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'If you hit, you play': Cardinals prep Carpenter for utility role, but his bat will decide where he fits

'If you hit, you play': Cardinals prep Carpenter for utility role, but his bat will decide where he fits

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Cardinals Nationals

Cardinal infielder Matt Carpenter celebrates a three-run home run with Patrick Wisdom on Monday, Aug. 13, 2018, in the 8th inning of a game against the Washington Nationals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

JUPITER, Fla. — The plan for the man suddenly without a position is for him to bring many gloves to spring training, reunite with the one he wore as an All-Star at second base years ago, and realize that despite all the moving around his place on the team comes down to one spot.

For Matt Carpenter, the glove can fit, but the bat plays.

“I think we’d be creative,” said John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations. “There’s an old adage in baseball — if you hit, you play. And so I think we have to approach this camp being very open-minded to that.”

Shortly before the Cardinals finalized the trade for Gold Glove-winning third baseman Nolan Arenado, Mozeliak called Carpenter to let him know, to tell him they had added a certain starter at third, Carpenter’s position. Carpenter and Arenado have talked through the years about possibly being teammates, have bonded over an obsessive interest in baseball and hitting, and their families have vacationed together. That friendship as well as Carpenter’s obvious familiarity with Arenado’s place as an MVP-caliber player and one of the finest fielders to ever play third “makes this a little easier than if that didn’t exist,” Mozeliak said.

Carpenter remains one of the Cardinals’ highest-paid players, one of the longest-tenured Cardinals, and is now entering the final year of a contract without a position.

“He understood it. He appreciated it,” Mozeliak said. “I think what you need to see from him in this camp is obviously his willingness to wear multiple gloves.”

As the Cardinals open spring training at Roger Dean Stadium, there are two players who will have their versatility explored — and they are at opposite ends of their careers. Nolan Gorman, the Cardinals’ top position player prospect and a third baseman, has spent several days this past week working on moving to second base. Arenado’s arrival — and the team’s hope he remains a fixture at third for the next eight years — along with Paul Goldschmidt’s presence at first means a move for Gorman in order to reach the majors. He will see some spring-training innings at second base and in the outfield.

Gorman requested a chance to report to camp early, and the Cardinals granted it, so that he could get individual work with Jose Oquendo and Stubby Clapp at the new position.

Early — exceedingly early — reviews are positive.

“I think he looks really good from a physical standpoint,” Mozeliak said. “Looks flexible. Looks like he’s moving well. I think everything he did this past offseason to prepare has actually put him in a pretty good spot to show some versatility as he enters this camp.”

For Carpenter, 35, it’s a flashback. He first came to major-league camp as a third baseman but had to flex his versatility to be a part of the major-league bench. In 2012, Carpenter finished sixth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting and started at least 10 games at three positions (third, first, and right field). In 2013, he finished fourth in MVP voting and won a Silver Slugger award at his position — a new position to him. He started 128 games at second that year. In 2014, he started zero at second, moving to third for 156 games.

In his career, Carpenter has 25 games in the outfield, including 11 starts in right field, but manager Mike Shildt essentially nixed that as a possibility Thursday morning.

“I think you’re making up stuff about the corner outfield spot,” he said.

Left unsaid was the public commitment to getting young outfielders playing time and the message it would send if Carpenter started getting at-bats earmarked for them.

“So, yeah, he’ll get some DH opportunities (in spring),” Shildt said. “He’ll get some at-bats there. He’ll play some third. He’ll play some first base. And he’ll clearly also play and get some opportunities to play second base, as well. I don’t anticipate him journeying to the outfield. He would and he could, but that’s not any internal dialogue that would be a possibility.”

The only infield position that does not have an Arenado or an incumbent is the one vacated by Kolten Wong when the Cardinals did not exercise his option. The team’s plan has been to pivot to Tommy Edman at second base and give their super-utility player an everyday role. On the current roster, only four players have had more plate appearances in the past two seasons than Edman’s 576, but he’s moved around from third to second to outfield to get them. His bat forced the Cardinals to find a place for his glove.

Ditto for Carpenter this spring.

His bat comes first, and where he plays in the field is second.

It is mathematically unlikely that Carpenter will get enough plate appearances this season to trigger his $18.5-million option for 2022 — he needs more plate appearances than he’s had in all but four of his eight full seasons. And that means this could be his final year with the only team he’s known. This is the last guaranteed season of the two-year, $39-million extension he signed coming off a career year for power.

Since hitting a career-best 36 homers and finishing ninth in the MVP voting in 2018, Carpenter has struggled to meet his career standards. In the past two seasons, he has hit a combined .216 with a .372 slugging percentage and a .702 OPS. His .332 on-base percentage is among the best the Cardinals have had since 2019, but overall they have struggled as an offense.

The availability of the DH in the National League, as Major League Baseball adopted for 2020, would give the Cardinals an obvious place to start Carpenter. The union and owners continue to discuss the universal DH but have not adopted it for the 2021 season, and both sides see it as a significant bargaining chip to play as leverage. As camp opens, the Cardinals are not planning to have the DH as an option — for them, or for Carpenter.

The spot the Cardinals do have open is leadoff, and during his run of All-Star appearances Carpenter moved around the field but the position he played was No. 1 in the order. This spring, Carpenter finds his usual positions spoken for, but the field is open for him to hit his way into playing time — to reassert himself as a Cardinal in the way he first arrived as a Cardinal.

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