The only question is for how long…but it legitimately may be forever.
On Tuesday, the St. Louis Cardinals called a press conference to announce co-ace of the rotation Chris Carpenter will likely miss the 2013 season after a return of the shoulder and neck symptoms that kept him out of the vast majority of the 2012 season. With Carp due to be a free agent this fall and seriously questioning his ability to ever throw a ball again, the hurler maybe calling it a career once the Cards’ season is over.
Carpenter’s entire career was marred by injuries, but the years he spent with the Toronto Blue Jays were also markedly mediocre. The Cardinals took a chance on him while he was injured, signing him in 2002—but he would not pitch for the Redbirds until 2004. Then, under Dave Duncan, he flourished. Carp became the leader of the rotation, both in statistics and competitive fire. The playoff run in 2004 came to an abrupt halt partly because Carpenter got injured and didn’t throw a pitch in the postseason that year. In 2005 he rebounded to a 21-5 record with seven complete games (four of them shutouts), 241 innings pitched over 33 starts, 213 strikeouts, and a Cy Young award. In 2006 he again topped 200 innings, led the league with three shutouts, and propelled the Cardinals to their first World Series Championship since 1982. The injury bug bit Carpenter again in 2007-2008 when he only pitched in five games—combined. But his resilience would shine again for the next three years. In each season his strikeout totals increased, but so did his innings pitched. It all culminated with the 2011 championship run. For three of the four clinching games that year—Wild Card berth in Game 162, Division Series Game 5, World Series Game 7—Carpenter was the starting pitcher. And you’d better believe he was ready to go for Game 7 of the NLCS if it went that far. But the others were just works of art: a complete game shutout of the Houston Astros to put the Cards into the postseason; a 1-0 masterpiece in Game 5 of the NLDS to knock out Roy Halladay and the Philadelphia Phillies; and starting Game 7 of the World Series on short rest, keeping his team grounded after the heroics of the previous night, and pitching six solid innings to give the Cardinals the chance to win their 11th World Championship. David Freese may have been the MVP of the NLCS and World Series, but if they gave that award for the best overall postseason performance Carpenter would have a serious claim to the trophy.
That October 2011 performance could more or less prove to be his swan song. Carpenter did pitch at the end of last year and helped the Cardinals get within a victory of a return trip to the World Series. But now he faces uncertainty like never before, and so does the team.
Carp is a leader like no other on the St. Louis Cardinals. His numbers speak volumes, and may be replaceable. His presence, however, is not. And it’s another key loss from the so-called “old guard” of the Tony La Russa era in St. Louis. In less than 18 months, the Cardinals have said goodbye to Duncan, La Russa, Albert Pujols, and now Carpenter. Certainly nothing lasts forever, especially in professional sports. But that’s quite a hit in a short span of time.
There’s always the glimmer of hope that Carpenter can make it back and take the mound once again for the Cardinals. After all, it’s not like it would be the first time. But for some reason, this time it feels different…more final…more finished. Maybe it’s a combination of his contract situation and age. Maybe it’s that I was always afraid this would be the way he finally hung it up—leaving the game because his body forced him to, not because he wanted to. Hopefully Carpenter remains that invaluable presence in the clubhouse, in the dugout, and around practice. We’ll always wonder what might have been if he’d pitched in the 2004 World Series, or if the Cardinals had him in ‘07 and ‘08, or if he had been healthy all last year. But even if he has in fact thrown his final pitch as a Cardinal, Chris Carpenter can close the book knowing he was one of the best starting pitchers the franchise ever had.
I’m participating in my first United Cardinal Bloggers roundtable discussion this year, and today is my day to post. Here’s how it works: Yesterday, I e-mailed a Cardinal question to all the members of UCB (check the home page for the full list of blogs). The bloggers who choose to participate e-mail me their answers back, and I post them for you to read. The list of UCB members is long and distinguished, and many are participating in this event. I will be e-mailed a number of questions to answer as well. It’s a good way to drive traffic to each others’ sites, and with Spring Training just now getting into full swing it gives us something to write about.
So I’ll post the question I posed to the UCB members and all their answers, along with a link to their individual blogs. Please pay them a visit, and pass along their websites to your friends!
Question: After all the moves the Cards made this offseason, as well as some of the possible internal promotions/jobs to be won this spring, what do you perceive to be the biggest remaining need for this team as we approach the regular season? Or do they have any holes at all?
The bench would seem to be the biggest need. There are a number of options for the fifth slot in the rotation and the leftovers can fill out the bullpen adequately, but there’s a lot of youth on the bench, which can be good, but also may not pan out the way we’d like. –Dan, C70 At The Bat
I perceive the biggest need to be our bench. I think the combination of young players (David Freese, Tyler Greene, Joe Mather, etc.) should suffice at third base. We certainly have plenty of young players who can play outfield, but I’m concerned about their ability to pinch hit. I think before we address anything else, we should find a veteran (not Felipe Lopez, someone with less of a price tag) who has a history of being a productive pinch hitter/bench player. –Jack, Thoughts About Cardinals
The biggest remaining need for the Cardinals in 2010 is flexibility. The team has a lot of young options for 3rd base and the 5th spot in the rotation. They have backups at shortstop and centerfield with some intriguing candidates for the bench bats. They have a 37 year old closer who was shaky at the end of last year, but was still an All-Star who pitched well overall.
