JUPITER, Fla. – The five appearances and 18 innings at second base seem like a distant and almost comical memory to Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter.
After being put out at second base on a few rare occasions last year despite having nearly no practice or instruction at the spot, Carpenter spent the past three months training and preparing to compete for playing time there this season.
And the difference is already staggering.
“It’s night and day,” Carpenter said. “From when I debuted over there last season with very little work if any at all to the way I feel now 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 converted all seven chances during his brief cameo at second base last season, recording three putouts and four assists. And he laughs while thinking back to those appearances.
“It kind of all happened so fast you don’t really have time to think which is probably a good thing because you just play,” Carpenter said. “But looking back, it was crazy to have that chance there last year.”
The notion of Carpenter getting significant playing time at second base doesn’t seem nearly as crazy a few months later as the Cardinals officially open camp with their first full-squad workout on Friday.
Carpenter took ground balls daily with his dad this winter and worked on the different components of turning double plays. He also spent time improving his quickness and footwork, hoping to speed up his reaction and first-step time.
Dan Descalso figures to have a slight advantage in the second base race as camp opens but those who have watched Carpenter in the early going have already been impressed with his progress.
“I could tell he did a lot of work, which shouldn’t surprise anybody because that’s who he is,” said manager Mike Matheny. “He’s a grinder. He looked good. He was working on the right things. I think (infield coach) Jose Oquendo was excited and impressed with the work he’s done and how quick he’s taken to things that Jose has given him and been able to apply them.
“He looks smooth, he doesn’t look uncomfortable and that’s just the result of hard work. … A lot of things yet to be seen but so far he looks great.”
The decision to try Carpenter at second base comes four years after the same experiment was done with Skip Schumaker. But the big difference this time around is that Schumaker was moving from the outfield to the infield while Carpenter already has the infield experience at first and third base.
And moving to a different spot on the infield as opposed to coming in from the outfield like Schumaker did figures to make the transition much easier.
“That’s the thing I’ve been telling a lot of people with how comfortable I am over there and there’s no question I’ve been fielding ground balls my whole life,” Carpenter said. “And 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 the turning the double play, the footwork around the base, transferring your pivot and those kinds of things but those get better with practice.
“The thing that’s probably 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 those things you aren’t used to. Your used to fielding ground balls and making plays on defense but being over there at second base, those mental sides are going to be the biggest challenges I think.”
But similar to Schumaker’s move, the decision to try Carpenter at second base was done for one primary reason: his bat. Carpenter hit .294 with 22 doubles, five triples, six home runs and 46 RBI in just 296 at-bats in 114 games last year.
The Cardinals are looking for any way to get the talented young left-handed hitters bat into the lineup and with no clear-cut choice at second base, they are curious to see if that might be the spot.
“Well besides the fact that he can flat hit?” Matheny said when asked this week about the reasons why Carpenter might be a good fit at second base. “He can hit and that alone makes you want to think about it and there’s no secret, we talked all last year about trying to get him into the lineup. His athleticism, his hands, he did a nice job fielding at third base for us when we gave him the opportunity and did a good job at second without any work.
“I like his aggressiveness, he’s not a timid player. He’s a guy that wants to make plays. He wants the ball hit to him. He can’t wait for his first opportunity to get to second base and put that doubt that you all have on him away. We believe in him and he believes in himself and all those things make a pretty good package for an opportunity to show what he can do.”
Carpenter will compete for playing time with Descalso, Ryan Jackson and Pete Kozma. Top second base prospect and former first round pick Kolten Wong also figures to get a look at the position but is probably still a year away. Newcomer Ronny Cedeno could also see time at second if shortstop Rafael Furcal stays healthy.
The competition figures to be one of the most intriguing storylines as camp officially opens for the Cardinals Friday. And after making just three errors last season while seeing time in left field, right field, first, third and second, Carpenter can’t wait to get things going and see how he stacks up.
“Definitely, I’m looking forward to it,” Carpenter said. “I’m just excited about the opportunity and the chance to get to play and compete for a starting job. I’m really looking forward to it.”