I’ve been doing a lot of research lately trying to find players who could play second or third base for the Tigers next year and who might be flying under the radar. I’m mainly focusing on guys who could get on base a ton and hit towards the top of the lineup. A few guys have stood out to me so far. I wrote a piece about one, Eric Young Jr., the other day. Now I’d like to introduce you to a guy who I’m even more excited about. Meet Matt Carpenter:
The clock started ticking on Carpenter the moment he was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals as the 399th overall pick of the June 2009 amateur draft. At that point, he was already 23 years old and a fifth-year senior at Texas Christian University–his progress delayed by a left elbow injury suffered on a throw to home plate which led him to a Tommy John surgery and a medical redshirt in 2007, his junior year. When Carpenter joined the Cardinals’ ranks, they had three legitimate third base prospects in Brett Wallace, David Freese, and Allen Craig, who were all similar in age to Carpenter and already nearing the end of their respective ascents to the major leagues. In short, the odds were stacked against Carpenter ever becoming anything more than organizational depth, a sentiment that the St. Louis front office seemed to agree with as they awarded him a signing bonus of just a thousand dollars. Carpenter himself, it would quickly become clear, was not satisfied with that.
Without adolescence on his side, Carpenter needed to progress through the various levels of the minor league system at an accelerated pace. He did just that. In 2009, during his first year of professional baseball, he jumped two levels from Class A-Short Season with the Batavia Muckdogs up to Class A-Advanced with the Palm Beach Cardinals of the Florida State League. The next year, 2010, he would remain in Florida for just 28 games before earning a promotion to Double-A Springfield, making him the first member of the Cardinals’ 2009 draft class to reach that level. That winter, he was named the Cardinals’ Minor League Position Player of the Year, an honor bestowed to Allen Craig the previous year. The following spring, in 2011, at 25 years old and with just one full season as a pro under his belt, Carpenter became the starting third baseman for the Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate, the Memphis Redbirds of the Pacific Coast League.
Now Carpenter is knocking on the door of the big leagues, begging the question, what caused his rapid climb through the Cardinals’ organization?
The simple answer is his bat. You wouldn’t fully understand his offensive skill set, though, after just a quick glance at some basic, oft-quoted statistics; he posted a garden-variety batting average of .312 with an unremarkable 24 home runs in his five-year career at TCU and has a career .300 average in the minors. No, to completely appreciate Carpenter’s value, you have to dig just a tad deeper. Not far, though; just to the middle of his triple slash line, where, with Carpenter, you’ll invariably see a stellar on-base percentage. His OBP is what, over the past three years, has kept him moving to new heights. At five different levels of the minor leagues, his OBPs were as follows; .541 in nine games at A-, .405 in 29 games at A, .362 in 60 games at A+, .412 in 105 games at AA, and .417 in 130 games at AAA.
Those consistently high OBPs are no fluke. Rather, they’re a product of a smart, patient plate approach. This year in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, he posted a walk rate of 15.7%, good for second in the league. His strikeout rate of 12.7% was the league’s 16th-lowest. His fantastic 1.24 BB/K ratio made him one of only five players in the PCL with more walks than strikeouts. Unlike David Cooper, the only player in the PCL who had better marks in both OBP and BB/K ratio, he didn’t have an unusually high batting average on balls in play. Cooper’s BABIP was .380 while Carpenter’s was just .331; given his plate discipline, even a dramatic drop on BABIP wouldn’t put a significant dent in his on-base numbers.
His on-base skills would look great near the top of the Tigers’ lineup, but that’s not all Carpenter does well. Once he gets on base, he’s known as an above average base runner despite his average speed.
He’s never been a huge home run hitter, but in recent years, he’s opened up his batting stance and become an at least marginal power threat. His minor league slugging percentage through all three levels of Class-A ball was a pedestrian .394, but at Double-A in 2009 that figure soared to .487. The next year at Triple-A, his power took only a minuscule step back as he posted a .463 for the full season. Those high SLG numbers came thanks to 24 home runs–a dozen at each level. He also recorded a single home run in 2010 before graduating to Double-A, giving him a total of 25 home runs over the last two years–just enough to surpass his college total. Those still aren’t near the power numbers of a traditional third baseman, but it’s definitely encouraging that he was able to adjust his swing to increase his power without sacrificing his outstanding on-base abilities.
The development of his power wasn’t the only step forward he took at Double-A; Carpenter had never been known for his fielding prowess, but Cardinals senior field instructor Mark DeJohn noted after the 2010 season that “he has gotten better defensively.” His manager that year, Ron Warner, agreed, saying of Carpenter, “he made huge strides defensively this season.” Everyone who talks about his defense notes his athleticism, strong throwing arm, and a will to learn that’s yielded constant improvement.
All accounts label him as an optimistic player with a tireless work ethic. Jeff Pearlman of Sports Illustrated called him “a bundle of joy and passion.” He’s one of the first to arrive at the ballpark and one of the last to leave. After barely losing a race for a spot on the Cardinals’ major-league team this year (despite monster numbers and near-flawless defense in spring training), he spoke about the joy of his spring training experience rather than lamenting his being cut.
Basically, I like almost everything about this guy. Even if he’s not ready to play every day in the major leagues, he would be a valuable addition as someone who could play at third or in the outfield. His left-handed bat might mean he would be a good fit for a platoon with Brandon Inge for this year with potential to develop into something more. Plus, he’ll be cheap for a long time.
Though Brett Wallace has departed since Carpenter came aboard, the latter is still blocked from a starting third base job in St. Louis by David Freese. Freese’s durability has been questioned, but even if he’s not the guy, he’ll likely get every chance to be considering his status as a hometown hero and reigning World Series MVP. Daniel Descalso can play third base and multiple other positions, which is why he was included on this year’s club over Carpenter. Allen Craig is still around, though he’s seen most of his time in the outfield. The Cardinals also have 2010 first round draft pick and third baseman Zack Cox who is progressing nicely. For all those reasons, the Cardinals might be willing to part with Carpenter despite how much their fans seem to like him for his skill and hustle. St. Louis is mostly set with pitching, but many figure they’ll look to add another lefty reliever to pair with Marc Rzepczynski.
I have to think that the Tigers probably have a young pitcher who would be able to return an unproven, older prospect like Carpenter–especially considering how many young third base options St. Louis seems to have.
What do you think of Carpenter, and if you were the Tigers, how much would you give up to acquire him?