The Cardinals don’t have a specific need yet, but when looking at all of the variables, they will. Though we don’t know which position will become a problem, injuries and ineffectiveness will become apparent soon enough. Having the dry powder to address needs after the positions have been evaluated is the most important need this team has. –Michael, Whiteyball
All in all this would appear to be a well-rounded club. Tony hasn’t had this many factions accounted for this early in a long time. In theory, of course.
The most glaring deficiency is a bench lacking pop. Especially from the left side. In games that the Cardinals are down late, opposing managers may be peering across the field at an uncomfortably predictable skipper. The flip side is that his “everyday” lineup looks pretty solid from top to bottom. Winner of the third base sweepstakes could perceivably hit 8th. Which given the upside of an intriguing list of candidates, says something about 1 through 7. Besides, if your biggest issue is the depth of your bench, the guys who take the field on Opening Day are likely legitimate starters.
Our closer is what concerns me the most. There is part of me that likes Ryan Franklin a lot. Pinpoint control, bulldog mentality, unabashed flaunting of a truly terrible beard…and every time I start on his age I hear Hell’s Bells in my head and can’t finish. But he is far from overpowering. His All-Star appearance was well deserved, but pitching to contact in the bottom of the ninth of 3-2 game gives me ulcers. There’s something to be said for the demoralizing effects of 98 mph gas and a filthy curve. He’s earned respect, but I don’t think Frankie is intimidating anybody out there. Rest assured that La Russa, who recognizes the psychological challenges of the job, will stand by his man. But for how long? –Justin, Intangiball
For me, the biggest perceived need is at the back of the bullpen. I’m sure Ryan “Shooter” Franklin is a nice person, but he’s not a capital-C Closer, just a guy with middling stuff given an opportunity to compile saves.
But Izzy’s heir apparent, Chris Perez, was traded, and without a second pitch (as well as some movement on his fastball) Jason Motte isn’t really a good fit, either. I am hoping beyond hope that Eduardo Sanchez sets the Grapefruit League on fire and makes the choice a no-brainer for TLR and Duncan. -Jeff, Five O’Clock Blogger
I think we need help off the bench. Love to see them sign Lopez. -Joseph, The McBrayer-Baseball Blog
I believe that the best thing the Cardinals can do right now is wait. If McClellan wins the 5th spot in the rotation, Mozeliak might feel like a bullpen arm like Kiko Calero or Russ Springer is the way to go. If Freese/Mather don’t look like a viable option at third, Felipe Lopez could make sense. With 5-7 million left, I would like Mozeliak to save some dry powder for the season. The Cardinals aren’t in a position to trade for impact players like they did in the summer of 2009, but saving a couple million to potentially add someone like John Smoltz in midseason is a good idea. -Ryan, Cardinals GM
I hadn’t considered our closer situation one to worry about. Yes Franklin appeared to burn out after the All-Star break last season (and for conspiracy buffs, right after he signed his extension if my memory is correct), but considering it was his first year as the ‘no question’ LaRussa closer I’m not too worried about it. LaRussa learned he needed to pace how he uses Franklin for 2010. Further I’m not worried about Franklin‘s stuff. Plenty of closers (Trevor Hoffman leaps to mind) have been great without having 95+ gas in the arsenal. Franklin is the LaRussa/Duncan philosophy distilled: locate your pitches.
This team’s glaring weakness is its bench. LaRue is the backup catcher only. In 114 PA as a ‘substitute’ he’s hitting a robust 212/305/433, all right-handed. Lugo has a career slugging percentage of .391 (right-handed). He only has 115 PA as a ‘substitute’ (302/395/344). Tyler Greene has 1 year of ML experience, and also hits right handed. They need a left handed bat badly. I also am concerned about their defensive weakness, especially Lugo, which will probably limit what LaRussa can do for match-ups in the late innings. Finally, there’s no one on this team that can spell Pujols at first if he needs a day off.
If I was Mozeliak, the bench is where I’d be looking to upgrade this team before Opening Day. -Mike, Stan Musial’s Stance
That’s a rundown of the answers I received, but Jeff from Five O’Clock Blogger wanted to reply to Mike’s take above:
While I do not share your optimism regarding Franklin*, you make very valid points about the bench.
*Funny you mention conspiracy theories; mine is that he went into the can not because of his contract but because he was looking over his shoulder after Smoltz arrived. </tinfoil hat>
I don’t see where Gotay fits in with this ballclub. One 100-walk season at Triple-A aside, he’s a low-rent version of Lugo. Also, all the bench candidates have major flaws: Lugo has a little plate discipline but no power and can’t (read: shouldn’t) play short; Greene has some power but no seeming plate discipline; I’m not sold on Mather hitting at all, etc.
