prominent players went into hiding. I respect the hell out of that, and fans should too.
Carpenter was (and is) a team-first guy. An unselfish and generous mate who is always willing to help a struggling younger player get through the days, the daze, the confusion, and a drop in confidence. That’s among the reasons why the Cardinals are bringing him back.
This is one of the best players the Cardinals had during 28 seasons of DeWitt ownership. Among all of the Cardinal position players that have competed here from 1996 through 2023, Carpenter ranks fourth in Wins Above Replacement – and only Pujols, Molina and Jim Edmonds had more. Over the last 28 seasons, Carpenter ranks third in doubles, fifth in RBI and sixth in homers.
Carpenter was a special leadoff hitter. From 2013 through 2018 he had a .389 onbase percentage, .495 slug, and .884 OPS when batting first in the lineup. And as a leadoff man during those six seasons, Carpenter produced offense that was 43 percent above the league average. (Per wRC+, or park-and-league adjusted runs created.) He played on some fantastic Cardinal teams, competing in five postseasons, and emerging as an essential part of a lively offense that powered to the NL pennant in 2013.
There could be some value in having Carpenter as a resource. He’s been through the ups and downs and all of the aspects of a challenging game that can mess with a player’s head. He’s been an All-Star. He’s competed in a lot of big games. He’s also hit .176 with an OPS+ that was 30 percent below league average over two seasons, 2020-2021. Whatever a teammate is going through, Carpenter will understand — because he’s been through it himself.
Carpenter fits into manager Oli Marmol’s aggressive leadership initiative in 2024 – one that will result in a more unified and inspired clubhouse culture.
“I think part of it is leadership by example,” Mozeliak said when speaking to the media on Friday. “But I also think part of it is the ability to speak up when you see something. Last year, I think a lot of that was falling on (Paul Goldschmidt) and I just think that’s pretty demanding.
“Also talking with Oli was part of that, and when you have people that are advocating for you to be on this club, that’s helpful. I do think a lot of what they were telling me makes a lot of sense, and (we’re) trying to address it. So I’m hoping it works and hoping he can be successful in the clubhouse and on the field.”
Carpenter has been working with Matt Holliday to tune his hitting. The left-handed hitter will have a bench spot. Maybe he’ll have a bang of a time, deliver a respectable offensive performance, and help get the Cardinals back to higher ground after last season’s 71-91 debacle. If a better clubhouse climate is as important as Marmol believes it is, the Cardinals have brought in another reinforcement.
(That said, I’m also starting to wonder if the Cardinals’ baseball leaders are going too far with their obsession with “culture.” My goodness, just how bad was it down there in the clubhouse last season? Were players swinging hatchets at each other? Were they poisoning the energy drinks?)
Carpenter is 38 years old. His 2023 season in San Diego was crummy, and he needed a gig. The Cardinals believed they needed a veteran presence who can start here and there, fill in here and there, and potentially provide a platoon-bat jolt for the late-inning matchups.
Carpenter’s teammates are pleased with his return and what he adds to the team’s veteran core. As third baseman Nolan Arenado told The Athletic: “Obviously having Matt Carpenter back is huge — because they (veterans) know how to win, and a few of them know the Cardinal Way. And I think that’s a really big step for us.”
We’ll see how it goes with this Save The Cardinal Way project. I do believe the team will benefit from having a stronger clubhouse vibe … and most of all, increased accountability. I cited these factors on a list of reasons that give me optimism for 2024.
Here’s the reality that Carpenter will have to overcome: since the start of the 2019 season, Carpenter has hit .202 with a .676 OPS and 28 percent strikeout rate when hitting a venue that isn’t Yankee Stadium. (Though he’s continued to draw plenty of walks and has a decent OBP.)
When Carpenter had a chance to hit at Yankee Stadium in 2022, he was instant offense and then some: In 63 plate appearances at the venue, he batted .388 with a .524 OBP, 1.082 slug, and 1.605 OPS. And Carpenter homered every 5.44 at-bats in a place that’s utopia for left-handed hitters.
It doesn’t cost the Cardinals much to reunite Carpenter. He’ll be paid around $740,000 for the season. There’s no guarantee he will be a Cardinal for 162 games. If he can’t get anything going offensively, Carpenter may be displaced in favor of a younger hitter with upside. He may have some doubles left in that bat.
Welcome back, Matt Carpenter. I sincerely hope this will be a happy, fulfilling season for you.
And I also hope the Cardinals will sign an established, successful reliever to upgrade the bullpen.
I like nostalgia and tradition. The franchise has been loaded with it through the decades, and it’s a vast part of their appeal.
But I like to watch winning baseball even more. And on the same day the Astros signed the best free-agent reliever on the market, Josh Hader, to bring him to Houston, the Cardinals brought Matt Carpenter back to St. Louis. That pretty much tells us what we need to know.
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 36 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. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, 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.