St. Louis Cardinals: The Case For Keeping Carson Kelly

Nov 5, 2016; Surprise, AZ, USA; West catcher Carson Kelly of the St Louis Cardinals during the Arizona Fall League Fall Stars game at Surprise Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 5, 2016; Surprise, AZ, USA; West catcher Carson Kelly of the St Louis Cardinals during the Arizona Fall League Fall Stars game at Surprise Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

Yadier Molina’s three year contract extension with the St. Louis Cardinals keeps him in St. Louis through the 2020 season. What does that mean for top catching prospect Carson Kelly, who begins this year in triple-A?

I don’t think too many people wanted to see the St. Louis Cardinals part ways with Yadier Molina just because they had baseball’s number one catching prospect in their organization. Sure, Carson Kelly is widely considered to be the heir apparent to Molina, but that doesn’t mean Cardinals fans wanted 2017 to be Yadi’s final season wearing the birds on the bat.

At the same time, Molina’s extension blocks Kelly from being the every day starter behind the plate for St. Louis until at least 2021. When Yadi was asked at his presser how many more years he planned on playing in the majors, he responded: “Four more. For now.” That leaves the door open for the possibility of another extension after the 2020 season if he and the team still feel he can contribute.

Molina will be 38 at the end of his new contract.

Extending Yadi was the right move; there’s little debate in the baseball world about that. He’s a franchise icon, and will join Stan Musial and Bob Gibson as the only Cardinals to spend all of their 17+ years in Major League Baseball in St. Louis.

The Rise Of Carson Kelly

What is intriguing and up for discussion, however, is how the team handles its top catching prospect, Carson Kelly. He’s only 22, and will be 26 at the beginning of the 2021 season. He’s likely to spend the bulk of 2017 at triple-A Memphis.

Kelly is the organization’s second-ranked prospect behind sidelined pitcher Alex Reyes, and the top catching prospect in all of baseball. He won the Minor League Gold Glove Award for catchers in 2015, and participated in the Arizona Fall League in 2016 after making his major league debut with St. Louis as a September call-up.

He drew the majority of Grapefruit League innings behind the plate this spring while Molina was away at the World Baseball Classic. Most scouts consider him to be major-league ready defensively, which is all the more impressive when you recall he was drafted as a third baseman out of high school in 2012.

Offensively, he has room for improvement, but his 6’2″, 220 frame suggests he has the physical attributes to develop power and the ability to drive the ball with consistency. In five minor-league seasons, he’s hit .248. However, in 2016, he had his best season at the plate when he hit .289 between double-A Springfield and triple-A Memphis.

It’s likely that while he was transitioning from infielder to catcher, Kelly spent so much effort learning his new position that he wasn’t able to dedicate as much time as he otherwise would have to becoming a better hitter. Now, the more comfortable he becomes behind the plate, the more he should improve at the plate as well.

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A Waiting Game For Kelly

Since Kelly is blocked for the foreseeable future, the organization has a few options with how to handle their top prospect. They could groom him in triple-A for the next year, or two, or three. This would allow Kelly to see regular time at the position for entire seasons so he’s not idling on the big-league bench as a backup. Keeping a major-league ready prospect in the minor leagues, however, could stunt his development.

Another option the St. Louis Cardinals have is to keep Kelly in triple-A for most of 2017 and then bring him up towards the end of the year either as a third catcher or as Molina’s backup. They would probably then plan on Kelly being Molina’s backup for the next three seasons in St. Louis. The concern with this blueprint is that Kelly wouldn’t be getting regular playing time, which could also be a hindrance to his development.

A third option the organization has is to use Kelly as a trade chip to fill a need at the trade deadline or in the offseason if the Cardinals are again buyers. The potential problem with this logic, of course, is that the organization would then be selling the top catching prospect in all of baseball. They would then need to pursue other ends to eventually replace Molina.

So what should the Cardinals do? They should hold on to Carson Kelly. The organization’s objective is to find a way to maximize the next four years for its top prospect without impeding his development. This year, it’s keeping him in triple-A for another year of growth at the position and improvement as a hitter.

