Matt Carpenter heads into the 2014 season as one of the biggest bargains in all of baseball. Of the top 25 hitters in 2013 by fWAR, only Carpenter, Mike Trout, Josh Donaldson, and Manny Machado are set to make under a million dollars this season. Donaldson, Trout, and Machado were all first rounders and received solid signing bonuses, topped by Machado's $5.25 million after the 2010 draft. At this time last year, the Cardinals locked up Allen Craig to a five-year deal worth $31 million that bought out one pre-arbitration year, all three arbitration years, and one free agent year plus an option to buy out another. Craig's deal has since been dwarfed by Freddie Freeman's massive eight-year $135 million dollar contract. While Carpenter does not have quite the leverage Freeman did, a changing financial landscape could make signing Carpenter to an extension more difficult than Craig's just a season ago.
In terms of service time, Freeman is a year ahead of where Craig was last year and where Carpenter is currently. Last year, Craig was a year ahead of first baseman Paul Goldschmidt when Arizona signed Goldschmidt to a five year extension that begins this year. The deals are essentially identical with the exception that Goldschmidt was able to get his guaranteed money with a year less service time. For the Cardinals, those contracts would ideally serve as the template for an extension with Carpenter, but Carpenter likely has a little more leverage in light of Freeman's contract and Carpenter's ability to play third base.
While first baseman like Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder have cashed in during free agency, third baseman have not often been available on the open market. Since Alex Rodriguez signed his second deal with the Yankees in 2007 for 275 million dollars, only Juan Uribe (3/21), Adrian Beltre (6/96), and Aramis Ramirez (3/36) have received deals worth more than 20 million dollars. We've now gone through six offseasons with only three deals of even minor significance. That will likely change next offseason when both Pablo Sandoval and Chase Headley become free agents. Despite the lack of deals in free agency, third basemen have still done very well by re-upping with their existing clubs prior to free agency.
Without trying to pretend that Miguel Cabrera is a third baseman, there are three recent deals for third basemen. Martin Prado, Ryan Zimmerman, and Evan Longoria all signed major extensions. While all three had already earned significantly more money and have significantly more service time than Carpenter, based on age and years to free agency we can compare these three with the trio of first basemen from above.
Freddie Freeman's age is one of the biggest factors in Atlanta giving him an eight-year deal. At the end of the deal, he is still just 32 years old, the same age Craig would have hit free agency before his extension and the same age Carpenter will reach free agency. While Zimmerman and Longoria are paid past their 34th birthdays, they have significant track records. While Longoria is guaranteed money through his age-37 year, the Rays never pay him more than $20 million per year during the contract despite being one of the best players in baseball.
When teams sign players prior to free agency, they generally buy out several free agent years at a discounted price in exchange for guaranteed money. Unfortunately for Carpenter and Craig before him, those free agent years are not worth as much as Goldschmidt, Freeman, and even Longoria and Zimmerman because their free agent years occur at a later age. Despite that knowledge, the Cardinals were still willing to buy out one of Craig's free agent years and receive an option on a second one. Carpenter will not receive a Freeman-type deal, but there is significant room between Craig and Freeman.
Carpenter is a better player than Craig. He has little in the way of injury history. He is a solid runner and plays a much more significant defensive position. The cost to acquire good players keeps increasing. It would be hard to blame Carpenter for taking a deal like the one Craig just took considering his tiny signing bonus and minimum salaries up to this point. However, buying out any free agent years all but guarantees this will be Carpenter's last chance at a big payday. To sign Carpenter long-term, it will likely take more money than Craig, either in average annual value or at least one more guaranteed year at the end. If Carpenter stays healthy, his price will only go up. Both the Cardinals and Carpenter know it. Finding a middle ground could be difficult, but if the Cardinals believe he will continue to be anywhere near as good as he was in 2013, an extension might come sooner rather than later.