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Chris Carpenter and 2011 and Albert Pujols and 2012

I particularly enjoyed my own gamethread doggerel, if I do say so myself, but that aside I think it's safe to go on with the rest of our lives pretending that the Cardinals never made up that game with the Marlins and, refreshed, spent the day seeing the sights in Pittsburgh. I hear they have a beautiful ballpark. (I realize that this thought process might cause Mark Hamilton's new Baseball-Reference page to vanish forever, or else become haunted by its lost plate appearance, and I am willing to take this risk.)

So Chris Carpenter, who didn't pitch yesterday—it seems as good a time as any to talk about him, since the Cardinals owe him $15 million next year. For Carpenter as he relates to fans the 2010 season has seemed strangely valedictory—between Wainwright's emergence as a clear ace and Jaime Garcia's surprisingly low ERA Carpenter, who benefited last year from an extraordinarily low home run rate and his own gaudy ERA, has been shuffled prematurely into the back of the deck as a kind of ace emeritus.

He's been less dominant than he has in years past; at 3.05 his K:BB rate is its lowest since he joined the Cardinals, and this will likely be the first time in his St. Louis career that he fails to fall in the top ten in the National League in that category. His strikeouts are basically steady with 2009, leaving post-surgery Carpenter hovering around a half a strikeout below post-first-surgeries Carpenter. And since he's actually allowing home runs again—though not any more than he did in his original peak—that's going to show up in his ERA.

But he's made 33 starts (although I only remember 32...) He's now pitched the second-most innings of his Major League career, which began when the all-time home run record was 61. His ERA is 3.28. Against all odds the Cardinals are in a position to at least finish out the horrendous contract they gave him on an extremely high note. They'll be paying too much for the wins he has to offer at this point in his career, but at least they'll be paying him for wins. In 2008 I'm not sure I would have guessed that.

In most cases Carpenter's contract coming off the books would be cause for fanbase celebration, because it really is a perfect situation; as things look right now Carpenter has a good chance of pitching at least well enough to make us look the other way every time we get on Cot's to complain about the Kyle Lohse deal, and then at the end of the year the money comes back into the payroll and the Cardinals get themselves a newer, younger Chris Carpenter.

In the Cardinals' case, of course, Carpenter's contract comes off the books and we wonder if those $15 million plus the $16 million Albert Pujols will be making in 2011 is enough to sign one 32 year-old superstar first baseman who has a chance to break a lot of records. So what should be a Supermarket Sweep-styled race through the first-and-a-half-tier free agents of 2012 is instead an existential crisis re: the entire 21st-century Cardinals identity. Which sucks.

So maybe 2011 is something else entirely. That team will, for the price of one 2012 Albert Pujols, play a slightly younger version of Albert Pujols and a pitcher who, the year before, finished third-ish in the National League in innings pitched with an ERA+ around 120. 

I don't want to say that the Cardinals need to rethink signing Albert Pujols if they can't win in 2011, because this team and its fanbase just don't have the will to pull a full-Brach-Rickey and lose him a few years too early instead of a few years too late. I know I'm not ready to deal with that. But if they can't win in 2011, they need to rethink what their plan is upon signing Albert Pujols.