In many ways, Matt Carpenter embodies everything that the St. Louis Cardinals and their fans want to believe about themselves. He is a late bloomer, a mid-round draft pick as a college senior who scrapped his way to the Majors despite the long odds he faced. Carpenter was in AAA at the start of his age-26 season and the next year, he finished fourth in NL MVP voting. Matt Carpenter currently ranks 22nd in franchise history among position players in Wins Above Replacement.
By all logic, the career-long Cardinal should be an overwhelmingly popular figure as he enters his 12th year in the organization. Carpenter clearly loves playing for the Cardinals, as evidenced by the two extensions he has signed in order to remain a Cardinal rather than testing free agency. And Carpenter is just 14 months removed from finished in the top ten in National League MVP voting. But he committed the greatest crime a baseball player can commit against his hometown fans–he had a lousy last season.
“Lousy” is even a bit of an exaggeration. His 95 wRC+ made him, by definition, below-average at the plate, but he was a better hitter than Yadier Molina, who remains universally beloved in St. Louis. He was only a few ticks lower than Paul DeJong (100 wRC+). But he took a step back, and after the first below-average season in his eight at the big league level, Matt Carpenter was immediately subjected to rumors that he was on the verge of being replaced.
Yesterday was a busy day for Nolan Arenado trade speculation, ranging from “the Rockies aren’t going to trade him” to “Nolan Arenado is offended at the Rockies organization for trying to trade him” (even though he has a no-trade clause and can end trade discussions with no effort?). But it was also a busy day for the man he would be replacing if Arenado were to be traded to St. Louis.
Over the weekend, at the annual Winter Warm-Up, Matt Carpenter was asked about whether he would consider waiving his no-trade clause. This is widely viewed as a major road block in attempts to acquire Nolan Arenado, particularly if the Cardinals envisioned including Carpenter in such a trade to offset some of the costs being incurred. Intuitively, it wouldn’t make much sense for a guy on one of the final four teams remaining in the 2019 postseason to waive his no-trade clause in order to join a team that had won 71 games in a tough division and which was trading its best player. But Carpenter said that while his heart would always be with the Cardinals organization, he “wouldn’t stand in the way of doing what (he) thought was best for the organization”, implying he would waive his no-trade clause if the Cardinals requested it.
When interviewed, Carpenter issued an apology for his lackluster performance in 2019. He remained openly confident in his abilities but was also contrite for his recent shortcomings.
Matt Carpenter will make $18.5 million per season in 2020 and 2021, and he has a vesting option for the 2022 season for the same amount. Had the Cardinals known what his 2019 season would look like, they likely would not have signed him to that contract. But had Matt Carpenter had an MVP-caliber 2019, the Cardinals would not have given him a raise. The contract was signed because the two parties involved considered the terms to be a worthwhile hedge. Carpenter decided an assured $39 million (there is a $2 million buyout for 2022) was enough to sacrifice a potentially higher payday with a huge 2019 season, and the Cardinals decided it was a worthy price at which to lock him in, even though it was always possible he would become ineffective. This is how contracts work.
Matt Carpenter deserves credit for being a competitor, though this never should have been questioned (though treating ineffective players as simply not trying hard enough is a fan trope that predates free agency). But a sports culture that lionizes extracurricular team loyalty is a problem for Major League Baseball players as a whole. Matt Carpenter is being paid by the Cardinals to try his best to be a productive and valuable baseball player, and he does owe the team that much. He does not owe the Cardinals to waive his no-trade clause, a piece of player leverage that is generally negotiated into contracts in lieu of some amount of money.
So far, in his Major League career, Matt Carpenter has been paid $50.734 million dollars. Per the FanGraphs calculation of his value, on the free agent market, his career has been worth $231.5 million. He has been a tremendous bargain to the Cardinals organization even compared to other historically great Cardinals players–Carpenter has been worth 4.56 times his Cardinals salary, while Yadier Molina has been worth “just” 2.8 times his salary and Adam Wainwright has been worth 2.02 times his. If Matt Carpenter suddenly became injured and never played again but was still able to collect the remainder of his contract, he would still be worth over $150 million in excess value to the Cardinals.
Matt Carpenter does not owe the Cardinals anything. The team knew the risk they were assuming when they offered him a contract, just as Carpenter knew the risk that he might earn more as a free agent by waiting and performing at a consistently high level. Although it would be logically inconsistent with complaints about the team not spending enough money, if fans want to blame somebody for Matt Carpenter now being paid more than he is worth, it should fall on the Cardinals front office. By all accounts, even though he has done more than enough to cement his place in St. Louis Cardinals lore, Matt Carpenter is working as hard as he can to produce for the team. And that’s all I can ask of him.