After flying high for most of the spring, the Cardinals have lost their grip on first place in the National League Central. Since winning a series in Houston a week ago, the Cards have been outscored 42-16 and lost six games in a row. Meanwhile, the St. Louis disabled list is overflowing, and the rival Cubs, among others, are positioned to offer Albert Pujols approximately eleventy billion dollars this winter.

Against that backdrop, longtime Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter makes his 15th start of the season tonight at Busch Stadium. In past years, Carp was just the man the Cardinals would want taking the mound with the club struggling. But with a 1-6 record and a 4.47 ERA in 2011, Carpenter’s season has not been typical.

Since leaving Toronto for St. Louis after the 2002 season, Carpenter has been very effective—when healthy. Despite missing most of two years to surgery, Carpenter has compiled the best winning percentage in Cardinals history (.718) among pitchers with 100 starts. But this season, St. Louis has won just four of his 14 starts, and his lone victory was an early May decision against the Cubs.

So what’s the problem? For one, Carpenter is giving up more hits this season: he has allowed 10.2 hits per nine innings, up from 8.2 in 2010 and 7.3 in 2009. He’s also allowing more home runs, giving up 1.0 per nine, up from 0.8 last season and a league-best 0.3 in 2009. Another troubling trend is Carpenter’s declining ground-ball rate, which has fallen from 56.9 percent in 2009 to 52.1 percent in 2010 and just 46.3 percent this season. By contrast, his line-drive rate has jumped to 22.5 percent this season, compared to just 16.6 percent in 2009.

Not all the numbers are bad, however. Carpenter’s walk and strikeout rates have remained fairly constant, and while his SIERA mark of 3.87 is his highest since 2002, it’s still well south of his 4.47 ERA, suggesting that his other numbers will gradually revert to something closer to his career norm over the rest of the season. Tellingly, his SIERA bests those sported by the likes of CC Sabathia and 2011 breakout star Charlie Morton.

Carpenter also has been somewhat unlucky when it comes to those things pitchers don’t control. Hitters facing him have hit an unusually high .324 on balls put in play. What’s more, the Cardinals have mustered just 52 runs in his 14 starts, an average of 3.71 per game. His support-neutral won-loss percentage—which assumes league-average run support—is a tidy .530 (4.9 wins and 4.3 losses).

By contrast, teammate Kyle Lohse began the week sporting a nifty 7-3 won-loss record and a 2.88 ERA. However, his 4.21 SIERA ranks well behind Carpenter’s, and his .248 BABIP is almost freakishly low.

If, as his SIERA and ERA marks suggest, Carpenter is able to return to form, the Cardinals will face one more potentially sticky contract situation at the end of the season.

The Cardinals signed Carpenter to his current contract in the afterglow of their 2006 World Series victory, when former St. Louis general manager Walt Jocketty doled out a series of deals that did not end well. Adam Kennedy signed for $10 million over three years, and the club signed ill-advised two-year deals with Jim Edmonds ($19 million), Mark Mulder ($13 million), and post-season folk hero Scott Spiezio ($4.5 million). For good measure, Jocketty orchestrated a one-year, $4 million deal with free agent Kip Wells.

Carpenter was the biggest beneficiary of the Cardinals’ largesse. Despite already being locked in at $7 million for 2007 (with an affordable $8 million club option for 2008), Carpenter signed a new five-year, $63.5 million deal covering his age-32 through age-36 seasons. You know what happened next. The righty was shut down the following spring, underwent surgery for bone chips in his right elbow in April, and had his UCL replaced in July, causing him to miss most of the 2007 and 2008 seasons.

As the 2009 season opened, Carpenter had made just four starts in two years, with three years and $44.5 million left on his extension, but the right-hander regained his form, leading the National League with a 2.24 ERA in 192 1/3 innings. When he followed up with 235 innings last season, it became plausible for the Cardinals to at least consider exercising the $15 million club option for 2012 on Carpenter’s contract.

No fewer than 15 starting pitchers already are slated to earn $15 million or more in 2012:

Johan Santana ($24 million), CC Sabathia ($23 million), Cliff Lee ($21.5 million), Roy Halladay ($20 million), Justin Verlander ($20 million), Barry Zito, Giants ($19 million), Felix Hernandez ($18.5 million), Carlos Zambrano, Cubs ($18 million), Jake Peavy ($17 million), A.J. Burnett ($16.5 million), Roy Oswalt ($16 million club option), Josh Beckett ($15.75 million), John Lackey ($15.25 million), and Derek Lowe and Matt Cain ($15 million each). A 16th starter, Tim Lincecum, is sure to pass the $15 million mark in arbitration this winter. He cannot become a free agent until after the 2013 season.

Given Carpenter’s age, injury history, and shaky start, it might seem unlikely that St. Louis would pick up his 2012 option. Then again, he has had just one stint on the disabled list—a rib-cage strain in May of 2009—since his elbow was repaired. He ranked second in the National League in innings pitched in 2010, and he is 15th in that category this season. He might not be the first of the $15 million starters you’d choose to lead your rotation for another year, but he wouldn’t be the last, either. If his peripheral numbers continue to match his 2010 marks, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Cards exercise the option.

Meanwhile, the Redbirds face another decision regarding Adam Wainwright, Carpenter’s running mate at the top of the St. Louis starting rotation. His club options for 2012 ($9 million) and 2013 ($12 million) technically vested when Wainwright placed second in the 2010 Cy Young vote. However, his contract allows the Cardinals to void the options if he is on the disabled list at the end of the 2011 season. If the Cards were to do so, Wainwright would hit the free-agent market this winter and, like Pujols and Carpenter, might soon be accepting bids for an eleventy-billion-dollar contract of his own.

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Speaking of conundrums, what's with Chris Volstads SIERA of 4.16 and his tough-luck 6.07 ERA?
Regarding Carptener, I wouldn't be so sure about his ERA regressing towards his SIERRA. Shifting from a groundballer with Brendan Ryan behind you to a flyballer with Lance Berkman in RF (and Theerroriot at SS) is bound to lead to increase in hits.
How does eleventy billion dollars compare to Albert's MORP?
It's a slight overpay. But it's that, or include an ownership stake in the deal.