The most valuable player on the 2013 St. Louis Cardinals wasn't Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday or Allen Craig. Instead, second baseman Matt Carpenter, in what was his first full season in the majors, led the eventual NL champions with a 6.6 WAR.
Regardless of your definition of value—using old-school or new-school numbers—the Cardinals are wise to award a contract extension to one of the best offensive players in baseball.
In a negotiation first reported by Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and later confirmed by Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, the Cardinals and Carpenter have agreed to a long-term deal to buy out arbitration and free-agent seasons for the 28-year-old infielder.
According to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, the six-year deal will be worth $52 million and break down as follows:
As Heyman pointed out, the Atlanta Braves' Andrelton Simmons can be used as a contract comparison for St. Louis' latest long-term commitment. Both have similar service time and posted WAR marks above 6.0 in 2013. Yet due to the nature of their respective games, the comparisons should end there.
Simmons was paid because of outstanding defensive ability. Carpenter's value is a no-brainer to the Cardinals because of a wide-ranging offensive skill set that could set the table in the lineup for years to come.
Last year, Carpenter posted a .392 on-base percentage while serving as St. Louis' primary top-of-the-lineup hitter. That mark was good enough for 12th in baseball, ahead of names (subscription required) such as Troy Tulowitzki, Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia.
Along the path to that stellar OBP, Carpenter led the NL in hits (199), runs (126) and doubles (55). Those numbers—and stature atop league leaderboards—are impressive on the surface. When digging deeper, they become special.
Across the history of baseball, only eight infielders have posted individual seasons of at least 125 runs, 50 doubles and 190 hits. Alone, those numbers aren't anything more than very good. Together, they form a rare combination that's been achieved by some of the best players to ever step on a field.
|Impact Infielders: 125 Runs, 50 Doubles, 190 Hits in Single Season|
Outside of Odell Hale, that chart is comprised of players already enshrined in Cooperstown (Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer), a borderline great (Todd Helton) and two of the greatest players of the past generation (Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez).
Referring to Carpenter as an infielder, rather than a third baseman, is key to determining his value both in the present and future.
To be fair, much of Carpenter's worth in 2013 was derived from playing second base. In 2014, he'll move to third base—his natural defensive position—potentially dampening his offensive dominance among his peers.
For what it's worth, the Cardinals' versatile infielder thinks the move back to third base will allow him to focus most of his attention on a burgeoning offensive game, per Chuck King of The Associated Press (via Yahoo! Sports).
"It's nice to be able to come in and focus on your offense — not necessarily that you don't think about defense, but you are not trying to learn a new spot," Carpenter said.
The hot corner tends to be more of a power position, littered with middle-of-the-order bats like Adrian Beltre, Josh Donaldson and Pedro Alvarez. In the midst of a breakout offensive season, Carpenter only hit 11 home runs. On the surface, his lack of power could be thought of as a detriment to playing third base as a full-time position.
Yet as forward-thinking baseball fans know, offensive value and slugging percentage isn't based solely on raw power or the ability to hit the ball over the outfield fence.
As noted, Carpenter gets on base at a high clip. Regardless of position, a .392 on-base percentage will rank near the top of any list.
Yet despite only hitting 11 home runs, Carpenter provided 73 extra-base hits for the Cardinals lineup last summer. The 55 doubles and seven triples combined to form an excellent .481 slugging percentage for the soon-to-be third baseman.
To put that into perspective, the average third baseman posted a .411 slugging percentage in 2013, per ESPN. Carpenter may not hit 30 home runs or post a slugging percentage of over .500, but he did smash 73 extra-base hits and accepted 70 walks.
Despite the excellence and offensive firepower throughout baseball in 2014, the combination of walk rate and extra-base-hit prowess is rare.
When looking deeper into last year's third base crop, only two players achieved as much success with plate discipline and extra-base power: Miguel Cabrera and Evan Longoria.
Absent from that short list (subscription required): David Wright, Beltre, Donaldson, Ryan Zimmerman and Chase Headley.
Over the years, the Cardinals have shown loyalty to homegrown success stories. From Molina to Wainwright to Craig, St. Louis' front office hasn't been shy about handing out lucrative, long-term deals to players cultivated in the system.
It's fair to wonder if 2013 was simply a career year at the right time for Carpenter, if he can develop 20-plus home run power or if his early 30s will feature a decline as his salary inflates.
But the Cardinals also deserve the benefit of the doubt for recognizing the offensive star they have in their infield, regardless of position.
If Matt Carpenter took his talent to the open market, this deal wouldn't come close to the top offer received by his agent. For that number, the Cardinals could have a star for the next six seasons.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Arbitration numbers and projections courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors. Roster projections courtesy of MLB Depth Charts.
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