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Carpenter happy to be part of Cards' long-term core

Praised by club for his diligence, infielder signs six-year extension with 2020 option

JUPITER, Fla. -- Matt Carpenter's baseball career began in diapers, when he first picked up a wooden rod from his family's sliding glass door, put it on his shoulder and mimicked a swing. Seasons of watching his father coach high school baseball followed, before Carpenter eventually became a part of his dad's state championship club.

His baseball career careened in college before a face-to-face meeting with his Texas Christian University head coach sparked some direction in Carpenter, whose work ethic has been of model form since. He became whatever he had to -- a utility player in 2012, a second baseman in 2013 -- to win a Major League job, and now prepares to play third base this season.

Carpenter reinvented himself, as necessary, to create a fit. Now, after signing a six-year contract that includes an option year for 2020, he stands as part of the long-term nucleus.

"This is the first time in my professional career where I get a chance to live up to an expectation, whereas I always felt like I was the guy who had to write his own script," said Carpenter, whose extension with the Cardinals was announced during a Saturday morning news conference.

"No one really expected anything of me, and I had to prove something. Now there is an expectation there and I'm excited for the chance to meet those expectations -- and not just meet them, but exceed them. I want that. I welcome that pressure. That's exciting for me."

This contract, which reported to include $52 million in guaranteed money, means that Carpenter is signed longer than any of the organization's other core four -- Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Allen Craig and Adam Wainwright, all of whom attended Saturday's news conference.

With Carpenter four years away from free agency, there was no urgency for the Cardinals to lock him up. What they saw, though, was a work ethic that wouldn't wane with financial security, and that's why general manager John Mozeliak began the dialogue with Carpenter's agent, Bryan Cahill, about a multiyear deal last August.

At the time, Carpenter had not yet been a starting position player for a full year. But already, the Cardinals saw an emerging player who offered versatility in the field, flexibility in the lineup and a work ethic that, on this club, might only be matched by Molina.

"Early on in Matt's career, even before he played in the big leagues, he demonstrated work ethic that was second to none," said Mozeliak, who resumed those extension discussions with Cahill in early February. "As many of you know, he shows up at 5:30 in the morning in this camp and just has an extremely dedicated approach to this game. You could see how that translated to success last year when he got an everyday opportunity."

"He's at an elite level as a guy who goes out and gets work done," manager Mike Matheny added. "And it's not just eyewash work. It's not just mindless. He's got a plan. I think that's also something that makes him special is that he is very goal-oriented. He's got a goal and a plan and a process that he puts in place every day. He's not just one of those guys who sits out there and says, 'I want to get better.' He has some objectives that he wants to meet and then he puts his day together probably as disciplined as anybody that I know in the game."

For Carpenter, expectations won't be set by the value of this contract. His motivation to achieve more this season than he did the last one -- a year in which Carpenter led the Majors in hits (199), runs scored (126) and doubles (55); earned his first All-Star invite and Silver Slugger award; established himself at a new position (second base) and new place (leadoff) in the lineup; and finished fourth in the MVP vote -- started over the winter when others kept congratulating him for the catalog of accomplishments.

Admittedly "overwhelmed with pride and happiness in the way it played out," when Carpenter took time to reflect on his season, he soon turned pats-on-the-back into an incentive to improve.

"That's when I made the commitment to myself that last year is over," Carpenter said. "It was great. I'm proud of what I was able to accomplish. But I'm ready to do it again. I look at last year and I know people are like, 'Wow, he had a great year.' The honest truth, the way I feel about stuff, the way I'm wired, it's not satisfying. Yeah, it was a great year. But who is saying that that's my best? I'm not saying it. There might be people out there who say that's as good as I'm going to be, but I have to disagree. I think I can be better.

"I really believe that if you don't take that mindset, you're setting yourself up to fail. The day you think you've arrived is the day you stop growing as a baseball player."

He's now assured of being able to seek those new achievements wearing the Cardinals' red, an honor, Carpenter said on Saturday, that he doesn't take lightly. He'll serve, too, as an example of how talent can be maximized through hard work.

A player who once had to drop 55 pounds in college after choosing, as Carpenter describes it, "the path to mediocrity," has never turned back since making a commitment to invest his all into the game. That's why he was intentional in opening Saturday's news conference by thanking his wife, Mackenzie, for her sacrifices, which currently include dropping Carpenter off at the Cardinals' spring complex before the sun rises.

During the regular season, Carpenter begins his day at the ballpark around noon for a night game.

"It was obviously a unique negotiation because it wasn't one of those where we were sitting there debating all of Matt's faults or his weaknesses because there weren't any," Mozeliak said. "You look at all our core players -- and you see them all there actually sitting back there now -- he represents those exact same qualities. When you think about a person who carries himself and shows the leadership Matt has, and, of course, you couple that with his playing ability, it just made sense for us to try to find a way to make this happen."

Carpenter believed in what he could be and convinced the organization of his staying power by the work he did when no one else was around to watch. He outworked in order to outplay, and now he reaps the rewards.

"I don't want to sound like the cocky guy who said I knew I was going to do it all along, but truth be told, I knew that if I had the opportunity to play every day that I could do some good things," Carpenter said. "Would I have told you that I would win a Silver Slugger and be an All-Star going into last year? I think that probably would have been a stretch. But I never doubted my abilities to be a good Major League Baseball player. And now having done it, there's no doubt in my mind that I can be a consistent, good Major League Baseball player."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB.
Read More: St. Louis Cardinals, Matt Carpenter