On Saturday, the Cardinals extended 28-year old star Matt Carpenter with a six-year, $52 million deal, once again showing the world why they are the top organization in baseball today. If Matt Carpenter is any indication, they won't be losing that title any time soon.
Carpenter is an extraordinary player. He has seen 1,076 plate appearances in basically one and a half seasons in the majors and he has walked 10.2 percent of the time and struck out just 15.3 percent. He is one of the most selective hitters in the game, seeing an average of 4.12 pitches per plate appearance last season, and when he finally gets the pitch he wants, he typically drives it hard. He has hit 25.8 percent line drives in his career by Fangraph's calculations and his .355 batting average on balls in play is the 10th highest rate over the past two seasons (minimum 800 PA). He was the 6th most valuable player in all of baseball by fWAR with a 7.0 mark in 2013, just behind AL MVP Miguel Cabrera and he achieved that high fWAR while playing a position that he never played as a minor leaguer. His second base defense wasn't great, but he held his own at the position for 1,126 innings last season.
Carpenter walks far more than the average major leaguer and strikeouts considerably less. He drives the ball just about as well as anyone not named Joey Votto. He runs the bases well for a guy without much speed and he showed he could adapt to a new position on the fly at the highest level. His only real weakness is a lack of home run power, but when you hit 55 doubles and 7 triples, you can get a pass for just hitting 11 home runs. He could see some regression from his elite 2013 production, but he has a skill set that promises well above-average offense over the life of this deal. He was still a season away from arbitration prior to signing his new contract and now, he will not reach free agency until at least 2020. Even if he takes a step back at the plate, this should be a good signing for the Cardinals. Carpenter has offensive skills that should hold up well into his early thirties and his defense was adequate at second and should be the same or better at third. Since he will earn less than $9 million a season on average and he will play for the Cardinals until he hits his age-33 or age-34 season, the risk here is minimal and the rewards could be enormous. On the open market, a player of his caliber would almost certainly earn more than twice what the Cardinals will pay him and when factoring in inflation, even the later years of the deal look like a substantial discount.
The financial break the Cardinals are getting on Carpenter isn't a stroke of genius from GM John Mozeliak. They were able to secure Carpenter throughout his peak-seasons at a minimal cost because of the arbitration rules. It certainly doesn't hurt that St. Louis is a fantastic baseball town and the Cardinals will be competitors for the foreseeable future, but four years from free agency, Carpenter wasn't going to do dramatically better than this deal by going year-to-year and the risk that he would get hurt or his performance would drop makes the guaranteed money too good to pass up. Many other organizations, if not most others, would have made the same move if they had a Matt Carpenter. It's having a Matt Carpenter to begin with that makes the Cardinals the best organization in the game.
Carpenter was a promising hitter in college, but he missed his junior year with an injury and with questionable defensive ability at third and little home run power, he was hardly a priority for any team when he reached the draft at the advanced age of 23. St. Louis took him with their 13th round pick in 2009 and paid him just $1000 signing bonus. At that point, he was old for a first-year pro, possibly position-less, and lacking the kind of home run power teams want in a corner infielder. St. Louis probably didn't even see the potential star they would one day extend for $52 million at that point. But they did see a player who could hit and so they took a chance. It was a similar move to one they made in the 13th round of the draft ten years earlier, when they took a bad-bodied shortstop out of a Missouri junior college named Albert Pujols.
The Cardinals have gotten incredible value from the draft in recent years and their model is a major reason why teams are balking at signing useful major leaguers like Ervin Santana and Stephen Drew when the cost of a draft pick gets attached to them. Other organization might be trying to follow the Cardinal way by prioritizing draft picks, but only a handful others have even come close to turning draft picks into productive players and major league stars as consistently as St. Louis. Late-round picks like Carpenter and Pujols make the best stories and paint the most compelling portrait of the Cardinals' front office as a collection of geniuses, but St. Louis has also been better than most teams in the other areas as well, landing potential stars like Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller and role players like Pete Kozma and Kolten Wong in the first round and adding top prospects like Carlos Martinez and Oscar Taveras through the international market. There are other teams that do an excellent job of finding talent, but few organizations have as well-rounded a process as the Cardinals and hardly any team has gotten as much out of the late rounds as St. Louis. In addition to getting stars like Pujols and Carpenter, the Cardinals have also found a closer in Trevor Rosenthal (21st round) and another premium corner bat in Matt Adams (23rd round) late in the draft.
St. Louis isn't simply the premiere drafting organization, they are also one of the best player-development organizations and that appears to be the part of the Cardinal way that other teams have the most difficulty latching on to. The Cards push all of their players to succeed with the tools that they have and they reward success with opportunities at the big league level. How many other organizations would develop a free-swinging stud hitter like Oscar Taveras right along side an uber-patient gap-to-gap guy like Carpenter? In developing the wide-range of players of vastly different playing styles and background, the Cardinals appear to be laser-focused on what a player can do instead of obsessing over what he can't do. It would have been very easy to ignore Carpenter's success early in his minor league career when he was old for every level he reached, but the Cardinals didn't do that. They moved him up aggressively and he continued to perform. They didn't force the profile of corner infielder on him and push him to sell out his approach for more home run power. It would have been easy to worry about his lack of defensive ability, but the Cardinals didn't try to force him into being the next Adrian Beltre before giving him his shot. As long as he hit, he played and he advanced. They saw the value in what he could do and decided to let him play wherever they had an opening. That ultimately meant playing him at position that he had little experience with everyday at the major league and they were willing to go to that extreme. Now, he will return to his natural position as another young player slides up from the minors into a role that he has earned. Even other extremely effective player-development systems like the Red Sox won't commit to this kind of aggressive promotion process. The Cardinals are one of the only teams consistently succeeding this way.
Whether or not Carpenter ever has a season like 2013 again, this deal is probably going to pay off well for the Cardinals. They have locked up at least solid production at third for below cost and they might just be getting the poor-man's Joey Votto for roughly a quarter of the price that the real thing is costing the Reds. If this deal turns out to be the incredible value for St. Louis it can be if Carpenter continues to produce, the lesson many people will take from this deal is that the draft is the game's best source of value. That isn't the wrong conclusion, but it is incomplete. The Cardinals' success doesn't just come from drafting well, it also comes from an incredible development process. Teams can hoard their draft picks and pour money into their scouting and analytics departments looking for players like Carpenter, only to fail to bring them along. The Cardinal way might start with the draft, but it ends somewhere in October. They have found the raw materials for a championship team in players as different as Tavaras and Carpenter and Miller and Wacha, but their ability to polish them into cornerstones and push them into the majors quickly is the true separating factor. Carpenter's deal is the culmination of a long process that St. Louis has mastered. Whether it is an enormous boon or a complete bust over the full length, right now, it is a testament to that process.