It wasn’t long ago that Matt Carpenter was an MVP candidate. In 2018, the Cardinals third baseman-turned-second baseman-turned third baseman-turned first baseman-turned third baseman went on an offensive tear that St. Louis baseball fans hadn’t seen since Albert Pujols (or possibly Pete Kozma in 2012, I don’t really remember). Despite beginning and, to a lesser extent, ending the season in a slump, Carpenter was so dynamic for the middle 75% or so of the season that he finished 2018 tied for fourth in the National League by wRC+. In tenth place was Nolan Arenado.
To be clear, this didn’t make Matt Carpenter a better overall player than Nolan Arenado–Carpenter was a liability defensively and Arenado was among the best defensive third basemen in the sport. Carpenter finished in ninth in NL Most Valuable Player voting while Arenado finished in third. This is just to say that while Arenado would have marked an upgrade, the notion of the Cardinals moving Heaven and Earth to acquire an upgrade for Matt Carpenter seemed unlikely. But the next two seasons demonstrated a growing gap between the two third basemen, particularly on Carpenter’s end. In 2019, Arenado had a nearly identical season to 2018–incrementally worse at the plate, incrementally better in the field–while Carpenter’s production cratered to a point where his offense was below league-average. 2020 was a career-worst season for both players, but Arenado could at least point to his sterling defense and that he was playing through a shoulder injury. Carpenter didn’t visibly have such an excuse.
Matt Carpenter’s defense at third base was always overly maligned–while the metrics are not in his favor, lesser fielders have always been viable starters. But his waning offensive production has made his shortcomings in the field much more difficult to stomach. Over the last two seasons, in 661 plate appearances, Carpenter has just a .332 on-base percentage with decreasing power. Carpenter will earn $19.5 million in 2021, as part of a contract signed in the immediate aftermath of his 2018 campaign, but this wasn’t enough to secure playing time for a decidedly below-average player.
In the aftermath of the team’s acquisition of Nolan Arenado, the St. Louis Cardinals now have $61 million locked up on their starting corner infielders, and neither Arenado nor Paul Goldschmidt are particularly injury-prone. In 2019, the duo combined to miss eight games. And while the Cardinals do have an opening at second base, a position Matt Carpenter played with great success in the past, Carpenter hasn’t played at second base since 2018, and aside from his competent if unspectacular defensive metrics in 2013, his defensive numbers at second base have always been pretty lousy. Perhaps those lousy metrics could be masked when the rest of the infield consists of perpetual Gold Glovers and/or Gold Glove finalists in Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, and Paul DeJong, but it’s not as though he has produced enough offensively to justify that effort.
The obvious elephant in the room with Matt Carpenter, as well as with seemingly every St. Louis Cardinal since the beginning of time, is that he holds a no-trade clause. And it is very much Matt Carpenter’s right to refuse a trade. But this may be a situation where it makes baseball sense for Carpenter to go elsewhere. Matt Carpenter will almost certainly be a free agent at the end of the 2021 season (unless he reaches 644 plate appearances in 2021, unlikely anywhere), and while he will be 36 by Opening Day 2022, a player with his pedigree should be able to find some sort of work. That work will almost certainly not be with the Cardinals, and almost certainly wouldn’t have been even if Arenado weren’t coming to St. Louis. His lack of recent success limits Matt Carpenter’s potential suitors, but a lesser–probably not a playoff-contending–team could probably find him dependable playing time.
Certainly, a team that does not see itself as a playoff contender is not going to happily accept a $19.5 million annual salary on its books, so the Cardinals would have to pay a substantial portion of this money. Let’s say $15 million, purely for demonstrative purposes. Would, say, Matt Carpenter’s hometown Texas Rangers be willing to pay $4.5 million? The upside for them would be that if Carpenter finds something approaching his pre-2019 form, assuming the Rangers aren’t surprising postseason contenders, they could flip him to a contender that suddenly has more need for a player of his newfound caliber. And the Cardinals would have $4.5 million to use on a player who might have an actual role with the team.
The ideal would be to spend on Kolten Wong–$4.5 million likely wouldn’t be enough, even for a one-year “show me” deal, but it would be a start. It could be enough for Brad Miller, who performed very well for the Cardinals in 2020 and almost certainly couldn’t replicate that level of production, but could along with Tommy Edman cobble together a respectable second base/utility infield approximation that Matt Carpenter is no longer physically capable of providing.
Matt Carpenter has been a great player for the Cardinals, and if and when the Cardinals do part with him, I will surely be writing a glowing review on the balance of his time in St. Louis. But his time with the Cardinals is clearly coming to a close, and while I would rather the Cardinals kept him on the bench than outright release him, as it is not as though the team has an abundance of minor leaguers more qualified for a big league spot than him, it is in the best interest of both the St. Louis Cardinals and Matt Carpenter himself to find him a role with another team.