The Chris Carpenter Conundrum

The St. Louis Cardinals have more than one contract concern going into this season. This is the last guaranteed year of Chris Carpenter’s contract. The team does hold a $15 million option for 2012, with a $1 million buyout.

Carpenter, who will turn 36 in April, has already stated he is not concerned with his contract status. But regardless of how the Albert Pujols saga ends for the Cards, $15 million is an awful lot of money to pay a 37 year old pitcher with an injury history as checkered as Carpenter’s. If the Cards do end up signing Pujols, it does not seem even possible they could afford to pay Carpenter that kind of money.

The easy answer, of course, would be for the Cards to decline Carpenter’s 2012 option and re-sign him for more money spread over another year or two. Think two years at somewhere in the $8-$11 million range annually, and maybe an option year. The numbers are hypothetical, of course, and would be based on a number of variables. And it also hinges on just how long Carpenter wants to extend his career, let alone his time as a Cardinal.

But there is another scenario in play here. Could the Cardinals actually trade Carpenter this season?

It sounds ridiculous and blasphemous, and I hate even bringing it up. But let’s say the NL Central is just as tough as some think it could be. Maybe the Cards sustain a major injury to one or two key players; it certainly happened last year and could happen any year. Some combination of those two forces would easily make things difficult for this team to compete in 2011. If the Cards find themselves out of the race early, they could turn into sellers at the trade deadline. And if Carpenter is healthy and producing, he would be as attractive a target as any team in contention could hope for. He is talented, he is a fighter, and he is a winner. A team with deep pockets who needs an extra bump for the playoff push (think New York Yankees) would snatch up Carpenter in a heartbeat if he became available.

Not that such a move is likely. Carpenter is still widely considered the co-ace of the Cards pitching staff with Adam Wainwright. He is a leader in the clubhouse and on the field. He is a core player on this team, and even if the Cards were forced into a position to move him they would almost certainly make the other team overpay. But it does add another layer of intrigue to a season that is shaping up to be pivotal for the future of the entire franchise in a number of ways.

Yes it would take the perfect storm of suck for the Cardinals to need to trade Carpenter this season. If the Cards are successful throughout 2011, all of this is moot until next off-season. But it is much less far-fetched to think he could be playing somewhere else by the start of the 2012 season, especially if escalating payroll becomes a concern. And as other contracts close in on expiration—namely those of guys like Wainwright and Yadier Molina—these decisions will only become tougher to make.

Chris Reed is a freelance writer from Belleville, IL who also writes about the Cardinals for InsideSTL Mondays and at Bird Brained whenver he feels like it.

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