No one who has paid any attention to the Cardinals this season needs reminding that their third baseman, Matt Carpenter, is struggling. Despite a marginal downturn in some categories last season, few would have predicted the abysmal April for the embattled veteran. Carpenter is batting just .155, and though his OBP (the trademark statistic of his career) is not terrible, at .305, it’s dramatically down from his career mark of .375. His slugging percentage is also alarming, at .274, almost two hundred points below his career .455 threshold. Carpenter tallied only thirteen hits in the entire month of April, and while he still walks at a great rate, there’s been very little else to his credit this season.
Complicating matters is the reality that Carpenter is, to put it politely, an underwhelming third baseman. His UZR/150 rating, a metric that calculates a player’s skill at his position, and compares it to an average player, is -6.4, meaning he’s allowing six more runs than the average 3B. But the real concern with Carpenter isn’t his glove. Though the metrics aren’t as widely available for throwing, no one needs statistics to see that Carpenter’s arm is a huge liability. He can barely throw a ball across the diamond, often bouncing throws to first base. This is especially troublesome, as Jose Martinez has his own struggles defensively (a topic for another day). Though Carpenter has played second base in the past, that’s hardly a palatable option. His UZR/150 there, though admittedly in a relatively small sample size (43 innings), is a preposterous -37.4. Though that probably can’t be relied upon, his career mark there is -5.6, still low, especially considering that everyday second baseman Kolten Wong has a 20.2 mark this season and a 3.1 number for his career.
The concern with Carpenter is, therefore, where the balance of these two faults becomes too much. How long can the Cardinals afford to keep letting Carpenter try to get right at the plate, while consequently allowing his sub-par defensive play to cost the team runs?
Another factor weighing against Carpenter is the sterling performance of Jedd Gyorko in his limited opportunities. In 30 plate appearances this season, Gyorko is slashing .364/.500/.682. He’s had two homers and 5 RBI in that time. Defensively, he’s much more reliable than Carpenter, too. He has a 48.6 UZR/150 this year (though, again, his 63.0 inning sample size is far too small to rely on that number), but his mark last year was a decent 4.0 and his career number is 2.1. Moreover, Gyorko really did nothing to lose the 3B job that was his most of last season. His demotion to a bench role had more to do with the sudden (and seemingly impromptu) decision at the start of the year that Jose Martinez’s bat was worthy of everyday starts at 1B. That forced Carpenter to third, which forced Gyorko to the bench. And with Martinez’s torrid start at the dish, he’s not going anywhere.
What options do the Cardinals have for 3B beyond Carpenter and Gyorko (and to a lesser extent, utility man Greg Garcia, who has played well this year)? Despite impressive power numbers, the front office has shown little interest in promoting Patrick Wisdom. He smacked 31 homers and collected 89 RBI last year, and slashed .243/.310/.507. In his first month this year, he’s lowered his power a little (the slugging percentage is down to .413), but his average (.253) and OBP (.326) are up, while he’s walked more and struck out less. Still, Wisdom (26) has never received a call-up to the big club, and it doesn’t seem likely that one is in the immediate works.
There’s also Yairo Munoz, who had a cameo in the Bigs this season. Since returning to Memphis, he’s slashed .250/.308/.333. None of those numbers suggest that he needs an immediate shot to replace Carpenter, but he’s a name to monitor.
The Cardinals don’t have much further depth at the hot corner, so their options may be limited. Continue to let Carpenter struggle to find his way? Give Gyorko more consistent playing time? Take a shot on Wisdom? Or look outside the organization?
The last option may be the most compelling (though it’s not an immediate solution) particularly with names like Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson approaching free agency. Machado, who has gone back to his original position at shortstop this season, is a young superstar in the league, and MLB insider and Athletic writer Ken Rosenthal has consistently listed the Cardinals as a strong suitor for Machado’s services. Should the Cardinals acquire him, they could move Paul DeJong to third (a position more natural to his skillset) and turn their infield weakness into a strength. But even if that scenario comes to pass, it likely would not happen for a few months.
In the meantime, the Cardinals must decide what they are to do with Carpenter. One thing is likely for certain: Manager Mike Matheny will not displace Carpenter unless forced to. Matheny has a reputation for sticking to veterans far too long (we all remember the Brandon Moss saga), which in the past has forced team president John Mozeliak to take drastic action. Would he consider the type of move that forces Matheny’s hand, like when he traded Allen Craig and Joe Kelly to Boston? It seems unlikely with a beloved veteran like Carpenter, but it’s not impossible.
What is for certain is that Carpenter batting in the .150s with an unreliable glove and a non-existent throwing arm is not a tenable situation. Carpenter must improve his numbers at the plate, or the Cardinals will need to get creative sooner rather than later.