Entering the season, the 2012 emergence of Matt Carpenter was thought to have created only one dilemma for the upcoming year: a battle for who would get more time at second base between himself and Daniel Descalso. Yet just barely two months into the season, Carpenter has put that debate completely to bed and is now working on changing the much bigger picture of the organization going forward.
The 27-year-old has changed the entire impact of the club this season. From taking ownership of the second base role, to surprising becoming one of the most productive leadoff hitters in baseball, he’s changed the dynamics of the team in a very immediate sense. Coming into today, he’s in both the top 10 in the National League in batting average (.323) and hits (17), as well as leading it in doubles with 18. These are totals that truly bloomed after he was moved into the leadoff spot. After that early May transition, his average from the leadoff position has sat at .336. It is a role he has entrenched himself in the role since, and given the Cardinals production in a spot in the lineup they have struggled to maintain an answer at for several years.
All the while, he has maintained the versatility that made him the weapon he was a year ago. He has made starts at four different positions this season, yet ironically, with his increased production, the long-term questions about his permanence in a role are beginning to set in. And they are questions are proving to have no easy answer.
Since he was drafted two years ago, Kolten Wong has been “next” in the long-term plans at second base. And by hitting .306 in his first two summers as a pro, he’s done nothing to dispel that. Yet Carpenter’s play has put a new factor in play at second base, which doesn’t create the same urgency that Daniel Descalso and Skip Schumaker’s presences created at the position when he entered the system. In a similar fashion, Carpenter’s way was delayed as a minor leaguer by the rise of David Freese, who he has outperformed in the early going of 2013; a time that has created yet another “who’s the odd man out” scenario for the uber-deep Cardinals roster.
Yet this time around, the answers aren’t as simple. In many other cases before, there has been an ascendency that has solved the issue. Shelby Miller takes over for Kyle Lohse. Lance Berkman fills in for Albert Pujols, who then Allen Craig ultimately fills in for him. Eventually, Oscar Taveras is slated to take over for Carlos Beltran. These have all been situations where an aging or expensive player is succeeded by versatile presence or a waiting in the wings youngster.
Yet in this case, there is no easy answer. All of the involved parties have two things in common: they are proving their worth regularly and are cost controlled. Carpenter himself isn’t arbitration eligible until 2015, and won’t see the open market until 2018. He is perhaps the most attractive player in the entire scenario: a versatile fielder and bat, that is low cost and still trending up as a proven Major Leaguer. And for as long as he continues to be the igniter for the Cardinals, he has also surprisingly made himself one of the most likely to stay long-term Cardinals of them all.
There will likely come a time when all three are teammates. There will also come a time when a decision has to be made about who stays, and who goes. But if the last five months have proven anything, betting against Carpenter in any scenario could be fool’s gold. He’s creating quite the career of taking best laid plans, and shattering them.