Cardinals news from a Sabermetric point of view

Carpenter contract is business as usual

So the Cardinals reportedly extended free-agent-to-be Chris Carpenter‘s contract. One can argue whether it’s a wise decision, but one thing is clear: It’s business as usual for the Mozeliak administration.

Sometimes “business as usual” is good, such as during the Cardinals’ peak years in the first half of the oughts (though it wasn’t a sustainable model, as the last few years have shown). And sometimes “business as usual” is simply that: Uncreative, same-old, same-old solutions to new problems.

It’s not that the Carpenter contract is that bad, though for various reasons, it’s not great:

  • Given Carp’s health history, the Cardinals have been living on borrowed time as it was the last couple of years. Two more years only increases the risk of him breaking down at some point.
  • It’s better to pay market price for one season than it is slightly below market for one and above-market for two. If the team figures Carpenter to stay healthy one of the two years, they already had in in the 2012 option year without adding to their exposure.
  • Re-signing Carpenter seems to nullify the Edwin Jackson acquisition, given that they traded a top young player in Colby Rasmus to rent a player who now is superfluous.
  • It’s not savings. Only someone conversant in today’s government doublespeak could claim that this is in any way a  “savings” for the Cardinals. Before the deal, the Cardinals maximum commitment to Carpenter beyond this season was $1, the cost of the option buyout. They have now apparently committed to $21 million. This is not a savings but additional cost, even factoring in replacement cost.

That said, it’s not horrible, either:

  • Carpenter proved in 2011 that if he’s healthy, he’s still a top-10% starter. Those guys don’t grow on trees, so the Cardinals figure they may as well tack on an extra year while they could.
  • The two years is a kind of diversification of Carpenter’s injury risk. If he gets hurt in 2012, it’s not a total loss. Theoretically.
  • He’s an insurance policy with the fan base. In the perceived Armageddon-like case they don’t sign Albert Pujols, they’ll have at least one legacy member from the glory days that they can market.

And that brings us to the underlying feeling that the deal leaves us with: It’s safe. It’s blase. It’s unimaginative. It’s more of the same failed approach that has been insufficient for reestablishing dominance. And it also likely means a continuation of the La Runcan stranglehold on the team’s future, which too may have passed its expiration date. It smacks of a “cover-your-ass,” reactive approach to the fans, as will overpaying for Pujols, if and when that happens this winter. Given Mozeliak’s comments in the wake of the Jim Edmonds trade — “something that was very difficult for the St. Louis Cardinals and me personally” — it also may involve an inability to objectively detach from business decisions. Contrast that approach with Whitey Herzog, for example. When the White Rat called the shots as GM, he was bold and creative. He had a vision for his team, and he went out and fulfilled it, let the chips fall where they may.

What might Mozeliak have done? A wiser move would’ve been to decline Carpenter’s option and offer arbitration, which would’ve either brought a more palatable one-year contract or two top draft picks. Maybe even in the same winter, he could’ve parlayed those picks into a different starter or restocked the system, presaging a trade of some other young player. In any case, passing on Carpenter — a courageous move in itself — would’ve opened up a brave new world of chances for Mozeliak, which he seemed unwilling to take.

And even as safe as the move he made seems, it might actually prove ugly. Mozeliak’s predecessor, Walt Jocketty, did something similar with Edmonds at the end of the 2006 season. Edmonds had a $10-million team option with $3-million buyout, and Jocketty converted it into a two-year deal for $19 million ($11 million in 2007, $8 million in 2008). That clearly backfired, as Edmonds was a less-than-one WAR player in 2007 and then the team had to pay the Padres $1.5 million to take the contract for 2008. The Cardinals got a bit lucky in getting David Freese in the return, but at the time, Edmonds was a white elephant, and few today could make a case that Jocketty extending his contract was wise.

The move isn’t going to condemn the Cardinals to two losing seasons. It’s likely going to allow them to continue doing business as usual. Unfortunately, however, that hasn’t meant going to the playoffs, either.

One Response to “Carpenter contract is business as usual”

  1. jwo Says:

    I generally agree with the article, but I’m not sure I describe this move as “Business as Usual”. This was more of a decision designed to provide stability for the franchise and the rotation for the next couple of years. If things go well, Carpenter’s replacement is going to be Shelby Miller, and he’s making his way through the system nicely right now. Keeping Chris makes the transition easier.

    I also secretly hope that Carpenter stays on as Pitching Coach once Duncan inevitably moves on with Larussa in a couple of years…

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