Remember last year, although he reached the majors, Kelly only played in 32 triple-A games. A full season at the closest level to the majors would be good for him. At the end of this year, Molina’s three-year deal will kick in. I suspect Kelly will be in St. Louis at some point this season, but probably not until September unless Yadi goes down for an extended period of time before then.

If the Cardinals go with the plan to keep Kelly in triple-A for most, if not all of 2017, it wouldn’t make sense for them to do the same in 2018. Maybe he begins the year at Memphis again if he has a down year at the plate this season, but he’ll probably be Molina’s backup for a good part of 2018 and the two seasons following it.

Would Kelly backing up Molina hurt Kelly more than help him because he won’t be on the field very often? Not necessarily. Just because Molina caught over 140 games in 2016 doesn’t automatically mean he will from 2018-2020. Plus, being around Yadi every single day is never a bad thing for a young catcher.

Say Kelly is the backup catcher in St. Louis in 2018 and gets 30 or so starts. In 2019, that number could move up to 40-50, and in 2020, the final year of Molina’s contract, they could split duties. Molina will be 38 for the second half of 2020. Kelly will be 26. If Molina plans on retiring at the end of that year, I doubt he’d object to easing Carson Kelly into more playing time behind the plate. Molina could play more first base toward the end of his contract as well.

Molina’s Legacy and the Passing Of the Torch

All this, of course, takes absolutely nothing away from Yadier Molina, the things he’s accomplished in a Cardinals uniform, and what he can still accomplish in the next four seasons. As I said, he’s a franchise icon, and it was absolutely the correct and necessary move to extend his contract.

But at the same time, when you have the top catching prospect in the game, and the starting spot could be his in four years at the age of 26, you keep him. Even if Kelly is half the player Molina has been in his illustrious career, it will be important to have some stability at the position that was graced for so many years by one of the game’s all-time best.

And if Kelly turns out to be a capable everyday major league catcher for 10 or so seasons, the Cardinals will be glad they kept him. That would make 25+ years of stability at the most important position on the field.

Forgive me for the football reference, but as a fan of the Green Bay Packers, I can’t help but think of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers when I think of Molina and Kelly and the passing of the torch. Rodgers sat behind Favre for three years and eventually got his chance. What’s resulted is a string of stability at the most important position on the football field by two star players.

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I’m not saying Kelly will be to the Cardinals what Rodgers is to the Packers. All I’m saying is the St. Louis Cardinals aren’t the first franchise to have to juggle the dilemma of playing a star player towards the end of his career while keeping his heir apparent fresh and ready to go. And sometimes, like it has for the Packers, it works out beautifully.

Carson Kelly is the top catching prospect in the game today. That’s not something to blink at and willingly dangle as trade bait. This is what General Manager John Mozeliak had to say about Kelly’s future during the Molina press conference Sunday:

"“The way I see it is, at some point, Carson will get his opportunity to be here. But in a lot of ways, he’s going to have a great mentor when that time comes. So I don’t really see any downside in that at all. Clearly, had this deal not worked out, maybe there would have been different dynamics there. But he’s still growing as a catcher, as a player. Now he can learn from one of the best.”"

When you have the best catching prospect in the game, the question shouldn’t be “What is he worth in a trade?”, it should be “How can we best help him develop and be ready to go when his opportunity comes?” All to say, when you have the best catching prospect in the game, you keep him.

It would be a tall task for any catcher to near the greatness Molina’s achieved in a St. Louis Cardinals uniform, but Carson Kelly still has an entire career of baseball ahead of him. The Cardinals are fortunate to have him in their organization, and fortunate to have two catchers at this time each with unique value.

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Molina’s value is evident in the career he’s put together and the impact he’s had on the pitchers he’s caught and the teammates he’s played with. Kelly’s value is in his potential to eventually be a top catcher in the major leagues and the heir to a future Hall-of-Famer.