At this point, I’d be more than happy to have FeLo back. –Jeff, Five O’Clock Blogger
And there you have it! Obviously this is a question that can’t have a wrong answer; I think even the best clubs can be improved here or there. And with several free agents still without jobs and minor leaguers looking to catch on with the Big Club, many options remain to fill out this team. Personally, I think the team needs some bench help. At this point, the team lacks what I like to call an “impact bat” off the bench. I think having a thumper lurking in the dugout for a possible late-inning pinch hit is a valuable weapon. I also have concerns that the typical defensive replacement for either the infield or the outfield currently does not exist on this team. Not that the starting 8 are a bunch of hacks that cannot be trusted in the field in the late innings…but I often wonder if things could have turned out different had Rick Ankiel been inserted into left field in the bottom of the 9th inning in Game 2 of the 2009 NLDS against the Dodgers.
The Cardinals signed lefty reliever Dennys Reyes today. Kind of surprising since they already had five lefthanders in camp: Trever Miller, Royce Ring, Charlie Manning, Ian Ostlund and Katsuhiko Maekawa. Reyes certainly adds an air of credibility that these others don’t quite have. What this tells me is either a) Duncan and LaRussa have been less than impressed with most of what they’ve seen from their lefties, or b) this was the plan all along, and the team was waiting for the market to play itself out. Thoughts?
The baseball chatter around St. Louis today is centering around the comments made by Albert Pujols regarding his pal Manny Ramirez still being unsigned. Pujols seems to think that the Cardinals should bring Ramirez into the fold, hopefully more for his offensive presence than his defensive liabilities. Cards GM John Mozeliak promptly (and publicly) shot down the idea, as expected. I first saw the story on mlbtraderumors.com on Wednesday; it wasn’t long before the story gained enough traction to get ink on both the Cardinals’ and St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s websites.
The idea that Ramirez would be a great bat to put behind Pujols isn’t lost on anyone. But I think the people calling for the GM’s head if the Cards don’t sign the free agent need to take a deep breath and consider a few things:
- The Cardinal outfield is more crowded now than ever. Last year’s regulars–Skip Schumaker, Ryan Ludwick, and Rick Ankiel–all had great seasons in 2008 (minus Ankiel’s injury woes) and are all back for 2009. The Cards also got extended looks at Joe Mather and Brian Barton in 2008; both will be looking to parlay that Major League experience into a strong Spring Training. Remember Chris Duncan? Yeah, he’ll be back as well. And I’m pretty sure a guy named Colby Rasmus is pounding on the door of opportunity this year. So where do they put Ramirez? This isn’t beer league softball…only three outfielders allowed.
- Let’s just pretend the Cardinals did sign Ramirez. Let’s say it was a 3 year deal for $40 million for the sake of argument. Relatively speaking, that’s not an unreasonable amount of jack for a guy with Ramirez’ offensive output (when healthy and interested). Will Cardinal fans buy into the phenomenon of “Manny being Manny” for three years? Ramirez has a penchant for not being the greatest clubhouse guy, and apparently likes to give up near the end of his contract. Are we really willing to accept all of that considering it will probably cost the Cardinals at least 3 of the outfielders mentioned above?
- If the Cardinals did sign Ramirez, and were able to effectively figure out the logjam of outfielders, a question might still remain: Is it enough? Could that $10 million+ have been better spent on pitching, a clear pain point on the 2008 team and a lingering concern going into 2009?
With all these questions, I’m really not convinced that bringing Ramirez in would be worth the costs and risks. It would certainly be an about-face for the front office after all this talk about player development.
OK, fine. Let’s have a little fun here. I’ll go out on a limb and theorize how this deal could get done. I’m not saying I advocate it, and I’m not saying the Cards aren’t trying when these things don’t get done (because they won’t). So here goes:
- Sign Manny Ramirez for no more than 3 years, options included.
- Shop a package that includes 2-3 outfielders (Ankiel, Schumaker, maybe Barton?) and 1-2 young pitchers not named Chris Perez, Jason Motte, or Kyle McClellan, and acquire 2B Brian Roberts from the Orioles. Perhaps add Adam Kennedy to the deal and pay half his salary.
- Make every effort to extend Roberts and Khalil Greene through 2011, which is also when Pujols’ contract is up (Ramirez too, if this theory holds up).
- Rely on the development of young players just now emerging to enable the Cards to re-sign Pujols before he hits the open market after the 2011 season. This means that between now and then, the following players will be allowed to walk without being replaced: Joel Piniero, Todd Wellemeyer, Troy Glaus, Chris Duncan, Ryan Franklin, and maybe more.
So the lineup would look like this:
- Roberts (2B)
- Rasmus (RF-CF)
- Pujols (1B)
- Ramirez (LF)
- Ludwick (CF-RF)
- Freese/Wallace/Glaus (3B)
- Molina (C)
- Greene (SS)
…or some variation.
Maybe this isn’t such a crazy idea after all…