Carpenter hones skills at second with help from elite
Infield instructor Oquendo sees utility man as blank slate loaded with potential
JUPITER, Fla. -- As the lead infield instructor for the Cardinals, it's Jose Oquendo's task to maximize what he's given. He inherits players who are flawed and sets out to minimize those imperfections. He takes on those who have already cycled through coaches and coach-specific recommendations.
But rare is the opportunity for Jose Oquendo to start from scratch.
Whether a player has climbed through the Minor League system or arrives from another organization, Oquendo receives them with their tendencies, habits and preconceptions already established. It's a base that can be tough to crack.
Matt Carpenter, in contrast, presented himself impressionable, a subject desiring to be molded. That's because he had no foundation, having played second base for a total of 18 innings in his life.
It was Oquendo's chance to build his ideal second baseman, and he knew no better place to start than with the gold standard.
Oquendo directed Carpenter to the best -- the Yankees' Robinson Cano and the Reds' Brandon Phillips -- and had video of the two loaded onto Carpenter's personal iPad during the offseason. Carpenter was asked to watch the pair of Gold Glove Award winners with a critical eye. Now, he's being encouraged to emulate them.
In formulating his identity at second base, Carpenter is adopting the skills of the elite.
"I kind of feel like a kid all over again, because you watch these other big leaguers and you try to be just like them," Carpenter said. "We're watching the unique techniques. Everybody does something different. We practice it all and try to figure out what I'm going to be the best at, and where I'm going to be most comfortable."
In Cano, Carpenter finds a model for his hands. He has zeroed in on how quickly the infielder releases his throws and the effortless nature of his arm action. Having such fluidity at the position may never be that natural for Carpenter, but steps closer will suffice.
Then there's Phillips, who offers a prototype in how to turn two. The way in which Phillips follows through toward first when trying to complete a double play is a motion that Oquendo and Carpenter have already begun to practice.
Defensive plays by teammate Daniel Descalso, Minnesota's Jamey Carroll and Boston's Dustin Pedroia have also been included in Carpenter's catalogue. The focus, though, has been on Cano and Phillips because, as Oquendo said, "they show no panic when they go about making plays."
There's obviously a constant on-field tutorial, too, and it recently shifted from the high school field near Carpenter's Texas home to the practice fields at the Cardinals' spring complex. His time this winter was fruitful. Sent home with a homework assignment from the club, Carpenter fielded grounders and worked on his footwork and positioning almost daily.
The work continues now not only in a new setting, but also under added scrutiny. How capable Carpenter looks at second base -- the fifth position to be placed on his fielding resume -- will assist the Cardinals as they decide who will open the year as the team's starting second baseman. Descalso enters camp the incumbent and as a strong defensive option.
Carpenter impressed the organization by reporting to Jupiter nearly two weeks before position players were required to arrive. The early assessments of defensive work have also been positive, though excitement is also tempered as the staff waits to see how Carpenter's learned skills are applied in game situations.
"He's more ahead of where I thought he'd be, and he picks it up real quick when he learns," Oquendo said. "Every team needs those types of players. You have to take advantage of their versatility."
Carpenter estimated that he and Oquendo have spent about 90 minutes a day engaged in infield drills. The video work then continues inside. Conversations do, too.
"He's constantly in my ear about the mental side of it and what to expect and where to be," Carpenter said. "We have a certain time where we work, but really it goes on all day just with the way we communicate."
For Carpenter, the opportunity to play for a starting spot represents the next rung in his career climb. Two years ago, Carpenter was invited to Major League Spring Training for the first time. His hope then was to get at-bats. In 2012, Carpenter pushed himself into the mix for a bench spot, which he eventually won by showing off his versatility.
Carpenter went on to appear in 114 games, 66 as a starter. He finished with a batting average of .294 and an on-base percentage of .365. Often the team's most reliable pinch-hitter, Carpenter highlighted his first postseason experience with a game-changing, two-run homer in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series.
The guy who once turned heads because of his disdain for batting gloves used 2012 to shift all attention to his skills. That's why the Cardinals wanted to exhaust any available avenue to push Carpenter's bat into the lineup.
"It's a compliment just to have the opportunity -- not just the coaches, but the front office trusts in my ability as a player to do something like this," Carpenter said. "I'm going to give it my best effort, and really I'm just excited to be out here every day with the chance to do it."
Carpenter, in his quest to prove himself at second, won't entirely disregard the rest of his game this spring. He'll get defensive work at both corner infield and corner outfield spots to stay sharp, and he expects that he'll still have to be pulled out of the batting cage. Carpenter insists he could stay in there for hours.
That work ethic, one that has come to define Carpenter, was the asset the Cardinals knew they could tap into as they presented the second base challenge.
"That's just who he is. He's a grinder," manager Mike Matheny said. "We were impressed with the work he's done, and he's taken quick to what Jose has given him. He looks smooth. He looks comfortable. That's just the result of hard work."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.