By Kevin Reynolds (@deckacards)
I spent a lot of time defending Matt Adams last year. Understandable. He’s a polarizing player, much like Chris Duncan was during his time in the Redbird dugout. Many fans wanted his playing time cut, his role reduced, and ultimately applauded the trade that banished him from Mike Matheny‘s lineup card. I, however, felt the move was ill-timed, poorly conceived, and in the end, a waste of resources.
Certainly not because I thought Adams should have been the starting first baseman. No, I wanted Adams to get more playing time because the Cardinals needed production from anywhere they could find it, and first base – Adams’ natural position – was the path of least resistance to finding that production.
Except for the Carpenter Commitment.
COMMITMENT OR CONUNDRUM?
Over the offseason, before the start of the 2017 campaign, Mozeliak publicly anointed Matt Carpenter the every day, without a doubt, wouldn’t-be-moved-come-Hell-or-high-water starter at first. The statement was a curious one considering Carpenter’s versatility, Jhonny Peralta‘s questionable ability to perform, and the potential inclusion of four or five (maybe even six!) infielders capable of playing first base on the eventual 25-man roster.
But Carpenter was his man, and that was that.
After that statement, I was asked during a roundtable discussion who would be playing third base by the end of 2017. My answer: Matt Carpenter.
“No, no…he’s committed to first base. They won’t move him back to third.”
But I was convinced.
Not because Carpenter couldn’t play first or because he was a good defensive third baseman (he’s not). And it didn’t have anything to do with the ability – or inability – of Gyorko, Peralta, or any other 3B option (although, I did note that I didn’t think Peralta would make it through the year). It was based on one simple truth.
The Cardinals did not have enough offensive firepower, and they were absolutely going to need to add a thumper if they were going to contend.
It’s important to note that the Cardinals didn’t need a third baseman or a first baseman or an outfielder, etc. That’s what you typically hear when the trade deadline comes along in July. Team X needs someone to man the hot corner, or Team Y needs an outfielder or a shortstop.
No, the Cardinals just needed a bat. They weren’t particularly weak at any position, a fact that had led them to avoid pursuit of any high-priced solution up to that point because, as many have put it, they just didn’t have any obvious holes. Except for offense. They needed more offense…anywhere they could get it.
That would put them, I surmised, in a unique position come July, a position that would allow them to negotiate the most desirable deal for the most affordable bat on the market with the most years of control. It would also allow them to avoid ugly bidding wars because, unlike most teams, they didn’t need to limit themselves to players tagged for a single position. They could really sign anyone to play anywhere, as long as their bat was impactful.
Those kinds of situations tend to be weighted in favor of first base – someone who needed to play first base or was at least best deployed at first base, especially considering the type of left-side-leaning infield the Cardinals could mix and match. In many ways, it would just be easiest to add offense by way of a first baseman. And that would result in Carpenter getting bumped, likely back across the diamond to his original position, third base.
Although he did eventually end up there, it didn’t happen by the trade deadline because…
- Jedd Gyorko had the best season of his career and locked down third.
- Carpenter’s throwing arm gave out and couldn’t handle the throws from third base every day.
- Jose Martinez emerged.
The result was, perhaps, predictable. What was intended as a potential benefit – allowing Carpenter to settle at one position and, by extension, allowing other players like Kolten Wong to settle at their only positions – became a block.
The Carpenter Commitment became the Carpenter Conundrum.
The Cardinals needed a power bat, but with Gyorko slugging at third, DeJong pounding away at shortstop, and Wong producing at second base, the best place to get better by way of acquisition was at first base, the position held by one of their best players.
Carpenter couldn’t be moved because he didn’t play the outfield, an area of over-stuffed depth anyway. He couldn’t play shortstop, and his other two positions – second and third base – were manned by possibly the most productive members of the team when they were healthy.
So, the Cardinals didn’t get better because Carpenter was unmovable.
This year, they appear to have learned their lesson.
CLEARING THE CARPENTER CLOG
Before engaging in substantial trade talks with Miami – first for Stanton and ultimately for Ozuna – the Cardinals clarified the position Carpenter would play in 2018.
Or, to be more accurate, all of them.
Carpenter will be returned to his Zobrist-like role for the Cardinals, a Jack of all Trades and Master of None. He’ll appear at third base (probably a lot), second base when Wong needs a breather, and first base as needed. And don’t be surprised to find Carpenter playing some corner outfield in spring training.
Maybe he’ll change his walk-up song to “I’ve Been Everywhere” this summer.
Regardless, the signals are clear. The Cardinals are seeking a new option at first base. One of those options is free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer.
Mention Hosmer on social media and fans lose their minds.
“He’s not worth $140+ million.”
“He’s no better than Carpenter.”
All of those may be true, but it’s that last one that really grew legs, spawning a vigorous discussion comparing Carpenter at first base versus Hosmer there for the Redbirds.
Those discussions are missing the point.
The Cardinals aren’t trying to decide between Carpenter or Hosmer at first base. They’ve already notified Carpenter that he won’t be their every day first baseman this year. That ship has sailed. He’s a super utility player now and for the foreseeable future. Even if he starts the season playing the majority of games at first base, it only means St. Louis failed to accomplish one of their emerging goals over the offseason.
Improve their lineup by clearing the clog created by committing to Carpenter and try to make a change at first base.
Where Marcell Ozuna upgraded the Cardinals, injecting power and pop into a punchless lineup, St. Louis hopes a new first baseman will deepen their lineup, creating a more consistent threat top to bottom than they deployed in 2017.
If they can’t acquire one through free agency or trade, one possibility remains Jose Martinez.
HOSMER OR MARTINEZ?
A minor leaguer for most of his career, Martinez took advantage of some “whadda I got to lose” changes to his swing and slugged his way to the major leagues. He made the Cardinals’ 25-man roster and did nothing but hit from then on. St. Louis’ run-starved attack appears ready to reward Martinez with a legitimate shot at first base in 2018, a position he learned on the fly last year, then mapped out an offseason program intent on turning playable outfield skills into acceptable infielding skills.
As the Redbirds stand right now, he may be their best option at first as long as Matheny sticks to the super-sub role advertised for Carpenter.
But then there’s Hosmer.
See, the question facing St. Louis today is not whether to go with Carpenter at first base or replace him with Hosmer. Carpenter is moving with or without Hosmer. The question instead is, do the Cardinals want to give more first base at bats to Hosmer or Jose Martinez?
To put it another way, it’s not Hosmer or Carpenter for the Cardinals. It’s, “Can it be Hosmer AND Carpenter?”
If St. Louis can sign Kansas City’s former clubhouse leader and playoff hero, they won’t supplant Matt Carpenter in the lineup – they’ll add Hosmer to it, because the Cardinals’ front office is likely envisioning a much deeper lineup by playing both in the Busch Stadium infield.
And if they can’t add Hosmer, they’ll likely make a solid attempt to increase Jose Martinez’s at-bats at first base, lengthening the lineup not by subtracting Matt Carpenter but by complementing him in the same offensive attack.
Kevin Reynolds has covered the Cardinals for About.com, Yahoo! Sports, and various other entities. He’s been writing and podcasting about the Cardinals since 2004 at Stl Cards ‘N Stuff. Follow him and chat baseball on Twitter (@deckacards), and check him out on Facebook.
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