A year ago, the Cardinals followed their first season without the postseason since 2010 with plans to shake up the roster in order to return the franchise to October. One element of their restructuring was locking Matt Carpenter into a single defensive position, rather than splitting his time between first, second and third base.
St. Louis’ goal in cementing Carpenter as the team’s full-time first baseman was “to simplify its view of the infield,” then GM John Mozeliak told Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Instead of logging more than 300 innings at three separate infield positions as he did in 2016, Carpenter found a comfort level at first, with only occasional diversions toward second or third. For the most part, the Cardinals stuck with the plan for 2017 as it was enacted last November.
But once again, they missed the playoffs.
Now, Carpenter’s position on the diamond wasn’t the reason. However, that his shift to a position with traditionally higher expectations at the plate coincided with a lull in his offensive output did put the Cardinals a bit of a bind in terms of the construction of their roster.
Rather than build on his previous two seasons of slugging percentages above .500 and develop into the middle-order bat Mozeliak had tagged him as when he brought in Dexter Fowler to bat leadoff, Carpenter struggled to find his footing as the team’s chief run producer early on.
Eventually, a move back to leadoff coincided with Carpenter regaining his groove and—despite being nagged by injury throughout the summer—putting up quality numbers. Carpenter’s final batting line (.241/.384/.451) didn’t quite stack up to his previous seasons in average or slugging, but the .384 OBP was his highest mark since 2013, Carpenter’s first year as an All-Star.
So it wasn’t all bad. It just wasn’t what the Cardinals expected of Carpenter when they named him their first baseman last November.
In essence, Carpenter and Fowler flipped roles. Fowler should get credit for adapting his game on the fly, batting lower in the order and setting new career-highs in home runs and RBIs. But even with his 18 home runs and 64 RBIs, Fowler wasn’t that mammoth threat striking fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers; the Cardinals still need that guy.
Their active pursuit of that guy—but complete lack of knowledge as to which position he might play—has led the Cardinals to an about-face in their instructions for Carpenter.
Last November, they told him to prepare to play first base and first base only.
This November, they’re telling him to prepare… to play anywhere.
According to Goold, the Cardinals have told Carpenter he could see time at first, second, third or even the corner outfield. It all depends on where the other roster edits come.
If the Cardinals move Carpenter away from first base in favor of a big-time acquisition that would play there, that would be a good thing from an offensive perspective. Though Carpenter served as a productive leadoff guy, it’s pretty unconventional for your first baseman to fill that role.
Without a DH in the National League, first base is typically a sensible spot to stick a big bopper. If the guy can adequately field another position, great, but if he’s hitting 40 homers and driving in 100 runs, defensive crispness isn't really the priority. But if you play first base, you have to produce runs.
Take a look at the list of starting first basemen from NL playoff teams in 2017:
—Paul Goldschmidt, ARI
—Cody Bellinger, LAD
—Ryan Zimmerman, WAS
—Anthony Rizzo, CHI
—Mark Reynolds, COL
Each of the above players hit at least 30 home runs, drove in at least 97 runs, and had an OPS higher than Carpenter’s in 2017. Of 12 qualifying NL first basemen, Carpenter ranked 9th in OPS last season. Even as a quality leadoff man, that production from a first baseman puts an NL team in a bad position to compete, especially without an obvious superstar elsewhere on the roster.
Replacing Carpenter at first with a bona fide slugger could fix that problem—but it would create another one.
Moving Carpenter to another position leaves the Cardinals vulnerable to the fact that Carpenter isn’t especially good at any other position. At second, where the Cardinals have Kolten Wong coming off a career year, Carpenter has accumulated minus-9 defensive runs saved in 1,605 career innings. At third, he’s a minus-8 in 3,666 innings. Carpenter is decidedly average at first.
That’s where the Cardinals quest for a bat gets interesting—not only would it be nice to add a superstar to rejuvenate an increasingly antsy fan base, it would also be nice if that player could keep the Cardinals from having to expose Carpenter defensively. A trade for someone like Josh Donaldson could provide that customary first base-type power while keeping Carpenter in a position where he is more capable; that's how this might go in a perfect world.
In reality, the glaring need for a thumper of any defensive background might open up a can of worms—Carpenter’s defense—that the Cardinals prioritized closing just one year ago.