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The Matt Carpenter Conundrum…

Update: I would just like to point out…I wrote this post BEFORE the game today when Mike Shannon, Red, and everybody’s brother started talkin’ about the guy. Copyright infringement. Elbowing in the blogosphere. Twitter fraud!!! (…I just want what’s coming to me…I just want my fair share…grumble grumble…)

Matt Carpenter has become something of a sensation among those of us who try to pay attention to the minor league guys. He was named the St. Louis Cardinals Minor League Position Player of the Year in just his second professional season. In a 2010 season in AA Springfield, the young third baseman put together an impressive offensive campaign with a .316 BA, .412 OBP, and .900 OPS. In 105 games and 396 at-bats, he slugged 12 home runs, 53 RBIs, 26 doubles, and 3 triples. 

Now, at this point, those of us who have watched the emergence of Chris Duncan, Rick Ankiel, and Skip Schumaker see a guy putting up numbers like that from the left side of the plate and we immediately ask…What about his splits? Good question. Let’s take a look:

To my knowledge, Carpenter has never logged an official inning at a level higher than double A. Flash forward to Spring Training 2011. The St. Louis Cardinals find themselves in a precarious position at third base. David Freese, slotted as the starting third baseman for all intents and purposes, has already been stamped “Fragile: Handle with Care!” In fact, the big club has turned over a new leaf this season by proactively announcing Freese will not play every day. What that means is anyone’s guess, and largely up to Freese’s surgically repaired (dubbed “delicate”) ankles…but hopeful estimates are 2 out of every 3 games, maybe 5 out of 7. That leaves a LOT of starts for his backup.

Enter Nick Punto, a switch-hitting utility man with a reputation for being a solid glove man motivated to rebound from sub-par offensive seasons. Aaaannnddd…Exit Nick Punto. Hernia. Out 8 – 12 weeks.

Enter Allen Craig, right-handed slugging third baseman turned outfielder turned hopeful part-time third baseman/part-time right fielder. Except…Craig is having a bit of trouble at the hotcorner these days. A while back, the organization saw Craig as a below average third baseman with a dynamic bat and a shot at making the big league squad as a corner outfielder in a platoon role. So…they moved him to the outfield. Now, he’s struggling to move back.

What it all boils down to is this:  The club needs depth at third base on a regular basis (up to 54 games?). Their options? Nick Punto could return some time in April, but until then the club is looking towards guys like Craig, Tyler Greene (career SS), and Daniel Descalso (AAA+ player and natural 2B thus far). Don’t even mention Ramon Vazquez to me.

Enter Matt Carpenter. In Spring Training so far, Lil’ Carp has done nothing but earn more playing time (.375 BA, .412 OBP, 5 RBIs, 2 Triples, 1 Double, and a 1.099 OPS). With 16 at-bats, he sits 2 behind Greene and 6 behind Craig…but 1 above Descalso and 2 above Vazquez. And he’s slated for yet another start today…with the A-Squad…at third base. Allen Craig is in RF. Descalso and Vazquez are not mentioned (although there is a B-squad game as well). Read into this what you will, but it appears Lil’ Carp (catch on! catch on!) has at least played his way into TLR’s peripherals.

Of course, at this point the typical question posed by hyperventilating Cards’ fans is this:  Does he have a shot at making the Opening Day squad as our backup 3rd base option? And here’s where we get down to it. Now that you’ve properly worked yourself into a lather over Carpenter’s potential…you begin to hit obstacles…or, as I call them, the Carpenter Conundrum. Let’s take a quick look at some of the hurdles facing a Carpenter promotion, shall we?

The 40-Man Roster
He’s not on it. For me, this could be the largest obstacle. It requires not only a significant roster move, but it also informs the other obstacles in one way or another. Without detailing who could go and who could stay on the Cardinals’ 40-man, let’s just say it’s not an easy thing for a GM to make room for a player who has never played above double A. So, until Mo is willing to make a tough decision, Matt doesn’t even get consideration.

