Much was said about Matt Carpenter on Thursday, yet the day itself painted the clearest picture of where things stand with the Cardinals and their third baseman.
In the morning, the future Cardinals Hall of Famer who scratched and clawed his way from 13th-round draft pick to three-time All-Star stood in front of a small crowd in Pagedale as Cardinals Care unveiled Matt Carpenter Field.
Hours later, the 33-year-old Carpenter was absent from manager Mike Shildt’s lineup before a series opener against the Rockies. The night before, Carpenter had gone zero-for-three with three strikeouts, the last of which came on a swing-and-miss on an inside pitch with teammates on second and third in the sixth inning of a rain-shortened game the Cardinals lost by two.
“Fluid,” was the word Shildt selected multiple times as he spent the majority of Thursday’s pregame media session describing the most delicate situation at Busch.
Shildt once again pointed Carpenter’s critics toward Carpenter’s past success. He asked for others to have longer memories, and cited how the team’s vision and patience with Carpenter paid off big in 2018. Carpenter, Shildt said, “deserves some grace, and he’s gotten some grace.”
Had Carpenter been in Shildt’s lineup, the speech would have sounded like a manager stumping for his decision.
But the lineup was out, and Carpenter wasn’t in.
“It changes as we move forward,” Shildt said.
Shildt made it clear that now is no time for blind optimism. The long-range view shortens along with the season, he said. It’s harder to compete, Shildt said, when a player cannot offer consistent, competitive at-bats. The words “out of whack” and “feeling for something” were mentioned. Shildt pushed back against the assumption that Carpenter has been benched, but “bats off the bench and continued work in the cage,” were described as ways Carpenter can return to being an everyday presence in the lineup.
Shildt was asked a direct question. Is his internal tug of war about how to handle Carpenter’s role one of the hardest decisions he has encountered as Cardinals manager?
“Yes,” he answered. “Because I have so much respect for Matt. We are doing everything we can, as is Matt, to get him to what he is capable of being. I hate that he has to shoulder so much of this, quite honestly, but I do get it. He gets it … You just want him to get his fair due in relative to the big picture. But we do get the fact, and he gets it, that it’s what comes with high expectations. The crux of it is, people forget — well, maybe not forget — but maybe there needs to be a reminder of why those high expectations exist. Why do the high expectations for Matt Carpenter exist?”
His question was not rhetorical. Shildt wanted an answer.
The answer, of course, is that Matt Carpenter has come through and come up big many times before.
“Exactly,” Shildt said. “So, why the question about why does he get an opportunity to play? Because he has created high expectations. Why is there frustration that he doesn’t execute? Because the expectations are high, which he’s earned. He gets that’s what comes with this territory.”
Just last season, Carpenter finished ninth in National League MVP voting. After a dreadful start, he was one of baseball’s hottest hitters for months. His battling line read a blazing .301/.406/.645 from May 2018 until the end of that August, a run that produced an eye-popping on-base plus slugging percentage of 1.051 that was topped by just two players during that span: Mike Trout and J.D. Martinez.
But since Sept. 1, 2018, Carpenter’s batting line reads .203/.319/.337 in 433 at-bats. His .656 OPS during that span ranks 127th on the list of 132 major leaguers who have had as many at-bats since that date. We’re talking about nearly sixth months of baseball. Close to a full season. Entering Thursday’s game, Carpenter had slashed .212/.321/.363 so far in 2019. Those numbers had trended in the wrong direction — .196/.321/.304 — since Carpenter returned from fouling a ball off his foot, something that continues to happen as pitchers keep attacking him on the inside part of the zone.
It’s fair to point out that Carpenter’s season-long OBP (.321) is still stronger than that of third-base replacement Tommy Edman (.299). To stress that , Carpenter worked a pinch-hit walk in Thursday’s seventh inning. It was significant, considering the Dexter Fowler home run that followed gave the Cardinals the lead in a 6-5 victory.
It’s also fair to point out that since Carpenter returned from his foot injury, the switch-hitting Edman had slashed .304/.339/.429 entering Thursday’s game.
A boiling down of Shildt’s comments suggest Carpenter has found himself in a competition with infielder/outfielder Edman and outfielder Harrison Bader to make the lineup. This comes as outfielders Jose Martinez and Tyler O’Neill are inching toward becoming options for a team in need of offense.
Impossible to ignore in the conversation is the contract.
For reasons that were never really detailed beyond wanting Carpenter to spend his entire career with the Cardinals, the organization in April signed Carpenter to a two-year extension that guaranteed him $37 million through the 2021 season, not including a vesting option.
That move looks regrettable at the moment.
Prioritizing Carpenter’s career over his past six months while the Cardinals scrap for a division title would seem to fall into the same category.