St. Louis Cardinals fans will have to begin to understand that #4 can’t catch forever. Who replaces him?
Is it young St. Louis Cardinals prospect Carson Kelly? The 21 year old catcher won a gold glove catching down in Palm Beach for the advanced A team. A Cardinals catcher winning a gold glove isn’t exactly breaking news around these parts because the big club’s backstopping specialist, Yadier Molina, has done it for a decade and won eight gold gloves. He’s the Zen Master. Obi Wan Molina. Yoda with a tattoo on his neck. The question that is starting to gather some steam is who eventually replaces Molina behind homeplate, at least on a part time basis?
Mention this to the Cardinals faithful and they will stone you. At least right now. He is the rock that sits at the basis of this “aging” gracefully Redbird squad. The face of the franchise. However, it’s not secret that Molina is starting to show some cracks in his facade. His bat has slowed down due to a pair of thumb injuries in each of the past two years. After slugging .477 in 2013, Molina only slugged .350 in the same amount of games in 2015(136). He has seven straight All Star Game appearances, two top five MVP finishes and the eight gold gloves, but he’s turning 34 in July. He can’t catch 130 games in a season for too much longer.
Enter Kelly. My colleague Steven McNeil dug into this idea a few months ago. I’m following up after hearing Kelly speak at the 2016 Winter Warmup. It all started on June 12th, 2012. He was a third baseman who spent a year with Johnson City and Peoria before going back to State College to learn a different position. Catching. He came back to the Chiefs in 2014 and quickly became a different type of prospect. Instead of waiting in line behind others, he became a delicate yet potent specialist. In his second year in the minors, Kelly won a the Gold Glove. Defense has become his bright spot. Not bad for a two year old catcher.
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When asked what it felt like to achieve such an accomplishment after transitioning from a different position, Kelly was quick to praise others. “I had no idea. I was just trying to soak up as much information. It’s really an honor.” Kelly talked about learning the technique first and ascending to learning the game itself. “The mental side is what I really advanced on this last year.”
How can he top it this year? “Do it again. Learn more. I grew a lot this year as a player. It makes you that much hungrier. What does Yadi have? Like eight of them?” Kelly speaks like a politician but also like a man who finally understands where he needs to be and how much further he has to go in order to reach the top. Here is a kid who was drafted out of high school by the Cardinals as a corner infielder and told to learn the toughest position in the game. While it’s not as swift as Sam Tuivailala going from shortstop to the pitching mound, Kelly seems ready for any challenge.
With the departure of Ed Easley and the drug suspension of Cody Stanley, a lane has been cleared in the path to the show. Does Kelly see it that way? “I am here to continue to keep learning. I’m only 21 years old. I have a lot to do. 2016 is another opportunity to get better.”
Kelly’s weakness, if there is one, is hitting. He hit eight home runs in 2015 but he also struck out a bit and didn’t draw walks, finishing with a .594 OPS in 389 at bats. His minor league career OPS is just .657 but Kelly admitted to placing the emphasis more on his catching than his hitting during the past year. “Defense was the main priority. It’s the most important position. Towards the end of the year, the hitting came around. Ultimately, the goal is to put them together.”
Kelly doesn’t have to swing the bat like Mike Piazza to make it to the Cardinals. The club clearly values a defensive minded player behind the player. However, some hitting can’t be forgotten about. After all, a weak hitting Molina has turned into a lifetime .286 hitter with a 30 doubles average over his 12 year career. 12 years for Yadier. It’s gotten to be that long of a road for the veteran revered catcher. While he isn’t done just yet, Molina’s heir apparent needs to start showing some strides. Brayan Pena gives the Cards a couple years to find that guy.
Is it Carson Kelly? Is it the more offensive minded and natural catching Mike Ohlman, who is three years older, carries a bigger slug and could see time at Memphis this season? The battle has begun but with a gold glove at his disposal, it seems like Kelly is the player who started out as a project and looks to change into a reality in 2016 and beyond. Keep his name in mind folks.
Thanks for reading and have a good weekend. Pitchers and catchers report in just five days. A month from now, we are talking about chalk lines, dirt, gloves, bats and players taking the field and playing some games.