What to do about Chris Carpenter?

When I think about the greatest Cardinals’ pitcher of the last decade, my mind immediately goes to Chris Carpenter. I think most Cardinals’ fans’ minds would too. Over the last decade, when number 29 was on the mound you knew he was going to give it everything he had in the tank. If there was just one single ounce of greatness left in him, he was going to find it and use it. It was this same gritty determination that Carpenter used to give the Cardinals their eleventh World Series championship in 2011.

He spent nearly all of the 2012 season paying for it.

A rib later and here was Carpenter, using everything he had to make a miraculous September return. He wasn’t bad either. His record may reflect a 0-2 record with a 3.71 ERA in his three September starts, but he followed it up with a 2.63 ERA in three playoff starts. Unfortunately he was the victim of 6 unearned runs in the NLCS against the Giants that resulted in a 1-2 playoff record for him. Carpenter showed he was close, but he still wasn’t perfect.

Now 37, Carpenter enters the 2013 season as the highest paid pitcher on the team’s staff. His $12.5 million paycheck just barely clears that of the other guy in the Cardinals’ 1-2 punch, the $12 million salary of Adam Wainwright. Over the past 6 years, he’s appeared in more than four games in just three of them. The three years in the middle were excellent and if September and October of last year showed you anything, it’s that he still had greatness in the tank.

That leaves the Cardinals with a very tough question approaching them at the end of this season. What do you do with Chris Carpenter?

Carpenter is one of those players who I can’t even imagine in another uniform. I even have trouble imagining him in a Blue Jays uniform, and he even played for them. He comes across as an intensely competitive and loyal person. I recall that he gave the Cardinals’ a discount on the extension he signed before the 2007 season because he felt he owed them for taking the chance on him after his release from the Blue Jays after yet another arm injury.

It’s not like Carpenter has history with another team or in another area, like a guy like Lance Berkman did. Berkman has ties to Texas where he played college ball and spent well over a decade in Houston. Now he finds himself with the Rangers, but Carpenter doesn’t have that. He was drafted out of high school and his parting with Toronto doesn’t bring back good memories.

There was a time I figured Carpenter would be in Cardinal red until he decided he didn’t want to be. But that’s bound to be questioned later this year.

Carpenter and Wainwright are both free agents. So can be Jake Westbrook, who does have an option for 2014. Jaime Garcia has potential rotator cuff issues following him around. They also have plenty of stellar young arms in Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez who aren’t very far from vying for a spot in the big league rotation.

Is there even a spot for him in St. Louis if you want to keep him? And if so, how much do you pay him?

Only Jaime Garcia has his name in pen in the 2014 rotation, thanks to a contract which will pay him nearly $9 million that year. Lance Lynn’s name is in pencil, depending a great deal on his performance this year. That leaves three open spots. Miller and Rosenthal are ready now. The way Wacha has dominated the minors so far, he’s not too far away either. That leaves me thinking one thing.

It’s either Carpenter or Wainwright. You won’t get both.

Wainwright, beyond his struggles at the beginning and end of the season, put together a stretch of 19 starts from mid-May to the end of August where he went 11-6 with a 2.88 ERA. Performance was pretty much classic Wainwright. In a year where he was coming back from Tommy John surgery, I don’t think anyone expected him to be where he was. I expected rusty at the beginning and weary at the end, normal in the middle. We got it.

Unfortunately, with the recent signing of Zack Greinke by the Dodgers to a 6 year, $159 million ($26.5 million AAV), Wainwright won’t be cheap. I expect him to land in the low-$20 millions in AAV, which may prove itself more expensive than the Cardinals are willing to spend.

Meanwhile Carpenter may be the beneficiary of that decision. If he turns in a quality 2013 and proves he can still be “that guy” on the mound, he will be cheaper and like a series of one-year plus option deals that allows both sides to walk away when they don’t need the other anymore. It’s a move that allows the young arms to grow into their roles rather than be depended on to grow into a specific role.

Then again, maybe 2013 is Carpenter’s swan song? Maybe he knew he plans to hang up the cleats and that’s what drove him so hard towards returning last year? It’ll be worth watching. It’ll be a sad day for me when he walks away.

Coincidental side-note: While writing the article I used Google to determine the AAV of Greinke’s contract. “159/6” which brings up New Hampshire Revised Statutes as the top search results. They deal with firearm licenses. If I were superstitious, does that mean Carpenter’s right arm is still a firearm? Get your tickets to the gun show.