If you think he's an average defensive third baseman, David Freese is not having a great year. If you think he's been as bad, this year, as UZR and DRS both insist, it's been a bad one. That's the difference between a passable season and a replacement-level season, basically, and it's coming in his age-30 season, the moment a bad season tips over from "frustrating" to "ominous." (If you'd like a reminder of how late Freese got started, he's now the same age as Scott Rolen was in his lost 2005.)
If it were the kind of year the proved conclusively whether Freese was done this would all be much simpler, but it isn't that at all. His offense has ticked back up from its midseason floor, but it's come with the decline in BAbip we've all been worrying about since he came up; a year of defensive numbers isn't enough to keep him off the field, but they come attached to a visible decline in his effectiveness there; he's 31 and not a star, which makes a steep decline plausible, but he's also 31 and cheap, which makes a bounceback year economically viable.
Worrisome but manageable, in short, if Matt Carpenter were just having a pretty good year. He and Freese and Kolten Wong could circulate between second and third base, and Mike Matheny could adjust the proportions as necessary, and while limiting Wong's playing time in his rookie season might be unusual, his left-handedness means it could come disguised as a simple platoon.
But Matt Carpenter is not having a pretty good year—he's having one of the weirdest MVP-caliber seasons in recent memory. He's somehow made leading the league in runs scored interesting. He's not Chase Utley—he won't win a Gold Glove and he isn't one of the best baserunners of his generation, which it's hard to fault a guy for—but his transformation from someone who might not be able to stick at the position to a late-blossoming star has run along the same lines.
It's hard to move that guy to third base, for obvious reasons—he's the best second baseman in the National League right now, and he's not a defensive liability, so—and for clubhouse-kremlinology reasons. Matheny and co. and the front office both deserve a lot of credit for taking a chance on Carpenter as a starting second baseman in the first place; a lot of the organization's success has come from that willingness to find unconventional solutions to problems.
But once you've solved a problem this successfully, how do you commit yourself to unsolving it? How do you avoid a series of sports radio phone calls about the move to third base throwing Carpenter off his game when he fails to lead the league in doubles for a second season in a row?
I'm not sure; it could be that they just do it, because they're not as afraid of sports radio callers as I am. All I know is this: Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, and David Freese all have value as members of the 25-man roster, maybe in that order. How the Cardinals attempt to maximize that value will do a lot to shape the team we watch in 2014.