Matt Carpenter is having, by his standards, a rough season in 2019. He has never been a particularly fleet of foot runner, and defensively, while he once provided additional value by virtue of his ability to handle, if not master, multiple positions, he has been limited almost exclusively to third base. Carpenter’s value comes from his bat, and his bat hasn’t been there: his wRC+ of 88 is 29 points lower than his previous worst full season. Things have become so bleak that following the promotion of Harrison Bader, the St. Louis Cardinals have primarily used non-prospect rookie Tommy Edman, who himself sports a below-average wRC+ of 95, at the hot corner.
Whether the Cardinals should start Edman over Carpenter is a question in and of itself, but that the question would even be asked seemed inconceivable just a few months ago. In April, the 33 year-old Carpenter inked a two-year contract for $18.5 million per year (with a third year as a vesting option) to remain with the only professional baseball organization he had ever known. He had, with the exceptions of Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright, forged the most illustrious Cardinals career of anybody still on the team. But in 2019, Carpenter has looked lost.
Last Thursday, before a game for which he sat Carpenter once again in favor of Edman at third base, Mike Shildt was asked about Carpenter, and while most managers likely would have deflected the subject and instead extolled the virtues of Tommy Edman, Shildt was direct about Carpenter’s struggles. He noted that Carpenter and Edman have been effectively the same player in 2019 (mostly true), that Edman has been better since Carpenter came back from the Injured List (true), but also referred to the current situation as “fluid”, noting the need to stand by Matt Carpenter not by forcing him into the lineup everyday but by allowing him to get right mentally and physically. The full comments can be read here, as transcribed by the indispensible Jeff Jones.
Five years ago, Cardinals outfielder/first baseman Allen Craig had an immediate, precipitous drop from being one of the more consistent bats not only in the Cardinals lineup but in baseball as a whole to being so unplayable that the Cardinals were quick to get out from under the extension to which they had signed him just a year and a half earlier that they packaged Craig to the Boston Red Sox along with a young, cost-controlled pitcher who started World Series games for them months earlier for a 35 year-old veteran. And the legacy of Allen Craig, the knowledge that a baseball player could wither into nothingness in a split second, lingers in St. Louis, even though it almost never works out quite this dramatically.
The more relevant comparable to Matt Carpenter happened just a year ago in Dexter Fowler. Fowler had a good if not otherworldly first season in St. Louis in 2017, but he was legitimately one of the worst players in baseball in 2018. Of the 1,379 players who played Major League Baseball last year, only eight were worse by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement than Fowler. Many clamored for the Cardinals to offer to eat the nearly $50 million remaining on Fowler’s contract and give him away to any team willing to offer anything for him, and absent a taker, to just release him. But Shildt has written Fowler’s name into the starting lineup for the 2019 Cardinals in four out of every five of the team’s games, and while Fowler hasn’t quite returned to his peak performance, the team has certainly been happy to receive the version of Dexter Fowler we have seen this year–a version which is still an above-average hitter and has been competent enough defensively that he is able to play center field.
Many fans didn’t want to hear that the Cardinals were standing by Dexter Fowler, particularly after the team didn’t even pretend to express interest in free agent Bryce Harper over the off-season. And if one believed that Dexter Fowler were truly cooked, this was understandable. But Mike Shildt is not the general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. Mike Shildt is not the team’s key decision maker on transactions. And even if he were, he is also the member of the organization most responsible with juggling the personalities of the organization.
As a society, we tend to praise those who are outspoken and “are like us”, but this is absolutely not a virtue when it comes to those in power. There is no upside for Mike Shildt to offer anything less than unflinching praise to any player who is trying his best. It is not Mike Shildt’s responsibility to offer the perspective of a sports radio Hot Take Artist, railing against Dexter Fowler and Matt Carpenter as overpaid bums (while simultaneously criticizing the front office as cheap, but that’s another story), but rather to deal with the players at his disposal.
It is fair to be concerned about Matt Carpenter, and perhaps Mike Shildt is. But expressing those concerns publicly, as it would’ve been with Fowler, would be a mistake. He owes it to Matt Carpenter to try to help him rebound professionally, and he owes it to the other 24 players on the roster to put the team in an optimal position to succeed whether it is with Matt Carpenter or Tommy Edman in the lineup.