NEW YORK — The news of a Yankees present-day cult hero moving on broke Tuesday while manager Aaron Boone was making a short drive from Yankee Stadium to a Bronx police station for a holiday grocery and toys giveaway.
Alerted by a reporter of the latest free agent signing, Boone seemed bummed out hearing Matt Carpenter had latched on with the San Diego Padres. He asked for the contract details, which are $12 million for two years with an opt out for 2024.
The Yankees let Carpenter walk presumably because he wanted regular playing time that they couldn’t guarantee, but this free agent loss still stung.
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“I wouldn’t have ruled out (Carpenter re-signing) depending on how things shake out, but, man, I wish him well,” Boone said. “Obviously what he did between the lines. I think he caught everyone by surprise and was so impactful. He was great in the room, too. He was just a really good teammate. Great pro. We’ll miss him.”
Next to Aaron Judge’s 62 homers and maybe Nestor Cortes breakout, Carpenter was the feel-good story of the Yankees’ 2022 season. His career appeared to be on its last legs last May when Carpenter signed with the Yanks a week after opting out of a minor-league deal with the Texas Rangers.
He’d been a star for years for the St. Louis Cardinals, then didn’t hit a lick from 2019-21 and it didn’t work out early last season with the Rangers. But Carpenter regained confidence after making over his swing last winter and added more while he put up solid Triple-A numbers early into the 2022 season.
The Yankees viewed Carpenter as a left-handed bat off the bench who’d get an occasional start at DH and first base when they brought him in as a flier on a prorated one-year, $1-million deal.
What a bargain.
Playing all over the field, Carpenter was basically a left-handed Judge until he fractured a bone in his foot on Aug. 8. His stats were ridiculous: .305 average, 15 homers, 37 RBI in 47 games. At age 36, Carpenter was better than ever, and this surge was even more shocking considering he’d hit .186 with four homers and 21 RBI in 50 games in 2020 and then .169 with three homers and 21 RBI in 130 games in 2021.
“It was a remarkable run,” Boone said.
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Carpenter going on the IL was a huge loss to the Yankees, who won the AL East despite enduring a poor second half that included a lot of key injuries. Ahead of schedule, Carpenter returned for the playoffs before his foot was healed, and it showed in his at-bats. In the biggest games of the year, Carpenter was a dud at the plate going 1-for-12 with nine strikeouts in six playoff games.
“I know what he had to go through to get back and give himself a chance to be a contributor at the end,” Boone said.
Carpenter perhaps might have returned if he was willing to settle for going into spring training as the Yankees’ pinch-hit specialist. But after the season he had, who can blame him for wanting regular at-bats? The Yankees couldn’t offer that because Carpenter is best suited for designated hitter or first base, and they’re set there with Giancarlo Stanton and Anthony Rizzo.
The Yankees are on the hunt for a starting left fielder, but Carpenter wasn’t a realistic option even though he made 14 starts in the corner outfield spots last season (11 in right, three in left). There’s a lot of ground to cover in left field at Yankee Stadium and Carpenter, a slow runner, probably couldn’t handle things there as a young player let another now.
“I wouldn’t say left field is an option, but that said, what he was able to do for us even in a pinch playing a little bit of right field … he handled himself well in the short stints,” Boone said. “I thought that was impressive and a testament to a guy that’s done a lot in his career. It’s just whatever you need and he actually did hold his own out there.”
Despite the lack of playoff success, Carpenter probably will be remembered by fans and teammates as a short-time great Yankee.
“There was just all the way through it a selflessness about him that I think rubbed off on everyone,” Boone said. “He touched a lot of people in the organization just with who he was and his professionalism.”
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Randy Miller may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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