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Appreciating Matt Carpenter’s versatility

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Pittsburgh Pirates v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Matt Carpenter had the highest fWAR for second basemen in 2013 and without a fuss moved to third base the following season to make room for Kolten Wong. In 2015 he remained primarily at third but also spent some time back at second and saw limited action at first base on an as-needed basis. Last season - due to the emergence of Aledmys Diaz combined with Jhonny Peralta’s return from injury, Wong being yanked back and forth from Memphis, and no permanent fixture at first base - Carpenter was all over the place. One hundred and fifty-seven plate appearances at first, 167 at second, and 234 at third, to be exact.

In what might be the ideal spot for his bat and defense, the Cardinals have committed to Carpenter at first base for 2017. For now, anyway. There was a fleeting moment where the Cardinals appeared interested in one of the remaining big bats on the market like Edwin Encarnacion, which would have put Carpenter on the move again. If Derrick Goold’s chat from yesterday is any indication it doesn’t look like acquiring Encarnacion is a strong possibility, but Carpenter’s ability to seamlessly shift back to third base is a big reason why it was plausible in the first place.

This morning at Baseball Prospectus, writer Rob Mains took a look at guys who play multiple positions ($$) and observed that they’re on the rise. Carpenter doesn’t quite fit under the umbrella of Mains’s column which mostly focused on the steep uptick in players who saw time at five positions or more in 2016 (although early in Carpenter’s career he did see limited action at both corner outfield spots as well), with the firm takeaway being that this trend is likely to continue so long as so many roster spots are taken up by pitchers.

However, in recent years Carpenter has been arguably the best player in baseball without a permanent home in the infield. Cherry-picking from 2013 (Carpenter’s breakout season) to the present, here’s the leaderboard for fWAR for position players:

  1. Mike Trout – 36.7
  2. Josh Donaldson – 30.5
  3. Paul Goldschmidt – 22.7
  4. Miguel Cabrera – 21.8
  5. Andrew McCutchen – 21.8
  6. Manny Machado – 21.7
  7. Adrian Beltre – 21.7
  8. Buster Posey – 19.9
  9. Joey Votto – 19.4
  10. Matt Carpenter – 19.2

A few things before returning to the topic at hand, I don’t use WAR to argue that these are undoubtedly the ten best positional players in baseball since 2013, but more for context that here we have ten very good baseball players, arguably the ten most valuable position players in MLB, over the past four seasons. Second, 14 wins separate first and third. Sometimes it’s important to remember to sit back and appreciate that we’re alive to see Mike Trout.

Anyway, in 2013, both Trout and Miguel Cabrera spent a majority of the season playing away from their natural position, which changed once Peter Bourjos and Prince Fielder took their gloves elsewhere. Buster Posey has been known to fill in at first base periodically. But other than that, Carpenter is the only player in the top ten who has spent a decent amount of time at another position, let alone all over the infield.

Maybe this speaks to Carpenter’s average defense. Nolan Arenado certainly isn’t being asked to play second base. And Kris Bryant is probably the best and most recent example of a mass producer who’s had at least a cup of coffee almost everywhere on the diamond.

Regardless, there’s something to say for an Aaron Miles-type player – only one who’s also a regular and shows up in all the leaderboards at the end of the season. Reading the tea leaves it sure sounds like Carpenter will be the Cardinals’ first baseman in 2017, but his versatility does allow the team to be a bit more flexible around the hot stove if need be. I don’t know what that adds to Carpenter’s wins above replacement but it sure seems valuable.