Earlier Tuesday, word got around that the St. Louis Cardinals had called an afternoon press conference. Word got around because the Cardinals spread it. Immediately, there was some speculation that the Cardinals had made an acquisition. There was also speculation that the Cardinals were going to announce a long-term contract extension for a player or coach. But then there were whispers that the news conference would have to do with Chris Carpenter‘s future, and many began to expect a retirement announcement. Carpenter has not retired, but retirement doesn’t appear to be far off.
Carpenter’s coming off major surgery, and he started throwing early on this offseason to test his body. Recently, he informed the Cardinals that he’s feeling similar symptoms to the ones he experienced a year ago. He’s going to get himself examined, but the Cardinals all but wrote him off for 2013, and they repeatedly referred to Carpenter in the past tense. This is not a Chris Carpenter retirement article, but you can consider it just one step below.
“If I have more health issues I’m not going to continue to try to battle through,” Carpenter said at the team’s annual Winter Warm-Up when asked about what his plans were for after the 2013 season.
Last year, he was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, and so he had a career-threatening operation. He made it back to pitch toward the end of the year and then in the playoffs, but with discomfort recurring, Carpenter probably feels like he doesn’t have much left to prove. As noted during the conference, the top priority now is going to be for Carpenter to ensure that he can live a normal life off the field with his baseball career behind him. There’s family business to tend to, and Carpenter would like to be at or around 100%.
What we have to do first is discuss the various immediate implications. Most obviously, this is a shot to the Cardinals’ projected 2013 starting rotation. Adam Wainwright and Jake Westbrook are the locks, and Jaime Garcia seems to be doing well in his recovery from shoulder issues. Lance Lynn appears to have an inside track, meaning the fifth spot is up for grabs. By name value, losing Carpenter is a significant loss.
But this doesn’t obliterate the Cardinals’ playoff hopes, or turn the Reds into the hands-down favorites in the NL Central. The Reds were probably already the favorites by a hair, but if you want, you can replace Carpenter in your head with Shelby Miller. Or Joe Kelly, or Trevor Rosenthal. The Cardinals aren’t going to be trying to replace an ace with a replacement-level 30-year-old. They’re going to be trying to replace a talented question mark with a similarly talented question mark. The Cardinals have depth, and they’re still very much a threat to Cincinnati.
A question that came up during the conference was whether or not this makes it more likely the Cardinals re-sign Kyle Lohse. I can give you the mathematical answer to that: yes, this makes it more likely the Cardinals re-sign Kyle Lohse. There’s now more of an opening, and Lohse is still on the market, and the Cardinals wouldn’t have to sacrifice their draft pick. But they would have to sacrifice the potential compensation draft pick, and recently there were indications the Cardinals and Lohse hadn’t spoken in ages. The two sides are intimately familiar with one another, and the Cardinals haven’t made any real effort to bring Lohse back. They’ll talk about it now, and Scott Boras will put on his persuasive hat, but the Cardinals don’t necessarily have to be Lohse’s solution to unemployment. While they have more of a fit, they don’t have a need.
John Mozeliak, in the conference, highlighted Miller, Kelly, and Rosenthal, in addition to Lynn. In November, Marc Hulet ranked Miller the #3 prospect in a stacked system. Rosenthal was ranked #6. ZiPS sees all these guys as being some approximation of league-average, and last year over 16 starts with St. Louis Kelly put up a 97 ERA- and a 104 xFIP-. Obviously a guy like Miller also comes with legitimate breakthrough potential. If you think of the Cardinals’ situation as going from a proven veteran to an unproven youngster, you might get one idea. But there were a lot of questions about Carpenter going forward, so the gap between projections isn’t enormous. This is more an issue with regard to depth and leadership.
At last, there’s Carpenter. I already said this isn’t a retirement article, and I don’t want to treat Carpenter like he’s absolutely toast. Sometimes players will surprise you. But as Carpenter is slowed by an injury now, we have an opportunity to reflect on all that he’s overcome. Brandon Webb reminded us yesterday that pitchers can break in a hurry, and never recover. Chris Carpenter reminds us today that pitchers can break in a hurry, multiple times, but no throwing injury has to be a death sentence. Survival is possible, and Carpenter gives hope.
Carpenter was drafted in the middle of the first round all the way back in 1993. Selected before him was Derrek Lee, and selected after him was Alan Benes. After 1994, Carpenter appeared at #100 on the Baseball America top-100 list of prospects. The next year, he moved up to #82. The year after that, he moved up to #28. Carpenter debuted in the majors in 1997 at the age of 22, and he did hold his own. Between 1997-2002, Carpenter, overall, was about a league-average pitcher.
Then came the labrum surgery that cost him all of 2003. No matter; Carpenter signed with the Cardinals, and excelled for three years. Then came the elbow surgery and subsequent shoulder injury that cost him most of 2007 and 2008. No matter; Carpenter came back and excelled for three years. Then came the thoracic outlet syndrome that cost him most of 2012. No matter; Carpenter came back to pitch in the playoffs. He recovered ahead of schedule, at the age of 37. Carpenter might be finished now because of an injury, but he’s already fought through the worst ones and come out clean on the other side.
Carpenter gives hope to pitchers diagnosed with significant shoulder problems. He gives hope to pitchers diagnosed with significant elbow problems, and he gives hope to pitchers written off as being too injury-prone. Carpenter kept on making it back, and while a portion of the credit goes to the doctors, Carpenter’s career speaks to his incredible spirit and work ethic. Chris Carpenter became the ace he was projected to be as a prospect. And Chris Carpenter earned it, because his career didn’t come easy. Carpenter missed all of 2003 due to the dreaded shoulder labrum operation. Two years later, he won the National League Cy Young.
In terms of results, Carpenter hasn’t put together a Hall of Fame career. Even should he add to it, he doesn’t stand to add much, and he’s thrown fewer innings than Randy Wolf. He’s got a lower WAR than Brad Radke and John Burkett. He hasn’t reached 150 wins, let alone 200, and Carpenter’s outstanding success in the playoffs doesn’t make up for the fact that he doesn’t have the regular-season numbers. Carpenter’s career, simply, has been very good.
But Carpenter has had Hall of Fame talent, and he’s fought like hell to take that talent to the field. It might be that an injury brings an end to Carpenter’s career, but that doesn’t mean the injuries won. Carpenter won, against the longest of odds.
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