St. Louis Sports | Why the Cardinals need to think more about winning than honoring a legacy with Matt Carpenter

Jon Burr/USA Today Sports


Matt Carpenter will make $18.5 million this season no matter what. Make no doubt about it. He will collect that cash if he’s on the couch, a minor league affiliate, or a different team other than the St. Louis Cardinals. 

Will they have to pay another team to take him off their hands, something they did with Dexter Fowler in the offseason? There’s no answer for that at the moment, but there’s concern in Cardinal Nation that a once-valuable asset has turned sour very quickly.

Every journey indeed has an end, and the truth is that most of them aren’t pretty for baseball players. What’s happening to Carpenter isn’t rude science; it’s age. Athletes playing on a world class level don’t always get the standing ovation that greets their colleagues near the end of their time. But fans were already angry with Carpenter last season. 

If you want a Michael Bay film inside five minutes, search his name on Twitter. Most of what you will find are fair criticisms and since some people can’t separate the sport from real human life, some ugly and volatile comments as well. Here’s a couple of the “nicer” ones. 

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In case you were sleeping for the past 30 years, we live in a “what have you done for me lately” world of sports entertainment. And the truth is Carpenter hasn’t done much in the past couple years. After rescuing his 2018 porous start with a four month flurry that went off the charts (remember the double-header Wrigley assault!), Carpenter lost his swing in 2019 and couldn’t recover it in the half-baked 2020 campaign.

Here are his numbers so far in 2021 spring training (three at-bats in today’s game): 1-32 with 13 strikeouts. The one hit was a double and he has seven walks, but not much else. The issues look the same. As much as I’d like to see a comeback-something to make the final year stick in some way-it’s becoming more unlikely by the day.

Don’t get me wrong. Exhibition performances should carry a grain or two of salt. These at-bats aren’t costing the Cardinals games yet, so patience should be put in front of the horse and the carriage in this case. After all, Carpenter found a way to turn it on in 2018 suddenly, but that was nearly three years ago.

And remember the age factor. He will turn 36 in November, an advanced age for a full-time baseball player. A time when thousands of ordinary people start getting gym memberships is when an athlete starts to slow down. That’s the way it goes. I’d like to think a nagging series of back injuries hampered him so much a few years back that he altered his swing to compensate, and not just a way to beat the shift. At this point, excuses have to be getting sparse, even for a high-paid proposed bench player.

Last month, I made an argument for Carpenter to be a productive utility player, but even that shouldn’t be guaranteed. As I write this, journeyman hitter John Nogowski, a player battling for a roster spot, just blasted a home run in an afternoon exhibition game for St. Louis. A guy like Nogowski, who can play multiple positions like Carpenter, is a clear-cut competition. 

Don’t get me wrong. Carpenter’s opening day roster spot is a sure thing. Let’s hope his at-bats aren’t. Spring at-bats don’t affect the outcome of a real game, but they show a half-measure of a hitter’s swing in the very least. It’s not like the guy is going to just flip a switch and go into Rambo mode in a week. It doesn’t work that way here. Right now, with the pressure mounting and a fanbase growing worrisome by the strikeout, you bet Carpenter is trying to get a hit each time he’s up there. It’s more than another spring training to him; it could be his last.

If he continues the spiral that started in the last month of the 2018 season, who is going to sign him next year to anything other than a minor league contract? And yes, that is still an “if’ at the moment. As the esteemed Rick Hummel wrote today, the guy needs to bat .100 in an actual month for real change to start taking place. He’s going to hit somewhere or somehow. All fans can do is hope Mike Shildt keeps him honest and doesn’t repeatedly hand a sure out extra at-bats. That’s going to be the real test for the manager this year.

For now, Carpenter still has slack-but how much exactly? If two weeks into the season he’s 1-20, do you make a move then? What about 3-35? If he can’t get on base enough to offset the power loss, Carpenter’s value plummets. He isn’t a big asset in the field and runs the bases hazardously. 

I think we are witnessing the end of Matt Carpenter’s days in St. Louis. Something I made argument after argument for is now starting to move closer to reality. If he doesn’t have it anymore-if what is lost seems permanent-the Cardinals need to think more about winning than honoring a legacy.