Are Matt Carpenter’s Cardinals Days Numbered?

photo: Matt Carpenter via Zoom (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)

Matt Carpenter’s time as member of the St. Louis Cardinals may be limited. His 2021 spring training camp has definitely not gone according to plan. If performance is the determining factor, the odds are not in his favor. This spring, Carpenter has not performed as he or the Cardinals expected. His productivity as an everyday regular and now as a role player off the bench appears to continuously trend downward.

Matt Carpenter

Over the course of the next week as the Cardinals prepare for their final cut to 26 players, they are going to have to make a tough decision. The organization must decide what is most important to this 2021 Cardinals team going forward. Is Matt Carpenter’s leadership and clubhouse presence more valuable or is his salary a bigger sticking point when it comes to the bottom line?

Here are four points to ponder.

Tommy Edman’s emergence

Edman has played well this spring. His performance at the plate has really made the decision of who mans the second base bag a fairly easy one for manager Mike Shildt. It had been thought that who covered the territory between first and second in the 2021 season might be up for grabs after Kolten Wong moved on to Milwaukee.

Tommy Edman

Carpenter, a former All-Star at second, came to camp hoping to show he still had what it takes to be an everyday player. He has not, but Edman has. The 25-year old switch hitter has nine more hits than Carpenter with only four more at bats. Among Cardinals this spring, Edman ranks in the top five in most offensive categories. He has shown, in limited action, an ability to finally hit right handed pitching with some consistency – something many thought might become the Cardinals’ primary reason for keeping Carpenter. It still might be.

Other bench options prevalent

Although Carpenter did not plan to come off the bench in 2021, it was presumed that if worse came to worse, he could be the left-handed bat off the bench – but an .041 spring batting average is not working in his favor.

Off-season signees Jose Rondon and Max Moroff have wielded healthy enough bats in the spring to help make Carpenter expendable. Combined, the duo is hitting .265 with six extra base hits, 10 walks and 10 RBI.

John Nogowski

If you thought Carpenter might do well enough to back up Paul Goldschmidt at first, think again. In fewer at bats then Carpenter, John Nogowski has a team leading 10 RBI and is in the top three of the club statistically in hits, walks and batting average. Plus, Nogowski may be able to play some outfield if need be.

Then throw into the mix two players who are out of options in Edmundo Sosa and Justin Williams. Out of options simply means that the team cannot assign them to the minors without them clearing waivers. Although being out of options is not a reason to make the club heading north, it can be an important tiebreaker. The risk and reward toward the youth and progress of these two may become a consideration for the Cardinals in light of Carpenter’s lack of performance.

Carpenter’s struggles

The Galveston, Texas native has been his own worst enemy this spring in terms of plate performance. In fact, his overall return since signing his most recent contract extension in April 2019 has been lacking. With a combined slash line over the last two seasons of .216/.332/.372 and his .041 average this spring, the question comes down to this – Is Matt Carpenter’s leadership and clubhouse presence worth $18.5 million if he isn’t producing on the field? There is no easy answer.

The former All-Star came to camp relishing the opportunity to prove he can do it again. When asked in late February about being a role player, Carpenter offered this reply;

“Well, I don’t know if it’s been established that I’m a part-time player just yet,” Carpenter said. “There is a lot of camp left. There’s a lot of season left. I’m going to go out and compete every day to be in our lineup. Who knows where that’s going to be? If I find a way in there, it could be at a different position. That’s my mentality this spring to go out and win a job.”

His willingness to play anywhere and do whatever has been asked of him has allowed the 399th pick of the 2009 MLB draft to have a fairly productive MLB career. That hasn’t changed. When Nolen Arenado was acquired by St. Louis last month, it meant Carpenter would no longer be in charge at the hot corner, where he had achieved All-Star honors previously. When Wong left, it opened the possibility for Carpenter to battle for the second base job with Edman. That battle never materialized. No one knows better than him how important his bat is to his future and the Cardinals success.

“That’s my mentality, take care of that first,” Carpenter said recently. “That’s my first and foremost mentality for this entire season. I know if I hit like I know I’m capable of, I’m going to help this team, plain and simple. I think we’re a better team if I’m swinging the bat like I know I can.”

The bat is not working for him this spring, as referenced by his 11 strikeouts in his 25 plate appearances. This makes the decision all the more difficult and painful. The expectation and hope has been that he would find the magic of 2018 when he crushed 36 home runs and earned that extension. His work in the offseason to return to his once characteristic control of the sticks and bat speed has not yet produced the desired results.

The final straw

Moving on from Carpenter and his $18.5 million 2021 salary makes financial sense. From a baseball standpoint, moving him out would open the door for a younger player. Carpenter, though, brings a depth of leadership like Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright that cannot be measured in dollars and cents. His presence brings a certain amount of respect to the game and doing things right.

Those two reasons alone make Carpenter a valuable commodity – one that just might be worth $18.5 million to a team expected to be in the hunt for another World Series title. However if the Cardinals choose to release Carpenter, they would still be on the hook for his 2021 salary minus the $570,500 (MLB minimum) another team would be required to pay if they picked him up. (There is also a $2 million 2022 buyout that will have to be paid regardless.)

Instead, the Cardinals could look to trade Carpenter, but there aren’t many clubs, if any, that would be willing to take on much of his salary. As a result, the Cardinals would likely be on the hook for a vast majority of his compensation – similar to the recent Dexter Fowler deal.

For an organization that has always treated its players like family, this presents an unenvious situation. Should he stay or should he go? That is the million dollar question – or 18 and a half million dollar question, if you will.

How can the Cardinals make the right decision for all concerned?

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