Carpenter Retooling Needed to Keep the Rest?

Chris Carpenter is the only Cardinals starter under contract for 2007. But, his current below-market deal as constructed may be an inhibitor to re-signing his rotation mates.

Isn't it about time for Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty to break the contract logjam? As we've been pointing out for months, and some of the mainstream reporters have been highlighting lately as if it is new news, four members of the Cardinals' current rotation are unsigned for 2007 and beyond.


Some think it is too early to worry about this, with only a month of the 2006 season elapsed. I am not among them.


Last season, Jocketty established a precedent that he will negotiate outside the traditional off-season signing period. In 2005, he made two early moves to lock down key pitchers. In February, Jason Isringhausen received a reworked deal that covered 2005 through 2008. Two months later, Chris Carpenter agreed to terms on an extension that addresses 2006 through 2008.


But, where should Jocketty focus his current attention? I am also not the only one to have expressed a preference as to which combination of Mark Mulder, Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis and Sidney Ponson should be asked to return next year. But, at this point, I am not sure the situation is far enough along for it to matter yet.


Still, at one level, I do understand why Jocketty might want to take it slowly – to see a little more from these four before making his move. After all, each comes with his own set of questions.


- Will Mulder finally pitch like the elite pitcher he was in Oakland?

- Will Suppan continue his steady play year in and year out into the future?

- Will Marquis finally put it all together on a consistent basis to become the big winner he is expected to become?

- Will Ponson continue to conquer his battle with alcohol and again prosper on the mound?


But, this story isn't really about any of that.


Even if you believe that somehow the Cardinals' two prized youngsters, Adam Wainwright and Anthony Reyes, will be ready to step into the 2007 rotation, some combination of two of the four rotation incumbents will be needed to continue. Either that or Walt would have to risk trying to find another Suppan or Ponson reclamation project or two to go with his two rookies in this somewhat-scary scenario.


But, there seems to be a rub before any of this can be addressed. There is an unwritten rule that may be getting in the way of contract progress with any of these four. You see, the Cardinals are blessed with the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, a quiet, humble man from New Hampshire, Chris Carpenter, who also happens to be significantly underpaid.


As a result, Jocketty may be a victim of his own negotiating success. As noted above, he locked Carpenter up last April for what will surely be three years at $21 million. Carpenter made $6 million last year, $7 million this season and his team option for 2007 is $8 million.


On one hand, Carpenter doesn't have to be addressed contractually for at least another year and a half. But, at the same time, Walt is understandably reluctant to pay any of his other pitchers more than Carp. Yet, the others clearly can't wait that long.


In a market where a sub-.500 career pitcher like A.J. Burnett can haul down a five-year deal averaging $11 million per year, Carpenter is more than a bargain. He is an anomaly and his contract presents a thorny problem for Jocketty as a result.


To reinforce the point, here is another set of references. Take a look at what the most other recent Cy Young Award winners are making. Every one of them is more handsomely-paid than Carpenter, most quite substantially higher.


2005 AL – Bartolo Colon - four years/$51M (2004-07)

2004 NL – Roger Clemens – one year/$18M (2005)

2004 AL – Johan Santana - four years/$39.75M (2005-09)

2003 NL – Eric Gagne – two years/$19M (2005-06) or three years/$30M (2005-07)

2003 AL – Roy Halladay – seven years/$82M (2004-10)

2002 NL – Randy Johnson - two years/$32M (2006-07)


If Jocketty has to adhere to his pitcher payroll scale, how can he possibly re-sign either Marquis or Mulder, when each can likely command more on the open market than Carpenter makes?


Even Ponson had a deal greater than Carpenter's in the past, though he is a different pitcher today. Yet, a full season of a vintage Ponson in 2006 might price him out of the Cardinals willingness to pay next year. 


And, if he registers another 16-win season with an ERA in the 3.50 range, there is not even a guarantee that proven "innings-eater" Suppan can be signed for less than $7 million per year on a multi-year deal. Such is the crazy market that seems to exist today.


So, is Jocketty's strategy to try to sign these two "cheaper" guys later? If so, waiting might be defensible. But, does he really want to go into 2007 with Carpenter, Ponson, Suppan and the two youngsters?


Or, if he wants to keep Marquis and/or Mulder, the price will most likely go up and up as we head into summer and fall. As a result, it might seem that the only way to get anything meaningful done with the two "M's" quickly is to re-address Carpenter first, likely via a restructured and extended deal, even though only a year has passed since his last negotiations.


Some might wonder if the Cardinals can afford all these pitchers. That is a fair question, but just remember that the Cardinals were serious players in the Burnett sweepstakes this past winter before settling on an alternative, Ponson, who is making roughly $10 million less this year compared to an average season of Burnett's deal.


So, there should be enough money to make Carpenter's improved deal a reality. In addition, it would allow Walt to save face by establishing a ceiling for the four pending free-agent eligibles that represents a more realistic high-water mark than Carpenter's current budget-priced deal while perhaps clearing one roadblock from re-signing at least one of the incumbents.


As with any scenario, there are risks. Could the egos of the guys who aren't signed early be negatively impacted if Mulder and/or Marquis quickly take the ante if offered? Will they then feel like lame ducks? Would that have any impact on the 2006 team on the field? Difficult questions to answer.


Yet, by waiting, it is pretty clear that the Cardinals are going to have to pay dearly later. But, they may be able to pay less down the road if they invest a bit more now.


While these are dangerous waters for Jocketty to negotiate, getting Chris Carpenter settled would seem to make the ride in the months ahead somewhat less rocky.


Brian Walton can be reached via email at


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