March 10, 2014
Cardinals Keep Carpenter, Cost Certainty
Signed LHP Oliver Perez to a two-year deal worth $4.25 million. [3/7]
You'd never know it based on Perez's walk rate, but finesse is a part of his game. The former Mariner uses three deliveries—including one in which he turns his back toward the plate and another of the quick-pitch kind—along with his above-average fastball-slider combination to disrupt hitters’ timing and miss bats. That variety has its drawbacks: Perez struggles to repeat his delivery, with his arm slot fluctuating between low three-quarters and sidearm. Kevin Towers approaches relievers with as much patience as a child does his toys—see this recent tweet from Troy Renck concerning his increasing disenchantment with Joe Thatcher, who walked more batters in 22 games last season with Arizona than he had in 50 appearances with San Diego—so the lefty shouldn’t look startled if he doesn’t stick with the Diamondbacks for the duration of the deal. —R.J. Anderson
Signed IF-L Matt Carpenter to a six-year, $52 million extension with an option for 2020. [3/8]
Courtesy of MLBTradeRumors’ invaluable Extension Tracker, here are the comps for Carpenter: position players with between two and three years of service time and at least five career WARP (rounding in Craig’s case) who’ve been signed to extensions over the past three seasons. Age, service time, and career WARP are listed as of the day each player signed his extension; "Season WARP" is what he was worth the season before the extension, and projected WARP is what PECOTA thought he’d be worth in the season ahead.
Carpenter is coming off a stronger season any of these others players had had before being locked up. He’s also significantly older than any of them except Craig, who was a few months older than Carpenter is now when he agreed to his current contract. Carpenter is more accomplished, more durable, and more versatile than St. Louis’ last 28-year-old extendee, so it comes as no surprise that he received a longer commitment at a higher average annual value. Carpenter's closest financial comp is McCutchen, whose signing at age 25 was a bigger coup for the Pirates than Carpenter’s contract is for the Cardinals.
Carpenter’s deal buys out his three arbitration years and what would have been two free agent years, tacking on an $18.5 million team option (with a $2 million buyout) for 2020, his age-34 season. Those free agent years will cost the Cardinals an average of $14 million ($15 million, if you include the buyout), which would be a bargain if Carpenter were on the open market today. By the time he’s in his early 30s, he’ll be on the decline, but the market may have inflated further, so as long as he stays healthy his salary won’t ever be a burden.
Like most extensions, this one falls into the “fine” bucket between the brilliant (Evan Longoria) and the inexplicable (Ryan Howard). It gives the Cardinals some additional cost certainty and (as John Hart explained after the Braves’ extension spree), by extension (so to speak), the ability to be creative with their remaining funds. Carpenter’s positional flexibility only increases how creative they can be, and they won’t have to worry about being hampered by a bunch of bad deals, since Carpenter’s contract is the Cardinals’ only guaranteed commitment for 2019. At some point, St. Louis' drafting and development machine might hit a little lull, due either to brain drain or bad luck. Locking up Carpenter makes it more likely that the Cardinals can compete indefinitely without having to continually refresh the roster with the blood of late-round picks.
Carpenter has always hit, but his offensive success in his first full big-league season—as well as the way he took to second base—exceeded even St. Louis’ expectations. He finished fourth in NL MVP voting and second in NL WARP, and while nothing in the stats available to us truly screams “fluke,” he’s probably headed for only a graceful fall back to earth. The following table lists under-30 players since the last round of expansion who, like Carpenter, went from being worth less than 2.0 WARP in a season of at least 300 plate appearances to over 6.0 WARP the next. “WARP 3” shows what they did the season after the “breakout.”
None of the players matched his middle-season output in year three, but most remained assets. The Cardinals would be more than content if Carpenter regressed all the way to his five-plus-win PECOTA projection.
Questioning the Cardinals’ player development process generally isn’t smart, but it is fun to imagine an alternate history in which Carpenter made the majors earlier. In 2010, the Cardinals got pretty good production out of David Freese at third base until he hurt his ankle, then settled for replacement-level production (or worse) from Felipe Lopez and Pedro Feliz. The same season, regular second baseman Skip Schumaker was worth 1.6 WARP in 137 games. Carpenter, then in his age-24 season, hit .316/.412/.487 in 472 Double-A plate appearances.
On the 2011 team, David Freese and Daniel Descalso combined for 2.6 WARP at third, but Schumaker was worth 0.7 WARP in 117 games. Carpenter, meanwhile, hit .300/.417/.463 for Triple-A Memphis sandwiched around a week-long call-up in June.
Carpenter’s minor-league lines and easy acclimation to the majors suggest (with some help from hindsight) that he might have helped the Cardinals had he been promoted earlier. And had he arrived on the scene sooner, he would’ve been younger when the extension talks began and/or when he reached free agency, in which case he might have stood to make more money. From the Cardinals’ perspective, the timing couldn’t have been better: They won the 2011 World Series (almost entirely) without him, then gave him a starting job just in time to get a seven-win season and another pennant, all while keeping costs down. The Cardinals’ admirable ability to develop young talent gives them enough depth that they don’t have to deal with the growing pains or the service clocks of some young players, which lets them leverage those players’ peaks at the lowest possible price.
After finalizing the terms of the Carpenter contract, the Cardinals also added 23-ish-year-old Cuban infielder Aledmys Diaz on a four-year big-league deal. As that “23-ish” age approximation suggests, there’s a lot we don’t know about Diaz—he originally claimed to be born on January 8, 1990 but was actually born on August 1 of that year, an adjustment that made him ineligible to sign last summer. What we do know, assuming Jon Morosi’s source heard right, is that Diaz will make less than recent Dodgers imports Alexander Guerrero and Erisbel Arruebarruena. Scout.com’s Kiley McDaniel describes Diaz as “younger, more athletic, and better defensively than Guerrero and a much better hitter than Arruebarruena,” so St. Louis may have gotten good value here. As McDaniel notes, scouts are split on whether Diaz can handle an everyday gig; he’s a high-contact hitter with some stolen-base ability, but he doesn’t have much power, and both his arm and his range would be stretched in a regular role at short.
Diaz will likely start the season in the high minors. If he does prove worthy of a starting job down the road, the Cardinals won’t have one to give him unless they try him at short and trade Jhonny Peralta, which might make you wonder why they were willing to outbid the five other teams that supposedly submitted offers. Maybe it’s because they’re extra eager to avoid another middle-infielder outage, having been burned by Pete Kozma, but it’s probably because they recognize that adding Cuban talent 23 or older is one of the few ways for teams to acquire talent without bumping up against a bonus limit. And even if the consensus is correct and Diaz is only a part-time player, he still might be an upgrade over Daniel Descalso, who’s arb eligible after this year.
Of course, the consensus was that Carpenter was a 13th-round talent. When the Cardinals take on the consensus, the consensus doesn’t always win. —Ben Lindbergh
Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @benlindbergh