Why a Matt Carpenter comeback shouldn’t be ruled hopeless

Matt Carpenter accepted a lot of money two years ago, and some people can’t get over that.

John Mozeliak offered Carpenter a two-year extension, and the infielder accepted that after a very good finish to the 2018 season. They didn’t need to do that, nor was Carpenter exactly expecting it-but it was an organizational decision. If you have any harsh criticism for the player’s last two less-than-satisfying seasons, place it at Bill DeWitt Jr.’s door. He signs the checks. Carpenter didn’t turn into Danny Ocean and execute a heist. He just hasn’t been the kind of player the team wanted him to be. So the story goes for thousands of aging ballplayers.

Here’s reality. Dexter Fowler is gone. Harrison Bader is Cardinal Nation’s current whipping boy, but he was the best-hitting outfielder from the appetizer special that was the 2020 season. Carpenter wasn’t bad in 2019, but he really stunk it up last season. Gone was the guy who could reach base, hit homers, or smoke the most glorious of doubles over an outfielder’s head. Few players could collect walks and doubles at the rate he was, but that all seemed like a distant memory as the shortened season came to an end last fall.

Going into the 2021 season, Carpenter finds himself back in 2012 mode, back when he was just another guy on the roster trying to get at-bats. It’s almost as if Nolan Arenado rode into town and turned back the clock of Busch Stadium’s former third baseman. Whether it’s second base, the bench late in games, or a designated hitter tryout (we all know it’s coming in 2022, or whenever they play again), Carpenter will play this year and you should hope he contributes.

Whether or not Carpenter gets his swagger back at the plate, I’d like his legacy in St. Louis to have a better feel than the anger I am seeing on Twitter right now. Don’t forget this guy has put together a career 125 OPS+. which is 25 points above the Major League average. In ten seasons, Carpenter has slashed .266/.371/.457. In six seasons, he has collected 30 or more doubles. In four straight seasons, he hit at least 20 home runs. Whatever’s lost in his swing can be found by applying an ageless philosophy: pick what type of hitter you want to be.

Carpenter needs to either try and walk every time, reaching base and putting into practice what Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics made legendary and game-changing nearly 20 years ago. Or turn the bat loose and swing for the damn fences. The bases can’t be loaded all the time for one of homeplate’s biggest critics. Sure, some of those strikes were technically balls, but the umpires are like cops and judges all at once on a sporting field: they can do and say whatever they want. Their verdict stands. Carpenter can complain to Daddy Shildt all he wants, but strikeouts don’t make Cardinal Nation happy.

If it’s true and his bat speed is depleted, Carp can make adjustments and become the OBP machine he was just a few years ago. I don’t think he is capable of doing the power thing and the OBP at the same time. At 35 years old, you don’t develop new tricks, but instead rely on old ones since abandoned. Look at Adam Wainwright. He lost velocity and ran into a slew of injuries, so he adapted his pitching arsenal, focusing on what he always did best: toss Uncle Charlies at hitters knees and find ways to buckle them. Carpenter’s specialty, the very thing that helped him draw 80 or more walks in five straight seasons, is his eye at the plate.

Pick one and run with it, or his days as a full-time difference-making baseball player are over. Let’s just not bury the man before an at-bat is taken. Don’t get mad at him for not living up to a contract that logistics would tell you didn’t need to be given two years ago. He just said, “yeah, pay me a lot of money to try and keep it going.” That’s all any player wants to do. Make good money and stay productive. Carpenter has the $18.5 million already. He just needs to prove himself again.

My take on his demise: Back injuries piled up and went permanent on his swing. A few years ago, he suffered a back injury during the season. And then every spring, he seemed to hurt or tweak his back. A back injury is the only thing that can alter a swing more than knee troubles (hello Ray Lankford downfall). That’s when Carpenter transformed from a watcher to more of a swinger I presume. It’s just a hunch and one I can say from the mere experience of swinging a bat. No science or deep investigation required.

Can Carpenter get it back? He doesn’t have to. Just contribute. All he has to do is give the team an OPS of .750 with some homers and walks. If he’s out there with three of the best infielders in the league at their respective positions, he can’t screw too much up in the field. And Tommy Edman doesn’t and shouldn’t be coined the second baseman before a spring at-bat is taken. He had an impressive 92 game season in 2019, but that’s it. I would like a true competition this spring. Whoever performs better should get the Opening Day start. Why not make spring training actually useful, like directly beneficial, for a change?

Bottom Line: Matt Carpenter may indeed be way over the hill, but there’s too much ability there to count him completely out, especially with a few possibilities and this roster not looking as air-tight as Arenado made it initially seem. He doesn’t need to be “the guy;” he never really had to. Carp just needs to contribute and make the lineup card construction a little harder every day for Shildt.

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