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Saturday SOC: Matt Carpenter Salsas His Way Back to St. Louis

Carpenter is back. I tell bad jokes and write not so good. It’s a stream-of-consciousness Saturday!

Ok. It’s my worst title of the winter. I know. It’s bad. Terrible, really.

But so is Matt Carpenter!

(rim shot)

That was worse. Maybe I should just get on with the article…

Matt Carpenter is back and that’s put me in a strange mood. Why? Because, unlike so many people on the internet, I really like Matt Carpenter. He was truly an amazing story! It’s not that often that a late-blooming spray-hitting 3b’man transforms himself into a legitimate multi-season MVP contender and future team Hall of Famer.

Yes, he is a future team Hall of Famer! If you don’t think he is, then you need to set aside your angst and look at his stats. And the stats of some of the other players the club is handing a red jacket to these days.

Matt Carpenter could walk. I mean walk. And hit for power. And play anywhere he was asked to play. (I said he could play anywhere he was asked to play. I didn’t say he could play well there.)

Carpenter was a production machine. Carpenter has earned 32.6 fWAR to this point in his career. He has 30.6 fWAR with the Cardinals with the opportunity to add more.

That is already more than what Scott Rolen has with the club. Matt Holliday. Red Schoendienst. Joe Torre. Bill White. Chick Hafey. Mark McGwire. Paul Goldschmidt. Willie McGee. Tim McCraver.

There are some Cardinals on that list. Carpenter outplayed them all while wearing the Birds on the Bat.

Yes, his last few seasons wearing red were rough. Yes, the Cardinals signed him to an ill-advised extension that he didn’t live up to. Yes, he was a little set in his ways and didn’t always listen to the club’s hitting instructors and that might have cost him a little production in his later years.

Those things aren’t enough for me to forget all the great things he did at the plate for nearly a decade. They are common enough issues with stars who hang around the game into their late thirties.

And … it’s a common enough thing for the Cardinals to bring those players back for one more go-round.

It was shocking when the news broke yesterday. I legitimately did a spit-take during a meeting when I got a text from Gabe in the VEB writer’s group chat. (Not. Lying. Thankfully the staff member I was meeting with is also a Cardinals fan. Needless to say, it derailed the rest of our meeting.) But I don’t know why I was so shocked. If you stop and think about it for a second, of course this team brought Matt Carpenter back!

I like Matt Carpenter. Always have. That part of me is glad he’s back. I don’t know how good he’ll be. I’m a little afraid of how bad he might be. But it’s a fun signing. And even though I get accused annually of hating fun – to explain, I argued against Molina returning, Wainwright returning, and for a week or so before I changed my mind, Albert Pujols returning – I actually do like fun.

I just like winning more. That was always the core of my point in those other articles. Winning is the most fun. Strive to win. Don’t settle for nostalgia. As 2023 proved, nostalgia while losing isn’t very much fun at all.

Unlike the commitments the club made to Wainwright and Molina, which included all-but-guaranteed starting spots that could impact the club’s ability to win if the players collapsed, I don’t see how Carpenter’s addition will sway the club’s win totals one way or another.

Matt Carpenter will make the league minimum in 2024 while filling the tenuous role of “26th man on the roster”. He’ll have a chance to compete with other players set to make the league minimum. If he can’t hack it, he might not even survive Spring Training.

If he does, Carpenter is likely a replacement level player who will displace another replacement level player while kicking other likely replacement level players down the depth chart and protecting younger players who might one day be better than replacement level players but probably aren’t ready yet.

(Worse title of the year. Worst joke of the year. Worst sentence of the year. What a great day!)

Let’s break down the Carpenter signing.

What Do the Stats Say?

Before I dig into the stats, I want to help frame my approach. I think Tom Ackerman from KMOX does a really good job of it here:

Let’s not overthink this. Forget who Carpenter was. Forget what he wasn’t. Forget how much he was once paid. Let’s just take him for what he is now.

He’s a bench player who still possesses an absolutely, undeniably elite baseball skill. He can get on base. Carpenter’s walk rate last year was 17.3%. He hasn’t walked less than 12.3% since 2015, when his walk rate was 12.2%.

There are actual situations late in games where you just need a baserunner. Ok. Carp’s your guy. There are very few players better in the league at going up to the plate and getting 4 balls.

He can do that against righties or lefties! Carpenter has platoon splits in his career, as do most lefty hitters, but they aren’t nearly as pronounced as you would think. Carp’s career wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) against righties is 130. Against lefties? 114. Well above average.

I know a lot of that production came a long time ago. But it still shows up lately. His 2022 numbers are all kinds of skewed because of a shocking power surge with the Yankees. He clobbered lefties with a 255 wRC+ compared to a 206 against righties. Last year his overall numbers fell back to earth, but he still carried a 155 wRC+ against lefties.

I’m not trying to suggest that the Cardinals signed Carpenter to be their secret late-inning weapon against lefty relievers. I’m merely suggesting that he’s not as subject to platoon splits as most left-handed bench players.

Alec Burleson, who might be his main competition for PAs, only managed a 71 wRC+ against lefties with no power at all.

There might also be some bounce-back built into the Cardinals’ decision-making process. Carpenter’s xwOBA (expected weighted on-base average) was .309 last season, 16 points higher than his actual .293. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .231.

