An old friend returned to the big leagues yesterday in a relatively unexpected place. After 11 seasons in the majors, all with the Cardinals, Matt Carpenter found himself searching for a new team this winter; in the end, he only managed to snag a minor league deal with the Rangers. Now, though, he’s found himself in New York with the Yankees, signing a major league deal with them that was announced on Thursday and hitting eighth in the starting lineup for their game against the Rays that same day. Does Carpenter have a second wind, or has too much time passed since he was an effective contributor?
That Carpenter found little interest in his services this winter was hardly surprising. Some players age gracefully, but he fell off a cliff after the 2018 season, dropping from a wRC+ of 140 to 96. If that had been the extent of his collapse, he’d still have a role in the majors; he still managed to collect 1.7 WAR in 492 plate appearances in 2019, thanks to not being awful at second or third base. But after hitting .176/.313/.291 combined over 2020 and ’21, even that saving grace didn’t provide quite enough grace. What rope remained after the COVID-shortened 2020 rapidly ran out of slack the following year, and his role was reduced to the extent that only 11 of his 53 games after the All-Star break were as a starter.
It strikes me as likely that Carpenter only survived on the roster because of his long history with the franchise; infielders who can’t hit are a dime a dozen, and he didn’t have an exploitable platoon split advantage the way a steeply declining Albert Pujols did. And while much has been made of Carpenter’s struggles against the shift, and while he’s been worse throughout his career relative to a traditional infield configuration, it’s not sufficient to explain the collapse. He hit just fine overall as the approach against him shifted (no pun intended) yearly toward all-shift after 2015; by the time 2018 rolled around, when he was still a dangerous offensive player, he was almost exclusively hitting against a stacked right side of the infield.
But who doesn’t like a good comeback story? For all his struggles the last three years, Carpenter is at least hitting somebody this year, even if it’s only minor league pitchers. In 21 games with the Triple-A Round Rock Express, he hit .275/.379/.613 with six homers in 95 plate appearances. Texas released him last week regardless, but by mutual agreement; even with the assumption that he’s made enough of a comeback to be a decent role player, the Rangers aren’t serious contenders, so they’re not in a situation where it makes sense to take long looks at 36-year-old utility guys.
The Yankees, on the other hand, are contenders. And more importantly, they’re a team with some short-term needs that Carpenter could at least theoretically supply. Giancarlo Stanton was placed on the IL on Wednesday with a sore ankle, and Josh Donaldson just went on the temporary shelf due to a case of COVID-19. DJ LeMahieu is also sidelined thanks to left wrist pain, and though he’s still officially day-to-day, when you add in Aaron Hicks and the bout of right hamstring tightness that knocked him out of Thursday’s lineup, the Yankees are really stretching their roster in terms of availability.
Carpenter can still likely play third and quite obviously can handle being a designated hitter, and if his left-handed bat has absolutely anything left in it, Yankee Stadium is a good venue to try to extract it. Even if they’re mostly using him at designated hitter, the Yankees are running a very small bench after outrighting Rob Brantly to Triple-A and calling up Manny Bañuelos, so having someone who can more than fake it at second and third has some utility.
Will Carpenter succeed? That question is the burning one, and I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. Coming into the 2022 season, his projection for Yankee Stadium would have been a .202/.325/.362 line, for 0.5 WAR in 368 plate appearances. That comes out to an OPS+ of 88, which is usable if you really believe he can still contribute defensively in the infield. ZiPS translates his Round Rock performance as .229/.324/.462, which pushes the needle, but only bumps his projected Yankees OPS+ to 91. In other words, if you didn’t like Carp coming into the season, the 22 games probably aren’t enough to cause you to change your opinion.
There’s also a complicating factor: he’s not hitting the baseball very hard. His average exit velocity in the minors this year stands at only 86.0 mph. That would rank him 230th out of 260 qualified players, via Statcast, and that’s against pitchers who are largely significantly inferior to the ones he’ll face with the Yankees. He does a little better in hard-hit percentage but still would rank in the bottom third of baseball; his 35.5% rate is 187th out of 260, again with the additional caveat that he’s facing weaker pitching. That’s enough to take some of the optimism out of the signing for me.
In any case, whether Carpenter is toast or not, the Yankees aren’t risking much in finding out. The difference between an All-Star and a league-average hitter is only about 20 runs over the course of a season; the difference between two role players over a couple of weeks is practically nothing. If Carpenter works out for the Bronx Bombers, it’s all gain to the Yankees, and if he struggles, the team hasn’t invested much in his success. After a fine career, it would be nice to see him get one last hurrah and get to walk off to the sunset in a more dignified manner than as a struggling pinch-hitter.