Carpenter Extended as First Step

One of the most pressing inhibitors to completing the 2007 St. Louis Cardinals was removed Monday when starting pitcher Chris Carpenter's contract was extended five years. With one season still remaining on Carp's current deal, why was it done now and what may be next?

Back in early May, long before it became a cause/concern for most, I published an analysis of the dilemma Walt Jocketty was facing given the contract situation of the members of his starting rotation following the 2006 season.

The title of that article was "Carpenter Retooling Needed to Keep the Rest?"

Even without looking, you can easily ascertain where I was going.

At that time, I looked at the situations of the other four starting pitchers behind Chris Carpenter and made a series of observations and recommendations, based on the fact the four, unlike Carpenter, did not have contracts for 2007 and beyond.

As we all know now, little has changed in seven months since. Still, none of those four have a deal in place for next season with the Cardinals, or any other organization for that matter.

The Cardinals did offer arbitration to Jeff Suppan and Mark Mulder, though it didn't noticeably increase the two's odds of returning, while Sidney Ponson was cut mid-season and Jason Marquis was effectively jettisoned prior to the playoffs.

The key fundamental underlying assumption back in May was that Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty did not want to pay any of his starters more than his ace, Carpenter. That is something Jocketty said himself on a number of occasions – not something the press assumed or made up.

(As an aside, the same standard is in place for positional players in comparison to Albert Pujols' contract, though this does not look to be a pressing issue any time soon.)

Not to recap the earlier story further, as you can read it yourself if you're a subscriber. But, suffice it say that despite my urging to extend Carpenter's contract at that time as a prerequisite to locking down two of the starters, Jocketty may have made the right decision to bide his time.

After all, in May, I was leaning toward Mulder and Marquis as the ones to sign to long-term deals. Based on the small sample of April results, that was defensible.

Looking back from our current vantage point in December however, can you imagine how upset Cardinal Nation would be today had Mulder been signed to a full-value, multi-year extension back in May?

And, how about the stark reality of either having to face two or three more years of Jason Marquis' maddening inconsistency at a much higher price or perhaps worse, having to dump him while continuing to pay most of the freight for him to play elsewhere, ala Tino Martinez?

Stringing up Carp

Yet, until Monday's announcement, the first fundamental step had remained untaken – the same as in May. While Jocketty was able to dodge taking action on Carpenter before, he was seemingly just about out of wiggle room.

You see, Walt has made it clear he is pursuing free agent plum Jason Schmidt, who is expected to get as much as $15 million or more per season on the open market. Even with the type of heavily backend-loaded deal that Jocketty is known for, there seemed to be no way to land a player like Schmidt while holding his pay under that of Carpenter. That is especially the case when other teams competing for the free-agent pitcher are not shackled by internally-set barriers like Walt faces.

As a refresher, Carpenter made $6 million in 2005, $7 million this past season and his team option for 2007, which of course was picked up, is $8 million. Even Suppan is pretty much assured of making more than that in this coming season.

Now, regular readers of this site may be aware of my ongoing skepticism that Jocketty will land a top-name free-agent starting pitcher like Schmidt, anyway.

Walt's generally-stellar history as the Cards GM is strewn with past affairs with big-shot starters that never worked out, from the days of Kevin Brown and Mike Hampton to the more recent dalliance with A.J. Burnett one year ago.

But, even if Jocketty bags his new #2 starter via the trade route instead of free agency, his nice and neat team salary structure would likely be toppled. Take a look at a couple of names connected with the Cardinals as possible trade acquisitions.

Left-hander Mark Buehrle is slated to be paid $9.5 million this season in the final year of his current contract with the White Sox, while Atlanta's Tim Hudson, a possible salary dump, is due at least $33 million over the next three seasons (though his 2007 mark is apparently "just" $7 million).

Bottom line is that Walt is going to have to pay for talent to restock his rotation, whether acquired via the free agent or trade route. It is good that the Cardinals' 2007 money wasn't burned on the likes of Marquis and Ponson. But, what this also meant is that Carp needed to be addressed, too, sooner rather than later.

That is why Monday's announcement extending Carpenter's contract for five years was so crucial. He is now locked in through the 2011 season with the Cardinals holding a club option for 2012. In return, Carp is reportedly assured of pocketing at least $65 million dollars. Winners all around.

Now that Walt has done the right thing by Carp, he can also do the right thing for the Cardinals. But, even if so, it won't come cheaply.

Come back tomorrow, when I will look at three other extension candidates on the Cardinals, including some interesting news not reported elsewhere.



Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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