ZiPS, Fangraphs’ respected projection system, sees these things and can’t help but give him a bit of a bump. They have Carpenter with a 109 OPS+ (on base plus slugging plus) projection and a .211/.338/.402 batting line. I would take a 109 OPS+ from him to the bank right now if that would somehow guarantee it.

That could climb as high as a 130 OPS+ if everything goes right (80th percentile). Or drop as low as an 84 OPS+ if everything goes wrong (20th percentile).

Alec Burleson’s actual wRC+ (comparable to OPS+ above) was 89 last year.

Jose Fermin’s was 76.

Tayler Motter’s was 25. (… can we just stop for a second and raise a toast to Tayler Motter! May we never forget.)

Luken Baker’s was 79.

Ackerman calls this signing “no risk”. He’s right. I think ZiPS’ projection range for Carpenter is maybe a bit too heavily influenced by his absurd performance in 2022. But even if we shave 10 points off across the board, I’ll take a 120/100/74 OPS+ 80/50/20th percentile projection from the club’s 26th man.

How This Impacts the Roster

It feels natural to connect Carpenter’s signing to Alec Burleson. Both are lefty hitters with more of a DH/bench profile than anything else. They can play the field with varying levels of versatility, but they are more a liability than an asset out there.

Still, I’m not convinced that Burleson could be the odd man out.

In my last run of the Cardinals’ payroll (which won’t be affected by this move), I struggled to find a 13th position player to slide onto the roster. Burleson was already on. Palacios was moved out. The remaining options would have been Luken Baker or Jose Fermin. I opted to put Fermin on the list since he can play SS.

Add Carpenter to that mix and what happens? If we assume that Burleson comes off, as many are, that lets Carpenter slide into his spot and the club still likely has one of Fermin or Baker go north with the team. (Or Buddy Kennedy or Jared Young, but those guys are likely lower on the pecking order at this point.)

Marmol thinks very highly of Burleson. For good reason. There are some enticing morsels in his advanced hitting stats. He’s also slimmed down and worked on his outfield defense this offseason. I’m not a big “best shape of his life” believer, but we can say that Burleson has done what he needed to do this offseason. The team has noticed. That should buy him some leash with management.

I just can’t see a fringy player like Fermin displacing a legitimate, ascending prospect like Burleson. Baker? Maybe. But Baker can’t play the outfield at all and the Cards have shown no inclination that they view him as anything more than AAA DH depth.

If Carpenter makes this team, the best on-paper version of their bench still includes Burleson, even if the two players feel redundant.

I would project this as the Cardinals’ likely bench/DH depth chart for 2024 (not in any particular order): Herrera, Carlson, Donovan, Carpenter, Burleson.

* Herrera will frequently spell Contreras, who likely won’t catch more than 120 games and will get some DH time.

* Carlson is your 4th outfielder. Pencil him in for 450 PAs.

* Edman doubles as the backup SS, with Carlson sliding into center for him.

* Donovan will see a lot of 2b/DH with Gorman, while also regularly spelling Goldy, Arenado, and Walker (all of whom should be at DH or taking more days off in ’24 than they normally do).

* Burleson is a DH/OF option who is also a pinch hitter. Carp is a pinch hitter who is also a DH/UT option.

That’s a solid bench. It lacks some defensive versatility but only because it is hiding in the starting lineup. Donovan and Edman are your slide-around defenders. They’ll just do it from a starting position instead of an off-the-bench position. It’s unusual but it works with the kind of roster the Cardinals have.

Cardinals are Looking for Experience

Lastly, it’s clear that Carpenter’s role goes well beyond what he can provide at the plate. He will not just be a walk-heavy bench bat who can face both righties and lefties.

Here are a few quotes from John Mozeliak, through Jeff Jones:

“As we were looking at our club right now, we definitely wanted to try to find somebody with some experience. He’s been through some things, and in speaking with Oli [Marmol] and his group, we thought this would be a pretty good fit.”

“Matt showed from the very beginning of his career how hard work and determination can lead to success, and we are excited to have his leadership and experience back in a Cardinals uniform.”

Mozeliak went on to suggest that a lot of the clubhouse leadership responsibilities in ’23 fell to Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. While they were willing to take up the task, Jones reports that both players expressed concerns about the “volume” of leadership that they had to assume.

That does raise some pretty obvious questions about what, exactly, was happening behind closed doors last year. Let’s not speculate about that here. Instead, we can look at what the club has done as an indication of just how seriously they took the situation.

The signings of Gray, Gibson, and Lynn this offseason and persistent emphasis on clubhouse environment, leadership, and personality demonstrate that the club listened to Goldy and ‘Nado and agreed with them. This has become a major point of emphasis for the Cardinals and the team clearly believes it will make a difference for them in the standings.

Carpenter is here to walk. He’s here to take some late-inning PAs against righties or lefties. He’s here to provide veteran leadership. He’s here to push a AAAA-caliber player off the roster and back to Memphis.

He’s here because this is the kind of move the Cardinals love to make.

It’s not a big deal. It will be just fine. And if it’s not, then it won’t last very long.

So, break out your salsa this Saturday and give a chip a dip for Matt Carpenter, a Cardinal again. A Cardinal forever.