If there has been a better signing in this century than Chris Carpenter's first deal with the Cardinals, good luck finding it. In December 2002, about two months after the Blue Jays let him loose in the wake of a shoulder injury, Carpenter signed a one-year contract for 2003, with a 2004 option, for a guaranteed $500,000.
Ten years and change later, it appears Carpenter's time pitching for the Cardinals may have come to an end. Injury has once again sidelined the big right-hander, who fought through so many previous ailments. It sounds like this is the last time, and that's a shame, not just for the Cardinals, but for baseball.
He was a prospect and a promising young pitcher in Toronto. In St. Louis, he became an ace, a champion, and an icon.
Albert Pujols was the best player on two St. Louis World Series championship teams, winning three National League Most Valuable Player Awards. Tony La Russa was the Cardinals' driving force for 16 years, the master motivator and tactician from 1996-2011. But it's no stretch to call Carpenter the heart of one of the greatest eras in the franchise's history. He set the tone like no one else, in preparation, in performance and in personality.
He goes out as the second-greatest Cardinals pitcher of the post-World War II era, behind only Hall of Famer Bob Gibson. Despite missing nearly three full seasons with the club due to various physical issues, Carpenter wrote his name all over the St. Louis record book. He won an NL Cy Young Award, earned wins in two winner-take-all postseason games and started an All-Star Game.
If there is such a thing as a big-game pitcher, Carpenter certainly earned the title like few others have.
None of that really tells the full story, though. Carpenter was a talisman, a rotation anchor, and an example. In short, he was the man that seemingly every Cardinals fan and player wanted on the mound at any and every big moment.
"I don't know that I've ever witnessed a better competitor than Chris, and also a leader," said manager Mike Matheny, who caught Carpenter during his playing career in St. Louis and earlier in Toronto. "As we head into spring now, there's certainly a void.
"There's something that's going to be missed. What he stood for and how he went about his business, he's a real throwback in the game and somebody that commanded respect by how he went about his business and how he treated people and how he played the game and how he loved to play the game."
Often in sportswriting, terms like "leader" and "competitor" get thrown around ex post facto, as crutches to explain things that might otherwise be difficult to explain. My nine seasons of covering Carpenter made it clear that in his case, it was more than just a way to fill space on a web page or in the paper.
He is not just liked, not just respected, but practically revered by teammates. He was the person who the organization always wanted developing young pitchers to be around, to watch him work and prepare.
His dedication to the start at hand, to the process, to the routine, was absolutely obsessive. His concentration in the midst of an individual game was exemplary even among big leaguers.
Carpenter was born with tremendous ability, without doubt. He has a hockey defenseman's body and the ability to throw a baseball very, very hard. But he also maximized that ability like few players have. He will be remembered for a long time in the Cardinals organization, and deservedly so.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.