JUPITER, Fla. — They booed him during the summer, and begged management to dump during the winter.
They dreamt of having Nolan Arenado in their starting lineup. Or Anthony Rendon. Or Josh Donaldson. Or, gulp, even the star they love to hate from their bitter archrivals.
“Come on, do you really think the Cubs would trade (Kris) Bryant to us?’’ St. Louis Cardinals president John Mozeliak said, laughing at the absurdity.
Yet, instead of Cardinals’ fans celebrating a marquee attraction, a power-hitter to anchor the lineup, the man they tried to run out of town is returning at third base.
Matt Carpenter, enduring a whole winter of rumors, is back.
This time, with a giant bullseye on him.
“I’m willing to bet that I’m at least tied for first,’’ Carpenter told USA TODAY Sports, “for being the most motivated player going into this season. I’d be shocked if there’s anybody more motivated than me.
“I’m coming out to prove that last year isn’t who I am.
“And to prove to myself that I still have a lot left.’’
Matt Carpenter looks to bounce back after season he hit a career low .226. (Photo: Jon Durr, USA TODAY Sports)
Carpenter paused, closed his eyes, remembering last year’s pain and anguish. He got calls and messages from friends around the league, and encouragement from former teammates Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday. He was so tormented there were times he’d wake up in the middle of the night during the season, grab a baseball bat, and analyze his swing in front of the mirror.
“I was constantly thinking about it, constantly working on it,’’ Carpenter said, “and anybody that knows me well knows I lost a lot of sleep over it. It really ate at me.
“The timing really hurt. We were struggling, I was struggling. I was called upon to be a big part of the offense, and I was pretty much non-existent
“There were a lot of people who doubted me last year and assumed that was the end.’’
Carpenter’s feelings were wounded by the reaction, particularly coming off the best year of his career in 2018, finishing ninth in the MVP balloting, but not offended or bitter by the sudden hostility towards him.
He saw the ugly numbers every time he stepped up to bat on the scoreboard. He hit a career low .226 with a .334 on-base percentage and a .392 slugging percentage. He produced 37 extra-base hits, not even half of his total in 2018.
“I understand why our fanbase was displeased with the way I played,’’ said Carpenter, a three-time All-Star with two top-10 finishes in the MVP race. “I think the biggest thing was how fast a drop-off it was. I came off arguably one of my best seasons in my career, followed by the worst. It’s certainly not what I intended or expected from myself going into that year. …
“It was a tough pill to swallow.’’
Carpenter retreated home to Texas after the Cardinals were swept in the National League Championship Series against the Washington Nationals, and immediately went back to work. He broke down his swing with the help of Cardinals hitting coach Jeff Albert. The real breakthrough came when he summoned Berkman for help. Berkman came in, and spent an entire week with Carpenter, spending hours each day in the cage and studying videotape.
“He’s a guy I just think so highly of,’’ Carpenter said. “He had a great career and obviously knows how to hit, especially from the left side. So we worked out a lot together, hit a ton, and really honed on shortening my swing, trying to use the whole field like I did when I first came up.
“You can make a case for a lot of different things on why it happened, but the fundamental issue is that my swing got really long, and I tried to do too much with every swing. I was trying to hit a three-run homer with every pitch.’’
The looming question hovering over the franchise, of course, was whether the Cardinals still believed in Carpenter. They decided to stay patient. Rendon came and went on the free-agent market to the Los Angeles Angels. Donaldson went next to the Minnesota Twins. The Cardinals talked with the Colorado Rockies about Arenado, but nothing came close to materializing. And as much as the Cubs talked about trading Bryant, they certainly weren’t going to solicit offers from the Cardinals.
The Cardinals still owe $39 million over the next two years to Carpenter, but they insist that if they really believed he was done, they would have swallowed the money and found a replacement. They stayed pat, and instead of adding to the offense, parted with outfielders Marcell Ozuna and Jose Martinez, with 39 homers and 131 RBI from last year’s team now gone.
“Look, it was a tough year on him, he was getting booed and everything else,’’ Mozeliak said. “I hope people don’t look at it like they were questioning effort, because the guy cares. I’m optimistic that he’ll have a bounce back-type year. I believe his effort that he put in this offseason.
“Time will tell, right? We’ll know whether we’re right or wrong.
“But we have a lot of confidence in Matt Carpenter."
The Cardinals’ decision also was influenced by the way Carpenter handled his failures in the most trying year of his career. When he lost his starting job to rookie Tommy Edman, he was understandably upset, but understood, and was constantly by his side to offer support. When the team got hot down the stretch, overcoming the Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers, Carpenter played a vital pinch-hitting role, breaking the Cubs’ backs with a 10th-inning homer in the first game of their first four-game sweep at Wrigley Field in nearly a century.
“Years ago he would not have been able to get through that nightmare season,’’ said Cardinals veteran starter Adam Wainwright. “He wouldn’t have been able to handle what he was going through mentally.
“People forget it’s the same guy who has carried us months at a time during his career.
“So the good thing is if he has a great year again, the one year will be the outlier.’’
Said Cardinals manager Mike Shildt: “The most impressive thing about him was his willingness to stay with the program and still be a positive influence. He could have easily disengaged, but he didn’t. He wasn’t happy about playing time being compromised, and could have been a nuisance, but was supportive of Tommy. He was a pro’s pro.’’
Carpenter, 34, embraces the enormity and potential consequences to this season. If he performs like the days he was leading the league in doubles and walks, and scoring 100 runs in three different seasons, the Cardinals should be back in the playoffs, with Carpenter re-establishing himself as one of the finest infielders in the league.
If he struggles again, the Cardinals may have no choice but to resurrect trade talks with the Rockies for Arenado.
“I understand the reality and nature of this business,’’ Carpenter said. “This game has got a ton of pressure, and if you can’t handle that pressure, you get weeded out pretty early.
“I know that our team needs me to play well. The front office is paying me to go out and play well. So, I fully expect to play well to. It’s all up to me.
“Now, I just have to go out and make it happen.’’
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