Mission ’13: A Mindset Informed by Chris Carpenter

I’ve been following the 2013 playoffs, but not very closely. A story that’s emerged is that Chris Carpenter may be at the end of a storied successful career. Perhaps it’s ironic that his career will come to a close with him on the 60-day DL. Perhaps it’s not. An imposing physical specimen (6’6”, 230 lbs.), Carpenter has struggled to stay healthy. He’s made no fewer than 13 trips to the disabled list. Five of those occasions saw Carp on the 60-day DL.

Drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the first round of the 1993 draft, the Jays believed he was an ace-in-waiting.

The timing was good as the team was coming off back-to-back World Series titles and everyone knows that good teams are built on the talent that’s drafted and developed from within, don’t they? I guess we could say that, of all the things it takes to become a champion, talent developed from within the organization is indispensable. And the immensely talented Chris Carpenter was at the top of the class within the Jays’ organization.

Carpenter developed steadily and made the jump to the Majors in his 4th season of pro ball. The results in the minors from 1994-1997 were mixed, and he looked overmatched in his first taste of the big leagues (81.1 IP/108 H/5.09 ERA). He walked 37 and only struck out 55. It’s not Matt Harvey territory, but it was a start.

Everything improved in 1998, as Carp appeared in 33 games, 24 of which were starts. But the really important thing was that he was learning from fellow starters Roger Clemens and Pat Hentgen, and from veteran catchers Benito Santiago and Charlie O’Brien. Sunshine and lollipops, man, sunshine and lollipops.

Chris Carpenter was an established major league pitcher by 1999 and made 92 starts (24, 34, then 34) over the next 3 seasons. He also suffered his first minor injury in 2001, as he was bothered by right elbow pain. Looking back it’s sort of ominous, but that’s what hindsight does: it makes us all seem like geniuses.

2002 was a different story. He missed 108 games, making 13 relatively ineffective starts in and around visits to the disabled list. Out of options and with 2 separate trips to the DL (a 15-day stint and a 15-day-transferred-to-the-60-day stint), the Jays tried to assign him to the minors. He refused and became a free agent. Chris Carpenter’s career with the Toronto Blue Jays was over after 152 G (135 starts), during which he compiled a maudlin 49-50 record and 4.83 ERA in 870.2 IP. The dream of a 1-2 punch of Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay barely got off the tarmac before it crashed and burned.

His career with the St. Louis Cardinals has been somewhat different. He’s compiled a 95-44 record and 3.07 ERA over 1348.2 IP. The disparity is painful for Toronto Blue Jays’ fans. Did the Jays’ brass err in allowing him to get away? What would it have cost them to keep him? Well, the Cards took a chance and knew they were taking a chance, but Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan were at the helm. They’d been responsible for more than one career resurrection over the years: think Dennis Eckersley, Dave Stewart, and Bob Welch. All 3 had been effective pitchers previously, but their careers were on the wane; all 3 enjoyed a resurgence under LaRussa’s and Duncan’s guidance.

Chris Carpenter was a different kettle of fish, though. The upside is that he was much younger than their other reclamation projects. The downside was that he represented much more of an injury risk than their other reclamation projects.

This is where LaRussa, Duncan and the St. Louis Cardinals’ brass needs to be commended. They signed Chris Carpenter as a free agent just before Christmas, 2002 (12/13/2002), to a 1 year deal worth $300,000 with an option for 2004. He missed the entire 2003 season because of shoulder surgery; they declined his option. The Cards signed him to another 1-year deal at the beginning of December (12/01/2003) with an option for 2005, and he was Comeback Player of the Year in 2004 (15-5, 182.0 IP, 3.46 ERA). They exercised his 2005 option and then he went out and won the Cy Young Award (21-5, 2.83). He made $2.6MM in bonuses in 2005 and $200,000 in bonuses in ’04

It was a gutsy move by the Cards and it worked out well. Or did it? He started 28 G in ’03-’04, and was left off the playoff roster after both seasons. The Cards are sort of the NL version of the Boston Red Sox: they aim for the playoffs, and when they get there, they expect to go deep. Chris Carpenter didn’t pitch at all in ’03 and helped them make the playoffs in ’04. But in 2005, he was brilliant. He pitched well in the playoffs before the Cards were dispatched in the NLCS. What to do, what to do, what to do…?

The Cards signed him to a 2-year, $13MM deal, laden with incentives and a 3rd year option that would vest based on reaching various performance-related goals. Carp was very good in 2006 (15-8, 221.2 IP, 3.09). It wasn’t up to the standard he set during 2005, but no one was complaining. Oh, and the Cards won the World Series. Carp pitched 8 innings of 3-hit ball, didn’t walk anyone, and struck out 6 in his only start. He pitched 32.1 innings in the playoffs and, though the Mets knocked him around, his postseason ERA was 2.78 in 5 starts.

Then he started 5 ML games total in ’07-’08. Then he made 97 starts from ’09-’11, with 2011 culminating with another strong playoff performance and another World Series win for the Cards. They went to the NLCS in 2012 and Chris Carpenter pitched well again.

Since he established himself as a major league pitcher (1997-1998), Chris Carpenter pitched 3 different sets of 3 ‘full’ seasons in his career: 1999-2001, 2004-2006, and 2009-2011. The other years have seen Chris Carpenter’s career decimated by injuries: 13 G in 2002-2003, 5 G in 2007-2008, and 3 G in 2012-2013, or 21 G in 6 years.

Why did the Cardinals stick with him? Frankly, I don’t know. Toronto also saw the talent and the injuries, and still tried to hang on to him. He chose free agency then missed sizable chunks of his Cardinals career, including his entire first year with them.

Is there a lesson here for the Jays? I think so. The Jays currently have 4 pitchers who are very talented but also very injury prone: Dustin McGowan, Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek, and Josh Johnson. I suspect that at least one of those pitchers will make a significant contribution in 2014, and all of them have the talent to do it. The Jays showed that they were learning when they signed the oft-injured Dustin McGowan to a 2-year contract, and he made a contribution in 2013. The other 3 represent 3 pretty different situations:

  • Morrow’s a shoe-in for the 2014 rotation if he’s healthy;
  • Kyle Drabek is coming off his second Tommy John surgery, but threw the ball well in AAA and the ML when given the chance—his control/command are the main issue;
  • Josh Johnson pitched poorly for the most part in a free agent year and has a checkered history when it comes to injuries.

The average of the top 125 ML salaries is $14.1MM; this is the value of the qualifying offer that a team can make on a one-year deal to their own prospective free agent. The Jays would be looney tunes to make a QO to Johnson. However, a one-year deal loaded with incentives makes sense, n’est-ce pas?

The Toronto Blue Jays have a chance to sign a pitcher the calibre of Josh Johnson to a peanuts-level contract loaded with incentives, and turn him into a mid-to-bottom-of-the-rotation guy. After all Chris Carpenter went from $3.45MM to $300K contract with an option and incentives. I know it’s not a straight-line comparison, but why the heck wouldn’t they do it? If they’re all healthy and in the rotation, can Morrow, McGowan, and Johnson average 2.5-3.0 fWAR each? The entire starting rotation produced 7.0 fWAR in 2013.

Wes Kepstro

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