Carpenter's deal thins ranks of free agents

The St. Louis Cardinals owned a club option on Chris Carpenter for $15 million in 2012. Instead of making the tough decision on picking up the option or buying out Carpenter for $1 million, the two sides simply rolled the contract into a new two-year, $21 million extension, a smart and safe play for both parties.

Carpenter signed his original deal following the Cardinals' 2006 World Series season, but hurt his elbow in the first game of 2007, an injury that later led to Tommy John surgery. He missed most of the 2008 season as well, but has proved a durable, solid pitcher the past three seasons. He ranks 11th in innings pitched and 18th in ERA since 2009, although he's been slightly less dominating each season -- his ERA has risen from 2.24 to 3.22 to 3.75. His strikeout rate is actually higher than it was in 2009, so he should remain a good bet to keep his ERA in the low-to-mid-three range.

The deal also locks up the Cardinals' rotation for 2012: Carpenter ($10.5 million), Kyle Lohse ($12.2 million), Jake Westbrook ($8.5 million), Jaime Garcia ($3.375 million) and Adam Wainwright ($9 million), assuming a healthy return from his own Tommy John surgery. The question is, how good is it? Without Wainwright, the rotation ERA ranks eighth in the NL, but that's after hot start from Lohse and Garcia, who has been pounded in the second half (77 hits in 58.2 innings). Lohse and Westbrook don't strike out many hitters and need a good defense behind them, and the Ryan Theriot-Skip Schumaker double play combo isn't exactly Ozzie Smith and Bill Mazeroski.

A second thing the deal does is give the Cardinals some financial certainty as they plow into the upcoming Albert Pujols (and Lance Berkman) negotiations. With a solid rotation and willingness to re-sign Berkman -- who should be a first baseman at this point in his career -- the Cardinals could spend their money on multiple assets rather than going all-in on Pujols.

Finally, Carpenter had potentially been one of the best free agent pitchers available. Right now, the top options would be CC Sabathia (if he opts out of his current contract), C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle, Edwin Jackson and Hiroki Kuroda. Roy Oswalt and Ryan Dempster have team options, while second-tier guys include Aaron Harang, Jeff Francis, Javier Vazquez and Paul Maholm. A thin class of starting pitchers just got a little thinner.