The Trial of Matt Carpenter

I mean “trial” in the sense of “a person, thing, or situation that tests a person’s endurance or forbearance” rather than “a formal examination of evidence before a judge”, though the idea of writing a post as closing arguments from both the prosecution and the defense did appeal to the Perry Mason fan in me.  (Of course, Mason would have gotten a confession on the stand and not needed a closing argument, but I digress.)  There is no doubt that this spring has been a trial for Matt Carpenter and for the fans that are watching him.  What will come out of it, time will tell.

After his groundout yesterday in a pinch-hitting appearance, Carpenter’s batting line for this spring stands at .033/.216/.067.  His OPS is a decent batting average.  He’s walked seven times, which is pretty good, but has struck out 13, a number that now leads the team even as he sits eighth in at bats.  Even if he’d gotten a hit in five of those strikeout appearances, he’s still be hitting just .200, but that’s a remarkable improvement from where he stands now.

Tyler Kinzy does a great job outlining how Carpenter has fallen off since his MVP-contending year of 2018.  Those numbers actually do Carpenter a bit of a favor, though, because they include his entire 2018 in the “good years”.  Which is was, of course, because of the blistering rate he put up for three months.  However, to go along with the slow start of that season, Carpenter tailed off in those last six weeks.  His OPS hit a high water mark of .989 on August 12 of 2018.  Since then, the numbers aren’t good.

By my calculation (and it’s the rough OBP using just walks and hits, so it’s not quite accurate there), he’s had a .211/.311/.360 line in 842 plate appearances.  That’s not a small sample by any means.  The idea that Carpenter can somehow bounce back to even an average player is starting to get more and more unlikely.  When you factor in that Carpenter is 35 now (or, at least, starting his age 35 season), it becomes even more unlikely.

So what’s the answer?  I don’t know that there’s a good one besides going back in time and not giving Carpenter an unnecessary extension after the 2018 season.  (Looking back, it looks like my major issue at the time was if things went south for him at third base, not as much if everything fell apart.)  If Carpenter had concluded his contract in 2020, it’s possible that the Cards would have signed him to another deal this past offseason, but to a smaller contract and with the idea of him being a bench bat at best.  Now, the Cardinals have $18 million committed to him.

The Cardinals have cut bait on some contracts before, but I don’t know that they have with anything to this magnitude.  Even if the contract were smaller, though, I don’t think you’d see the Cardinals abruptly cutting ties with Carpenter and there’s an argument, from the moral side of things, that they shouldn’t.

Look, we all want the best team possible out on the field.  We don’t want to see a .130 hitter getting significant playing time and we hate to see someone that is producing–perhaps like Jose Rondon this spring–not get a chance at a big league spot because of a guy that seems to be washed up.  Again, ideally, the Cardinals wouldn’t have given him that extension.  But they did.  They made their bed and they should have to lay in it.  (Which is a weird phrase, when you think of it, as you usually make your bed when you get up, not when you are going to sleep.  I guess it’s more a physical construction, not pulling up sheets and covers.)

We’ve often talk about player loyalty–there were discussions just this offseason about whether Yadier Molina‘s flirtation with free agency was somewhat disloyal to the only organization he’d ever known–but teams should show a little loyalty as well.  You’ve got a guy in Carpenter that, given what he has done over the last decade, likely makes it into the Cardinal Hall of Fame at some point.  (I’d argue he’s got about as much claim to it as Vince Coleman, at least.)  If you are going strictly by efficiency and the like, sure, you cut bait now and don’t look back.  However, those sort of organizations never seem to be considered the best organizations nor does it always work out the way you’d like.  Because if you are able to be coldly calculating here, eventually you are able to be coldly calculating about tanking and rebuilding.

The Cardinals–and, to be fair, they aren’t alone–are different in that respect.  They have been loyal, sometimes to a fault, to their players and especially ones that have given much to the organization.  That’s why they discussed things with Dexter Fowler before sending him to a place closer to his home.  That’s why they made the Stephen Piscotty trade.  Call them sentimental, call them human, but they have treated players like people for the most part.

So they aren’t going to cut Matt Carpenter.  Now, it could be that Carp decides he can’t do it anymore, but that’s not something a professional athlete comes to easily.  It would be great if they could come to some sort of negotiated settlement, but even if Carpenter did think he couldn’t do much for the team, it has to be hard to walk away from $18 million, no matter what you’ve made in your career.  It would seem, then, unless things change significantly the best use for Carpenter is the occasional spot start and your first pinch-hitter off the bench.

Will the Cardinals use him that way?  Hard to know.  They’ve given him plenty of at bats in the spring, but that’s what spring is for.  If Carpenter was going to find his rhythm in some at bats, better to be meaningless ones than ones when real games are on the line.  Earlier in the spring, there were some indications that Carpenter was having a little bit of rough luck but I don’t know if that’s continued this spring.  Even a couple of well-hit balls falling in would have made this spring not so ugly, but I don’t know that it would be enough for the Cards to change course.  Tommy Edman has been good and should be playing a lot whether Carpenter is 1-30 or 6-30.  It would take something around 75% of 2015-18 Carpenter to overcome the last couple of years and get the playing time wrested from Edman, something that just doesn’t seem possible.

My guess is that Carpenter will get a few more hits this week, ending up with a spring average over .150, and might get some early playing time based on the idea that he’s “coming around”.  By the end of May, though, either significant production will have to happen or Carpenter’s going to get a lot fewer looks.  I could easily see Carpenter starting the home opener, though, for the same reason Adam Wainwright is.  It could be the last time and it’s an honor for what he’s done for the organization.  Barring a real notable change, the Carpenter era will end in St. Louis this year.  Hopefully it’s remembered more for what he did in his prime rather than what he didn’t do at the end.

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