C. Carpenter's future unclear as free agency looms

C. Carpenter's future unclear as free agency looms

C. Carpenter's future unclear as free agency looms

BOSTON -- Chris Carpenter may have taken his final ground balls in a Cardinals uniform.

You read that right. Carpenter, the 38-year-old free agent-to-be is known much more for work on the mound over nine Cardinals seasons, but was sidelined in 2013 by shoulder woes and active in this postseason only as a vocal, laughing middle infielder during batting practice.

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A 6-1 loss to the Red Sox in Game 6 of the World Series meant no more batting practice.

Did Carpenter appear at peace if this was the end of his playing career?

"I think so," said his protégé, Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright. "I think if you asked him before he tried to come back this year, he would have said no. But after he tried and it didn't work again, I think he would say yes."

The Cardinals announced early in 2013 that Carpenter would not be able to pitch all year because of side effects of thoracic outlet syndrome, an ailment that ruined Carpenter's last two seasons. He tried a comeback anyway, but called it off after a setback in July.

Now he is one of the Cardinals' highest-profile free agents, along with outfielder Carlos Beltran, erstwhile closer Edward Mujica and injured shortstop Rafael Furcal. Right-hander Jake Westbrook will join the list if the Cardinals decline their half of his $9.5 million mutual option.

Carpenter did not speak to reporters on Wednesday about his future. He said last week that he would wait until the season ended to discuss with his family whether to try another comeback. His agent, Bob LaMonte, told the Boston Globe earlier this month he expected Carpenter to retire and would consider a position in the Cardinals' front office.

"He's been a face of this clubhouse for nine years now, just a great guy, a great mentor, a huge, vast library of knowledge about pitching," Wainwright said. "It will always hurt to lose a guy like that. Really, it will.

"Luckily, we have some tremendous studs to take that place, but I don't think you can ever take the place of a guy in every area like him."

Carpenter was 95-44 with a 3.07 ERA in 197 starts and one relief appearance for St. Louis during the regular season. He was also 10-4 with a 3.00 ERA in 18 postseason starts, all with the Cardinals.

His impact extended beyond the pitching staff.

"He's a guy that I've admired ever since I stepped foot in this clubhouse," said David Freese. "He's a true gamer, a hell of a talent, the ultimate gamer. It's going to be tough, but hopefully he sticks around a little bit and comes around a yard. We would appreciate that.

"We went around and talked to everybody and handed our hugs and everything. [Carpenter] is probably just soaking it in. A guy like Jake, too. He's done, and it's hard on them, for sure."

Said reliever Jason Motte, who also sat out the season with an injury: "What it comes down to is 'Carp' is a huge deal here. He's done a lot for this organization. He came in this year and when we knew he wasn't going to be here, we had guys step up and fill that role. It was a similar thing with me [being injured]; it's not who you don't have, it's who you have, the 25 guys you've got to play ball."

Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak conceded that Carpenter may not be one of those guys.

"It's going to be hard because of what he has meant to us and just his identity of being with this organization," Mozeliak said. "Clearly, he didn't play this year, so this team was built without him. But I do think part of what he brought to the table will be missed."

Mujica, 29, expressed optimism about a return after posting a 2.78 ERA and 37 saves in 65 appearances, most of them as the closer until Trevor Rosenthal took over in late September. The Cardinals appear set at that spot with Rosenthal or Motte, but Mujica said he expected an offer.

"We have to wait, maybe Monday we're going to have the first conversation about it and see what they can do," Mujica said. "They say they are going to make an offer. Let's see."

Asked whether he would prefer a situation where he was the clear closer, Mujica said, "I don't know. I love it. They gave me the opportunity and I liked that job. A few teams need those guys, and I'm going to be available in the market."

The Cardinals also have a handful of arbitration-eligible players who could be non-tendered, including relievers John Axford and Fernando Salas and catcher Rob Johnson. Only Axford, acquired in August from the Brewers, was on the club's World Series roster.

"Over the last few days we've talked a lot about this club, but we've also talked a lot about the future," Mozeliak said. "Where my head is right now, I've already somewhat turned the page as far as already thinking about what we need to do for next year. Next week, free agency opens, so you have to be prepared."

"That's one of the hardest parts about it, that you get so close to guys throughout the whole season, and the traveling, you get to know everybody extremely well," infielder Allen Craig said. "On the other side, baseball is a business, and some guys won't be back next year. That's the hardest part."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.