FORT MYERS, Fla. • As a fifth-year senior from Texas Christian University and 13th-round draft pick who lost a year to elbow surgery, Matt Carpenter had no leverage when the Cardinals signed him in 2009. He accepted a paltry $1,000 signing bonus and set out to prove his worth on the field.
The player he has become is about to pay off.
The Cardinals and Carpenter are close to finalizing a six-year extension for the third baseman that will reward him as part of the team’s nucleus, sources confirmed Thursday. The Post-Dispatch first reported that the team and Carpenter’s agent had been discussing an extension and that the talks were positive. The deal, which could be finalized and announced this weekend, is expected to be for between $51 million and $55 million.
“One of those great stories — a guy who didn’t necessarily have the golden road paved for him,” manager Mike Matheny said Thursday. “He came in here and worked his butt off. He’s done a real nice job. The conversations are starting, and I hope they continue.”
General manager John Mozeliak acknowledged Wednesday he has had ongoing discussions with Carpenter’s agent, Bryan Cahill of SSG Baseball. Carpenter traveled Thursday with the Cardinals to play at the Minnesota Twins’ facility — the game was rained out — and confirmed there that the sides were in negotiations.
He repeated that he would be “grateful” if an extension happens.
Both sides declined to discuss details or potential timing of an agreement.
A year ago, Carpenter was a novice second baseman trying to learn a new position and force his bat into the lineup. He blossomed as an All-Star and an everyday leadoff hitter who led the National League in runs (126), hits (199) and doubles (55).
Carpenter finished fourth in the voting for the league’s Most Valuable Player Award, right behind teammate Yadier Molina. The Cardinals traded David Freese to the Los Angeles Angels this winter, in part, because they had Carpenter ready to move to third base, his natural position.
His ascension as a force on the field paralleled a growing presence in the clubhouse.
“First off, he had an MVP-caliber season and with that it gives him that kind of carry as the type of player he is,” left fielder Matt Holliday said when asked about Carpenter independent of any extension possibility. “Take into account his leadership and his character and the way he goes about it — he is definitely one of our guys that you want young guys to follow.”
Throughout this spring, Matheny has called his camp “a teaching camp” and referred often to how young players had been called on to lead groups because there is a density of youth in the Cardinals’ clubhouse.
Holliday, Molina, and ace Adam Wainwright represent that thirtysomething trinity — clubhouse pillars who have been with the Cardinals the longest and have contributed the most.
Kids such as Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha, both in their early 20s, are the rising crop of influential Cardinals. Sandwiched in between is a generation that has been successful and is starting to assert itself within the team dynamics.
Allen Craig, Jon Jay, Daniel Descalso and Lance Lynn — all in their late 20s — join Carpenter in that tier.
Carpenter follows Craig into the long-term core.
A year ago, the Cardinals signed Craig to a five-year, $31-million contract that includes an option for 2018 and could be worth $43 million for the cleanup hitter.
Carpenter is at a similar point in his career and age as Craig was a year ago. Like Craig, Carpenter’s extension would arrive a year before arbitration. A six-year contract would cover Carpenter’s three arbitration seasons and two free-agent years. He will be 33 at the end of the extension.
All three of the players who finished ahead of Carpenter in the NL MVP vote signed extensions within the past two years. Last spring, Arizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, the MVP runnerup, signed a five-year, $32-million extension last spring. Molina agreed to a five-year, $75-million during the spring of 2012, and in that same year Pittsburgh Andrew McCutchen, last summer’s MVP, signed a six-year, $51.5-million extension. At the expected salary, Carpenter’s would be most similar to McCutchen’s deal.
FoxSports.com was first to report Thursday the value of Carpenter’s deal being between $50 million and $55 million.
The Cardinals have nearly finalized all of their contracts for this season for players with less than three years of experience. Pitchers Miller, Wacha and Lynn have been signed. Lynn’s salary for the coming season will be $535,000, likely the highest of the group. As a pre-arbitration player, Carpenter can have his salary for this season set by the Cardinals by next week’s deadline if an extension isn’t finalized. Carpenter made $504,000 in 2013.
Because of the number of young players, the Cardinals have lowered their payroll from opening day 2013 to today, giving them financial flexibility for the future. Mozeliak mentioned this winter that Carpenter would be a candidate for an extension after his breakthrough year.
Five years after the draft, Carpenter has earned his leverage.
It’s about to gain him longevity.
“Good story. Good guy,” Holliday said of his teammate. “He’s got everybody’s respect for the way he does things.”