Matt Carpenter moved all around the field last season, but is concentrating on second base this spring. (UPI/Bill Greenblatt)
By Rob Rains
JUPITER, Fla. – One of the questions the Cardinals would like answered before they leave Florida at the end of March is whether or not Matt Carpenter can play second base.
There are not too many people in camp who would predict the answer will be no.
The Cardinals sent Carpenter home to Texas for the off-season last October with instructions to work on playing second base. The reasoning was obvious – there really was no other open position in the lineup where he could play and manager Mike Matheny was looking for a way to get Carpenter’s bat into the lineup more often.
Carpenter started games at five positions during his rookie year in 2012, -- first, third, left field, right field – and even two games at second, on July 5 at home against Colorado and Sept. 14 at Los Angeles. He also played parts of three other games there during the season, and in total, logged 18 innings at the position, recording three putouts, four assists, participating in two double plays and committing no errors.
Looking back now, after a winter of working at the position and a few days of early camp instruction with coach Jose Oquendo, Carpenter is a little surprised that he did not have more problems when he was thrust into that assignment.
“It kind of all happened so fast you don’t really have time to think, which is probably a good thing,” Carpenter said Thursday. “You just play, but looking back, it was crazy to have that chance.”
Carpenter does not think it is an crazy idea now, and the more work he gets this spring, the more comfortable he knows he is going to be at that position.
“We’re taking it one day at a time but I’m definitely encouraged with where we are so far,” he said. “The way I feel now to how I felt then (last year) is substantially better. I think it’s going to keep getting better every day, and I’m looking forward to the challenge of competing for that job.”
Carpenter’s competition at second base this spring includes the incumbent, Daniel Descalso, and rookie Kolten Wong, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2011 who was an All-Star last season at Double A Springfield.
While the Cardinals were happy with Descalso’s defensive performance, they would like to produce more offense out of second base. Descalso hit just .227 during the season, driving in 26 runs, in 143 games – 96 of them as the starting second baseman.
As a team, the Cardinals’ second basemen combined to hit .240, the third lowest average at the position in the league. They hit a combined nine home runs and drove in 58.
In 114 games, at all his combined positions, Carpenter hit .294 with six homers and 46 RBIs.
He knows Matheny did not suggest this move because of his defense, but Carpenter also believes his career spent as an infielder, primarily at first base and third base, have proved he can catch a ground ball and make the throw to first.
It will be the finer points of playing the position where he will have to prove he can handle the job before Matheny will commit to how much second base Carpenter will be playing during the regular season.
“I’ve been fielding ground balls my whole life,” he said. “I don’t want to say that’s become routine, but to a certain extent it has. The things that are going to be new are turning the double play, the foot work around the base, transferring your pivot and those kinds of things. Those get better with practice.
“The thing that’s going to be the hardest that people don’t even think about is the mental side of it and where to be at the right time and communicating with your shortstop, knowing where everybody is on bunt plays, all the things you are not used to.”
Carpenter has played enough baseball to know that it is one thing to make plays and perform well in practice, and it is something far different to do it in a game. He is ready for the challenge.
“I assume that when the games start, everything is going to speed up,” he said. “Right now I feel really good and comfortable getting rid of the ball on double plays and turning it, but there’s no runners; there’s no guy coming down at you hard trying to take you out. I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge once the games start, how things start to speed up.
“How I handle that and if I panic or speed things up and cause me to make a bad throw, or do I slow it down and do what I’ve been taught and execute the play. We’ll see. I’m just excited about the opportunity.”