Punto Will Return
And then what? Punto is slated for an April return to action. That gives us – potentially – a month and a half of Carpenter. Who goes down? Assuming TLR only keeps 12 pitchers and commits himself to 5 outfielders, that only leaves Tyler Greene exposed to roster swaps. Not likely. Greene is our only backup option at SS and a right-handed CF possibility. If he can play up to his talent at all this year, he’s on the team. And believe me…Punto is on this team regardless. So, that leaves us with the hard fact that Carpenter would be going down to triple A in April after just making a difficult 40-man roster decision to get him on the squad. Mo has to see the move as not worth it for a month and a half of a player predicted as a backup infielder for 45 days.

* Note:  I don’t remember if an injury to a guy like Punto means a guy can come up and go down without subtracting from the 40-man…but regardless, you would have to add Carpenter to the 40-man in some capacity. That alone carries implications.

Allen Craig Needs ABs
Craig struggled last year in an off-the-bench role. He’s always been a starter and transitioning is harder than it looks. The club – and TLR – knows this, and they’re looking at the potential off days for Berkman and Freese as the perfect solution for inserting Craig into the lineup more often. If Carpenter is on the team taking ABs away from Craig, that potentially risks damaging a slugging asset off the bench. Of course, if Tyler Greene really is an option at CF, Tony could be convinced to carry 4 outfielders (Holliday, Raz, Berkman, and Craig/Jay), but then you’re expecting Craig or Jay to be left off the squad. I don’t see that happening to a couple of TLR favorites…not to mention the Right/Left combo with MLB level experience. Bottom line, if Craig can handle 3B every so often, it increases his ABs. That’s a good thing.

Still a AA -> AAA Guy
David Freese aside, it’s not typically a good idea to skip a level. Carpenter can really benefit from a season…or half season…in triple A. Don’t discount the value of a natural progression. He’s unproven at the MLB level, and Spring Training – no matter how you slice it – just is not the same thing. TLR is going to want a guy with a more consistent, trustworthy track record at higher levels to take up to 54 games at the hotcorner.

Perspective
Remember…Carpenter is benefitting from the Spring Training environment right now. Low pressure, lots of at-bats to go around, split squad games, pitchers working on “stuff” more than “outs,” and to quote “Major League 2” for a moment, Carp is facing guys who might be “baggin’ groceries” in a few days. Of course, that’s not completely true…but the point is Grienke and Zambrano are a bit different than the guys being thrown at Carpenter right now. Put it all together – better competition, more pressure, and fewer ABs – and the Major League level is quite a bit different environment for Carpenter to perform in than Spring Training. In other words, let’s not assume his numbers project just yet.

WRAP UP:

Okay, that’s enough…let’s just say this:  Matt Carpenter is giving us a bit of hope and optimism regarding our depth at third base considering the David Freese situation. But that’s it. There’s just too many obstacles to put him on the Opening Day squad. Barring some sort of uncanny hitting barrage…or an unexpected injury or two (knock on wood), Matt Carpenter is headed to triple A. At least initially. And that’s a very good thing.

Unrelated Question:  Jason Isringhausen is throwing in Mets camp. Apparently, Izzy asked about a shot at the Cards’ squad before signing with the Mets and was told there just weren’t enough innings available. Then Waino got hurt and K-Mac became the favorite to take over the rotation spot. Today, the following appeared in a story about Izzy: “He’s going to have to make the baseball team based on performance and based on arm strength,” Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen said. It seems the Mets are looking at Izzy as a potential 8th inning setup guy…? So…let’s pose the question. If Jason Isringhausen satisfies the first (performance) but not the second (arm strength) for the Mets and they cut him loose…would you be interested in Izzy in a “Russ Springer” type of role for the Cards’ bullpen staff? (few innings, veteran guy to come in for 1 batter, etc.)

Post your replies in the comments section/link for this post.

GO CARDS!!!

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