Feb 11, 2018 – “Anything that I was having issues with has been absolutely cleaned up…Anything that I was having issues with has been absolutely cleaned up.” (Matt Carpenter from Derrick Goold on STLToday.com)
Feb 19, 2018 – “Matt Carpenter remains sidelined with a tight back, abstaining from on-field work in order to nip any possible injury in the bud.” (J.J. Bailey on KMOV.com)
Feb 26, 2018 – “Carpenter, 32, said he was “close” to taking ground balls “and getting bent over and all that stuff. But there’s still all kinds of progression that they want me to go through. To assuage the doubts of Cardinals fans back home and elsewhere, Carpenter said, “I’m not concerned at all.” (Rick Hummel on STLToday.com)
Mar 4, 2018 – “Matheny said he hoped that injured first baseman Matt Carpenter (back) will be playing by the middle of the month.” (Rick Hummel)
Mar 6, 2018 – “After weeks of displaying cautious optimism about the severity of Matt Carpenter’s back injury, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny admitted some concern before Tuesday’s 4-4 tie against the Marlins about his first baseman’s status for Opening Day. “If this doesn’t stay on track, I don’t know if he’ll be timed up,” Matheny said. “Physically, I think he’ll be ready. Whether he’s timed up and actually ready to be at his best when we bust out of the gate [on Opening Day] in New York. … I think we’re at that point right now.” (Joe Trezza on MLB.com)
Mar 8, 2018 – “Matheny cited Carpenter’s shoulder problems of last year as reason not to move him around too much yet. “The shoulder is always something we’re concerned about,” Matheny said. “That probably hasn’t been talked about during all this. We’re trying to get his back right and he’s also trying to get his shoulder into a really good place.” (Rick Hummel)
Do you see a trend here?
The Matt Carpenter story has undergone a lot of changes in the weeks since Spring Training kicked off and it’s not like the news just keeps getting better. Each story adds another layer of concern over the guy the team is counting on to be their #3 hitter.
Roughly three weeks ago, in the story linked above from Feb 11, 2018, the words coming from Carpenter were nothing but positive. It was all about how great his shoulder felt, how much work he was doing “explosive movements” throughout the offseason to better prepare himself for movement around the infield. He was doing what appeared to be “basketball drills” according to Hummel.
(Throughout the offseason his positional flexibility was cited as a key strength for the team, one that would allow Jose Martinez’ big bat to get a fair number of at-bats.)
A week later he was shut down with tightness in his back, the same kind of thing that knocked him out of the World Baseball Classic last Spring. The shut down was seemingly framed as being overly cautious with Carpenter suggesting he could play through it if he had to.
A week after that, the story linked from Feb 26, 2018, he was still only “close” to taking ground balls. Carpenter said he was “not concerned.”
A week after that, the story linked from Mar 4, 2018, the hope was that Carpenter would be playing games by the middle of the month. So already something that was “precautionary” had turned into a 3-week ordeal.
Two days later Mike Matheny hints that there is some concern about whether or not Carpenter will be ready for Opening Day. The concern wasn’t that he wouldn’t be healthy but rather that he wouldn’t be able to get the reps he’d need to be ready for real games.
Two days after that, Mar 8, 2018, we hear about the shoulder being a problem for the first time this spring and that his shoulder will probably limit him to first base action, at least initially.
That’s one hell of a sequence. We go from making him a multi-positional 3-hole hitter to a player limited to 1B-only who may not be ready for Opening Day. Like I said above, not great.
Now, if Carpenter is fine a couple of weeks into the season then there’s nothing to really worry about. The Cards have coverage. Jose Martinez showed he can be an effective offensive threat and Luke Voit can bring some power to the lineup as well. Then again, if this lingers all season – and let’s be honest, that’s a real concern since the back problems have come up multiple times and the shoulder injury was allegedly fixed and “normal” just a few weeks ago – then you’re talking about replacing your #3 hitter more often than you’d like.
I’m not suggesting anyone was purposefully deceiving us, I believe the sequence of events to be true. That’s really not the point, though. I don’t care how it was being played, these injuries are a real problem for the 2018 Cardinals. The fact that they haven’t gone away with so much time spent working on them is extremely worrisome.
It’s interesting because now instead of looking at Carpenter as the guy who plays everyday while others get time off it may be smarter to look at him as the player who needs time off, who needs to be limited at least as long as these nagging problems exist.
I’m all for seeing more of Martinez in the middle of the order, I think his bat is real, but I’d prefer that happen at someone else’s expense as opposed to one of the few left-handed bats you have on the roster.
Speaking of the roster, this might also have to change how the Cardinals put together their bench. Even if Carpenter is healthy at the start of the season his lack of positional flexibility because of the shoulder could cost Voit a roster spot (not that he was locked in, but this scenario all but guarantees he wouldn’t be a fit).
Follow along with me.
The Cardinals will mostly carry an 8-man bullpen this year (Gregerson, Norris, Leone, Lyons, Tuivailala, Brebbia, Bowman, Cecil) and will obviously have a 5-man rotation. Toss in your 8 position players and that leaves just four spots on the bench. Martinez is a lock. Greg Garcia is a lock (he’s the only left handed bat off the bench, he’s a great pinch hitter and he’s out of options). There will be a backup catcher as well, which will almost certainly be Carson Kelly.
That leaves one spot.
If Carpenter is limited to 1B then Voit won’t make sense as a bench piece. Martinez and Gyorko can also play 1B, and so can Yadier Molina in a pinch, so the last spot would probably have to go with someone who can play multiple positions.
Alex Mejia is an outstanding glove man at 2B-3B-SS but he’s not much of a hitter.
Breyvic Valera can move around the infield and he’s an extreme contact guy who also switch hits but he’s not hitting much this spring.
Yairo Munoz can play all over the infield and the corner outfield spots and he swings a good right handed bat. He’s hitting .360 with 2 HR so far this spring and that’s after hitting .300 with 13 HR and 22 SB combined between Double-A and Triple-A last season in the A’s system.
My bet would be on either Valera or Munoz, depending on whether or not the Cardinals want Munoz getting somewhat regular playing time at Memphis, and that takes some of the power threat off the bench that Voit would bring.
It might make sense for the Cardinals, regardless of how they structure their bench, to be aggressive in giving Carpenter days off early this season. Sit him against most lefties since they have so many good right handed hitting options, avoid day games after night games and give him a break on particularly cold days.
Then see how things develop. If he’s still dealing with the nagging injuries come May or June then it might be time for an extended DL stint and that would definitely be less than ideal.
No matter how you slice it, this is a potential problem for the Cardinals. They already need a lot of things to go right if they’re going to have a chance at keeping up in the NL Central (and the Wild Card race) and having persistent problems with their projected #3 hitter would certainly exaggerate the need for other players to have career years.