Carp undisputed leader of Cards corps
Redbirds ace lone holdover from world champion starting five
JUPITER, Fla. -- First among equals for three years, Chris Carpenter faces a new kind of challenge in 2007. After a dramatic restructuring of the Cardinals' starting rotation, Carpenter is the lone holdover, left to re-instill the collaboration and esprit de corps that marked previous years' St. Louis starting units.
The man who won the Darryl Kile Award as the Cardinal who most reflects the late Kile's qualities as a leader and teammate will be asked to carry the mantel once held by Kile. After "DK's" death, the leadership role was inherited by Woody Williams, who handed it off to Matt Morris. This year's starting five will be looking to Carpenter to set the example.
"I think that's kind of been passed down," said Jason Isringhausen, one of only three current Cards who have been with the team since Kile passed away. "Darryl was like that, and then Matt was like that, and now Carp's like that. It's worked its way down. The staff was real tight when Darryl and Woody and those guys were here. And it just trickled down. ... The older guys teach that."
A year ago, Carpenter was the undisputed ace, coming off a Cy Young Award season. But with established and indoctrinated teammates like Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis and Mark Mulder, his role was different. Sure, the other guys could learn a thing or two from their star teammate. But they knew the rules, knew the ropes, had seen how things were done. This time around, Carpenter's mates are less familiar with the established ways of Cards starters -- the way they are expected to help each other out, to watch each other's bullpen sessions and the like.
Carpenter insists he puts no more on himself this year than in previous years. His main job, as he will always point out, is to keep his team in the game every fifth day. Still, he knows he's being watched. And he knows he has a great deal to offer. After all, he has more career wins (100) than the four leading candidates to make up the rest of the rotation combined (99).
New acquisition Kip Wells has done it before, but neither Adam Wainwright nor Anthony Reyes has started for a full season in the big leagues. Braden Looper is a career reliever who's trying to make the transition. They'll all be taking their cues from the '05 Cy Young winner.
"I pay attention to make sure that they're still doing the things that they need to do -- working hard and coming here mentally prepared to do the task you're doing during the day," Carpenter said. "Whether it's offense or [pitchers' fielding practice] or it's your side day. It's not my responsibility -- it's their responsibility -- but I watch. I'm making sure that they do the things they need to do to be prepared to go out and play. And they all do."
The Cardinals recognized not only Carpenter's production, but his character with a contract extension this winter. The new deal ensures that he will be a Redbird through at least 2011, further into the future than any of his teammates.
"You don't give 60-some million dollars to some [nobody]," Isringhausen said. "He is the guy. Everybody knows it."
And though he deflects excessive praise, Carpenter himself knows it as well as anyone. He learned from Roger Clemens, Pat Hentgen and Williams in Toronto. He saw Williams and Morris take their turns as the No. 1 before him in St. Louis.
"I take full responsibility for being a leader of the staff," he said. "But I'm saying that it needs to be all one group. What I've found the last three years, why we've been successful is because we were one group. There wasn't one individual guy. No matter who was here or there, or how much you make, or how many years, it was all one group."
Carpenter hopes that will be the case again. But however much they work as a unit, it's no secret that Carpenter is the guy. You could make a case for anyone else on the staff as the No. 2 starter. You can't make a case for anyone but Carpenter as No. 1.
Over three years as a Cardinal, he's 50-18 and has averaged more than four strikeouts for every walk. He's racked up 13 complete games, seven shutouts and emerged as one of the finest right-handers in baseball.
Wainwright, who has been exposed to more than his share of ridiculously talented and smart teammates, sees a parallel to a future Hall of Famer when he looks at Carpenter.
"I think in talking with him, I think his mindset is a lot like [John] Smoltz," Wainwright said. "They have a lot of similarities when they're on the mound. They know they're going to be. I've had the good fortune of speaking with Smoltz a lot, and Carp even more. Two pretty good competitors for me to talk to."
Wainwright, like Carpenter, is a former first-round draft pick and came up through the Minors as a top prospect. He hopes his transition from prospect to elite starting pitcher comes a little more quickly than that of Carpenter.
It took Carpenter quite a while to make the full metamorphosis. He closely watched all those veterans in Toronto, but his light-coming-on moment didn't occur until after the Blue Jays cut him loose. It was only when he suffered serious shoulder trouble, and faced the possibility of his career coming to a premature end, that Carpenter began really seizing on every small edge.
"I try to take stuff from everybody," he said. "I watch even the young kids. I see some of the things that they're doing. But I've had the opportunity to pitch with a lot of great guys -- Pat Hentgen and Woody Williams, Roger Clemens, Juan Guzman had great stuff and competed his butt off. Even David Wells. ...
"You learn from everybody, and that's the thing that's key for me, and I still do it to this day. I watch every day and try to take something every day -- something from Adam, something from [pitching coach Dave Duncan], Izzy, whoever it is, it doesn't matter. I try to learn something and take something and maybe see if there's something that might help me prepare every day."
And that, more than anything, may be the best thing that the newcomers on the staff can learn from him.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.