Thirteenth round draft picks usually don't end up signing lucrative major league contracts, but we're not here to talk about who everyone thought Matt Carpenter was going to be. No, we're here to talk about who everyone thinks Matt Carpenter is going to be for the next six seasons. The Cardinals think the next six seasons are going to be worth more than $50 million and at this point it's pretty hard to argue with them.
Carpenter had a phenomenal 2013 season in which he hit .318/.392/.481 in 717 plate appearances, mostly at second base, which ended up coming in at an impressive 7.0 fWAR. He was close to 50 percent better than league average at the plate (147 wRC+), was great on the bases (4.1 BsR), and was right around league average in the field when you factor in time at his various positions. If you were handing out contracts based on everyone's 2013 season, Carpenter would be one of baseball's wealthiest men.
That obviously isn't how it works. Carpenter isn't going to be raking in $25 million in 2014, but the Cardinals did reward him handsomely with a six year, $52 million deal over the weekend. He'll pick up $1.5 million as a signing bonus and will then make $1 million in 2014, $3.5 million in 2015, $6.25 million in 2016, $9.75 million in 2017, $13.5 million in 2018, $14.5 million in 2019, and has a $18.5 million club option for 2020 ($2 million buyout).
The 2014 season is Carpenter's last before arbitration and he was already under club control until 2017. The Cards bought out two free agent seasons and have an option on the third. Another way to put it, they had him from age 28 to 31, and now have him at least until age 33.
It's hard to find a serious analyst, scout, or talent evaluator who thinks Carpenter is a 7 win player going forward, but they didn't sign him to be a 7 win player for six years. They signed him to be a slightly better than average player, and it's pretty clear he's up to the task.
Let's assume that the odds of Carpenter totally flaming out during the next few years are low and that the Cards wouldn't have wanted to bump him off the roster. From there, let's project out his likely salaries through arbitration. I'm no expert in the matter, but if you assume he has a much worse, but still good 2014, he'd be in line for at least something like $4 million in 2015, $6 million in 2016, and $9 million in 2017. That puts him at around $20 million guaranteed for the next four seasons at the bare minimum, with a two year, $32 million free agent deal that covers his age 32-33 seasons.
When you evaluate an extension, you don't really care if they player will be worth the price, you care if you're getting a better deal than you would have gotten if you hadn't signed the contract. So let's ask ourselves two questions. How good would Carpenter have to be in the next year or two to push those arbitration numbers up significantly and how good would he have to be to make those free agent seasons significantly more expensive.
Answer? He wouldn't have to be great, just good. At the current rate of something around $6 million per WAR on the free agent market, that $32 million coming in his free agent years calls for about 5 WAR. We don't know how much the cost of a win is going to go up during the next four years, but baring some sort of economic depression, it isn't going down. If you think Carpenter is capable of six straight average seasons, this is a fair deal. That should keep his arbitration value around $20 million and a two year deal somewhere around $30 million (before you factor in the fact that you probably couldn't sign him for only two years at that point).
Except Carpenter is probably better than that. Seven wins is probably a long shot, but a couple of three or four win seasons seem totally reasonable. Carpenter has a tremendous approach, an excellent gap to gap swing, and has turned himself into a passable defender at a pretty tough position, and he's moving to one that is, theoretically, a little easier.
The worst case scenario that doesn't involve a catastrophic injury probably leaves the Cards holding $10-12 million in wasted money over the course of six seasons, but the best case scenario is that Carpenter is Ben Zobrist. Excellent approach, under-appreciated extra base power, and tons of defensive flexibility.
I promise, this is a real thing:
|Age||Carpenter WAR (PA)||Zobrist WAR (PA)|
|25||-0.2 (19)||-0.8 (198)|
|26||1.4 (340)||-1.2 (105)|
|27||7.0 (717)||1.4 (227)|
You can't put too much stock into a one to one player comparison, but Zobrist didn't have his big season until age 28. He never had another one like that, but he's been a 5 win player ever since. The Rays signed Zobrist to a crazy, awesome deal, but in a much richer climate, this Carpenter deal looks pretty good. If he follows a similar track and settles in around 4 wins then you'll be looking at about $25 million in surplus value before factoring in any sort of inflation or revenue explosion.
The point, I suppose, is that even if you don't think Carpenter is an All-Star, this deal probably goes reasonably well. If you buy him as anything more, it's probably going to end up looking pretty amazing in a couple of years. The Cardinals are known as a model franchise, and this is pretty much why. They found, drafted, and developed a very good player that every team passed on more than ten times and then locked him up shortly after he started paying dividends.
This isn't the best extension in the post-Moneyball era, but it's a pretty amazing outcome overall. Matt Carpenter, 13th round pick, just signed a $50 million extension and it's probably full of surplus value.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Neil Weinberg is the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond The Box Score, a contributor to Gammons Daily, and can also be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. You can follow and interact with him on Twitter at @NeilWeinberg44.