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Bygone Birdos: The Quiet End of an Era (2021)

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Matt Carpenter and Carlos Martinez have likely played their last games as Cardinals. Let’s acknowledge their great careers in St. Louis.

St Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Editor’s note: In honor of having John LaRue on this coming episode of the Viva El Birdos podcast and in honor of the return of Matt Carpenter, it felt fitting to re-publish some of John’s past work. I really enjoyed this story at the time and almost enjoy even more now. I hope you like this minor blast from the past, too!

Originally published October 8, 2021

The St. Louis Cardinals pushed the league’s behemoth to the brink on Wednesday night, literally taking every last out before finally succumbing to a Dodgers team with 106 wins and approximately a 5 trillion dollar payroll. With the defeat, the front office turns its attention to formulating their plan for building the 2022 squad. There are a lot of questions to be asked. How will they address the rotation? What will they do with their truckload of middle infielders- Paul DeJong, Edmundo Sosa, Tommy Edman, and presumptive challenger Nolan Gorman? What about the competitors for outfield depth? How on earth can they find playing time for Juan Yepez, who- goodness- sure deserves it? In the middle of all of that are two relatively easy decisions, and they represent the end of an era. The team will almost certainly pay Carlos Martinez a $500k buyout, allowing him to become a free agent. Similarly, the Matt Carpenter extension will be over, having failed to reach sufficient playing time for the 2022 option to vest.

Post-Dispatch writer and Cardinals beat writing legend Derrick Goold seemed quite certain in his most recent chat that neither would be Cardinals beyond this season.

Faus: Give me your odds on Carpenter coming back to the Cardinals? Carlos Martinez?
Goold: Less than 1:1,000. And zero.

(Dumb and Dumber voice on that Carpenter quote) So you’re telling me there’s a chance?

This is hardly surprising. Both were dreadful in 2020 and 2021. Martinez went 4-12 with a 6.95 ERA and 5.18 FIP across the two seasons. That ERA is dead last amongst pitchers with 100+ innings over the last two years- worse than Matt Harvey, Jake Arrieta, and something called Keegan Akin that made 23 starts for the Orioles over the last two years. Carpenter’s 2020-2021 wasn’t quite as igominious. His 76 wRC+ was “only” 20th worst out of 263 players with 400+ plate appearances. That masks how much his freefall accelerated at the end of this season. From August 8th until September 15th, he went 37 plate appearances without a single hit. His season ended with a 197 plate appearance stretch without a homerun, his last coming on April 30th in Pittsburgh.

I didn’t come here to rehash the ugly end, though. Rather, I want to talk a bit about what these two meant to a very specific era of Cardinals baseball. Let’s travel back in time to the end of the 2011 season. The Cardinals had just won the World Series and were just beginning to form the Devil Magic All-Stars that would reach every NLCS for four consecutive seasons. Carpenter would join the team in 2012 as a super-sub, playing all four corner positions plus second base while posting a 124 wRC+. He played hard, he maximized his skills, he grinded opposing pitchers’ hopes into dust by spoiling pitch after pitch, all of which started to endear him to fans. He was the perfect bench complement to a team that had a solid core, even in its first year post-Pujols.

Carpenter was joined a year later by Carlos Martinez, an electric right-handed pitcher who had- arguably- the best stuff of anyone on the league’s most talented young rotation. Carpenter’s coming out party was the regular season, one that saw him rack up 7.2 fWAR and chase the franchise record for doubles. Martinez drew his oohs and aahs in the high leverage spots of a sprint to the World Series during October. The core was aging, but these were the Cardinal Way days in which the franchise was spitting out talented youngsters to replenish the core. Youngster after youngster kept joining the party- Kolten Wong, Trevor Rosenthal, Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller, Matt Adams, Oscar Taveras... For various reasons, some of these players came and went, but Martinez and Carpenter were roster mainstays.

As the core left and even a new wave of youngsters came and went, Carpenter and Martinez survived as the link between the 2013 World Series squad and the present day. Obviously, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright do that as well, but they’re also a link to the 2006 World Series team, a tie to an even older era. The 2013 squad was the time for Carpenter and Martinez to shine, as were the years that followed.

St. Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

They couldn’t have established themselves in more different ways. Carpenter was old school, the grinder, the salsa-fueled hustler. Martinez was the precocious talent, fun-loving and eccentric, always good for 1) multiple 2) gif-able 3) moments 4) each 5) year. Carpenter had a lumberjack’s beard, Martinez had pink hair. Or purple or blue or green hair. Or whatever color hair he felt like having. Together, they were the surf and turf of personalities, anchoring the team even through the playoff-less three seasons from 2016 to 2018. It was hardly their fault. In those seasons, Carpenter and Martinez were 1st and 2nd on the team in fWAR- 11.5 and 8.5 respectively.

From the time they arrived, they each rank second on the team in fWAR- Carpenter during a lot of Long Hot Summer Days since 2012, Martinez since 2013. Fittingly, they trail only Wainwright and Molina. Unfortunately, their perception with fans is marred because folks were busy lamenting what they weren’t instead of appreciating what they were. Carpenter’s late-career extension that preceded the worst years of his career made him an easy target, despite the gobs and gobs of value he provided beyond his contract earlier in his career. For Martinez, it was the persistent assumption that he could be so much more. Suddenly, the eccentricity that made him lovable was used as a cudgel to hammer him for merely being an All-Star instead of winning multiple Cy Youngs. There’s no room for highjinx and fun until you become the Prince That Was Promised for some fans, for whatever reason. Then the injuries began, odd things happened off the field, and he was anathema to far too much of the fanbase.

By the end, both were distant memories of their Cardinal glory days. I’m here to put respect on their names. You don’t have to like the way they performed the last few years. I’m pretty sure they don’t like the way they performed, either. But they were key cogs on the 2011-2015 monsters of the National League, and major reasons the team was competitive from 2016 to 2018. Despite recent struggles, Carpenter ranks 19th in franchise history in position player fWAR while Martinez registers 33rd amongst pitchers- ahead of John Tudor, Joaquin Andujar, and even Martinez’s peers like Lance Lynn, Wacha, and Jaime Garcia.

Wherever their career goes next, they’ll always be Cardinals. Good luck, Matt Carpenter and Carlos Martinez.