AnalysisNL Central

The Matt Carpenter Conundrum

The emergence of Tommy Edman in 2019 as a capable player on both sides of the baseball created a traffic jam on the St. Louis infield. Kolten Wong and Paul DeJong had solidified their roles as everyday guys, newly-acquired Paul Goldschmidt was not taking a step off first, and a Matt Carpenter contract extension in the spring of 2019 pressured manager Mike Shildt into fielding the utilityman as oft as possible, if only to make the investment worthwhile. So, for two seasons, Edman occasionally manned third, some second, even made an outfield start here and there, while Carpenter consistently held down the left corner infield in an organizational effort to squeeze the last ounces of productivity out of the batting-gloveless lefty. However, with Kolten Wong’s departure in 2020, the way forward finally seemed to be clear, and the cacophony of a gridlocked intersection quieted. Tommy Edman could play second base full-time, while Carp rode out the final year of his contract at the hot corner. Now, though, the beeps and blares of belligerent motorists bleat boisterously. The Cardinals’ acquisition of Nolan Arenado has created yet another roadblock on a previously wide-open stretch. Goldy has first locked, DeJong will suit-up for short, and you don’t pay a man thirty-five million dollars to ride the bench, so Arenado will have the everyday third base duties. That leaves two utility infielders and only one second base. The first question I ask is, “who will be the everyday second baseman for St. Louis?”. When I answer that query very shortly with “Tommy Edman, duh.”, only one conundrum remains: what happens to Matt Carpenter?

The argument for Edman starting over Carp is a simple one, and it comes in two parts: aptitude and contribution. Let’s start with aptitude. The last year Carpenter spent any significant time at second was when he posted just over 1100 innings at the 4 spot in 2013, and it was out of necessity, not predilection for the position. To put it lightly, Carp is about as useful in the position as a 1996 Corolla is in a drag race. As in, not. Over his career, in 1688.2 total innings at second, Carpenter managed to collect an impressive -13 DRS and an astounding -7.9 UZR. In layman’s terms: dude plays a bad defensive second base. Edman handled the base as recently as 2019 and 2020, spending 29 games at second after his June call-up in 2019 and 8 games (out of the 58 total games played by the Cards in the COVID season) in 2020. As you would expect for a youthful super-utilityman, he looked pretty good, too. In only 256.1 career innings, Edman posted 7 DRS and a UZR of 2.6, the best defensive numbers of any position he has assumed in the majors. A Lamborghini Huracán in contrast to Carpenter’s lemon. Now, regarding contribution, as much as I’d love to see Carp stave off the rust crawling up his bumper, the oxidation eats away at his former sheen. Unfortunately, his 5 WAR 2018 was more a new paint job than a long-term tune-up, and Carpenter’s bat has only sputtered since. In 2019, he swung a .226/.334/.392 with a wRC+ of 95 and 1.2 WAR. Last year, those numbers stalled to .186/.325/.314, alongside a wRC+ of 84 and 0.3 WAR. Seems like he’s due for an oil change. The twenty-five-year-old Edman, however, has shown signs of batting prowess despite a less than stellar 2020. His rookie 2019 campaign saw him rev up with a .304/.350/.500 line, wRC+ of 123, and 3.2 WAR, while his follow-up 2020 ended in him hitting .250/.317/.368, with a wRC+ of 90, collecting 0.8 WAR along the way. Certainly not the sophomore season Tommy wanted, but still better than Carpenter. Projections for 2021 place Carpenter and Edman roughly in the same lane offensively, right around a wRC+ of 100, but Edman’s youth and higher potential ceiling give him the edge over Carpenter’s waning production. Mix in an apparent defensive advantage, and Tommy Edman is the everyday second-baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals. Buckle up, folks.

So, Edman becomes Paul DeJong’s double-play partner in 2021. Which begs the question, how does the Cardinal organization eke out a final, useful year out of the bushy-bearded Carpenter before giving him the old Cardinal Way send-off? You let the dude ride the bench, pinch-hit, be around to give the starting infield a day off here and there and provide veteran leadership. Despite his lack of get-up-and-go, Carpenter still has some of the pop that allowed him to hit a career-high thirty-six bombs in 2018. With middle infielder Edmundo Sosa backing up DeJong and Edman, and Carp being no stranger to first, Matt would be able to provide relief if Goldschmidt or Arenado needed to take a pit-stop in the dog days of the race to October. Carpenter is a suitable candidate for the role in DH-friendly contests, especially if Tyler O’Neill or Lane Thomas is in the lineup or flagging. And if the DH miraculously comes to the NL, Carpenter can bat full-time. Finally, there’s an intangible value in having a guy who has spent nine years with the organization ride out his final days mentoring a young clubhouse, providing killer salsa recipes, and (presuming fans make their way back into stands for 2021) receiving countless standing ovations from Cardinals Nation at Busch Stadium. 

Watching a beloved player cough, hack, and rattle their way toward retirement road is never enjoyable, and recent diminished production can erase years of high-octane performance that player brought to a team. However, let’s collectively recall that Carpenter posted a 5-WAR season not even three years ago and strung together nearly a decade of winning seasons for St. Louis. I say we gratefully give Carp his ten years of service time, wave that checkered flag, and let the Texan cruise off into the sunset. Plus, let’s not forget, the man won a World Series ring batting .067 in his rookie season. Talk about zero to sixty.

Featured Photo: St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) / Twitter

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