Heading into this season, Matt Carpenter was in the final guaranteed year of a $52 million contract with a $18.5 million 2020 option that he signed back in 2014. Yesterday, Carpenter and the Cardinals agreed to an extension that will guarantee that option year, which was already very likely to be picked up, and add an additional year at the same price along with a vesting option for 2022 with a $2 million buyout. Derrick Goold first reported the parties had apparently reached an agreement ahead of a mystery press conference, and later confirmed with contract details.
For the Cardinals this isn’t exactly an extension the team needed to do, but the club has operated similarly in the past when it comes to players they really like, handing out a three-year extension to Yadier Molina in 2017 a year before he would’ve been free-agent eligible and giving Paul Goldschmidt a $130 million deal this spring. Given that Carpenter was still two years away from free agency, and will be 35 years old in 2021, it’s fair to say the Cardinals really want to keep the third baseman around. As for why the club might reward him for past performance, Carpenter’s track record speaks for itself. Since becoming a full-time player in 2013, here’s where Carpenter ranks among all position players by WAR.
Carpenter has been one of the best players in the game over the last six-plus seasons, likely bettering some players who are more highly regarded. Removing some of those early seasons pushes Carpenter further down the list, but never out of the top-40. Last season, Carpenter caught fire midway through the season and ended with a five-win campaign that ranked 19th among position players. This season, his 4.1 projected WAR according to ZiPS is the 25th-best among position players. At his $14.5 million salary this season, that production is a bargain. Carpenter has moved all over the infield in his career, amassing more than 200 games at second, first, and third base. The majority of his starts have come at third, where he plays now, but prior defensive concerns pushed him to first base in previous seasons.
With the addition of Goldschmidt, Carpenter moved back to third. His reputation there is probably worse than his performance. His clunky throwing motion doesn’t inspire confidence, but over the course of his career, he’s been just slightly below average at the hot corner. At 33 years old, Carpenter isn’t likely to get better in the field, and with Goldschmidt with the club through 2024, Carpenter is going to have to make third work absent the designated hitter coming to the National League.
As opposed to solely being a reward for past play, expectations are still decent for Carpenter going forward. We now have three-year ZiPS on FanGraphs player and projections pages, and Carpenter’s forecast a productive player over the next three seasons.
The Cardinals certainly could have waited to see if Carpenter reaches the four-win mark before picking up his option, and then for a good three-win season in 2020 before trying to sign him in free agency. If Carpenter did put up those projected seasons, he might have gotten two more years at a salary similar to what Michael Brantley received in free agency this season. The Cardinals remove that option by guaranteeing an extra $20.5 million. If Carpenter still performs well in 2021, the team can bring him back for one more year at the same salary; Carpenter can make 2022 vest by reaching 1100 plate appearances in 2020 and 2021 as well as 550 plate appearances in 2021. Those aren’t easy milestones for Carpenter to reach, but if he does, he will likely still be playing at a high level.
In terms of justifying this new contract for the Cardinals, we don’t need to do too much of a deep dive. The team is only guaranteeing one extra year beyond his previous 2020 option, and even if Carpenter falls off a cliff in the next two seasons, a salary under $20 million isn’t going to break the bank. One thing this contract does do for St. Louis is help them avoid free agency, both with Carpenter and with other potential options at third base, and builds a bridge to last year’s first round draft pick, Nolan Gorman. Still 18 years old, but already performing well in Low-A, an extra year of Carpenter could build a bridge to Gorman as he advances through the minors. A lot has to happen on Gorman’s end to make that plan work, but it certainly has to be in the back of the Cardinals’ minds as they made this deal with Carpenter.
As for free agency generally, it would be fair to say that the Cardinals haven’t been particularly good at it in the last half-decade. Deals for Mike Leake, Dexter Fowler, and a parade of relievers haven’t worked out as planned while the team has missed on their larger targets. Since watching Albert Pujols leave, the Cardinals have avoided free agency with Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina (twice), and recently with Miles Mikolas and Paul Goldschmidt while signing Matt Carpenter, Carlos Martinez, Paul DeJong, and Kolten Wong to extensions long before they reached free agency. The Cardinals can attribute a lot of their success and sustained contention to the work they’ve done to avoid free agency, while their failures to reach 90 wins the last three seasons can be traced to their deficiencies in free agency. This deal fits in with the Cardinals preferred mode of operation, though it changes little for their long term future.
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