The St. Louis Cardinals will be looking for a backup catcher headed into 2019. Who could fill Francisco Pena’s role next season?
As you may know, the St. Louis Cardinals outrighted backup catcher Francisco Pena to AAA Memphis, removing him from the 40-man roster. This means the Cardinals will now be looking for a backup catcher to replace Pena this offseason. I know this position isn’t as exciting as others, mainly because future Hall of Famer Yadier Molina plays in almost every game.
The thing is, while Yadi’s durability has been remarkably consistent, whenever he takes another 102 mph fastball to the crotch, the will need somebody to step up.
When Molina was out of the lineup for about a month, the St. Louis Cardinals catching situation was a complete mess. The two-headed monster in Francisco Pena, Carson Kelly was a major killer to the lineup, and basically made it feel like there were two pitchers hitting in the lineup instead of one.
Francisco Pena had a 7% caught stealing rate in 2018. Yes, you read that right, SEVEN PERCENT. He also hit just .203 with only five extra base hits. He did only make one error, and had a .997 fielding percentage, but he could not hit the baseball to save his life, and it hurt the team bad whenever Molina was out.
It’s Carson Kelly’s turn on the Walk of Shame. Kelly was once the top catching prospect in all of baseball and the #2 prospect in the Cardinals organization, it seemed like he was destined to take over catching duties when Molina retires after the 2020 season. Though it was a very small sample size we saw from him in 2018, there might be second thoughts on whether he is the future behind the plate.
Kelly was in AAA for most of the season, but got called up to the St. Louis Cardinals to be the backup catcher for Pena when Molina took that trip to the DL back in May. In 35 at-bats, he only had four hits.
Yes, you read that right again, good eye. FOUR HITS. His batting average was a cool .114, and his OPS+ was a -9. It’s still very early in Kelly’s career, and he is only 24 years old, but there’s starting to be doubt if Kelly will ever pan out.
As stated, the St. Louis Cardinals will need a backup catcher, and there are some solid opinions in house and out of house, let’s see who will be lucky enough to back up a future Hall of Fame catcher.
Andrew Knizner, Memphis Redbirds
Andrew Knizner (KIZZ-ner) entered his freshman year of college as a third baseman, but eventually made the switch to catcher. It seems to have paid off for him so far, as he was drafted by the Cardinals in the 7th round out of North Carolina State back in 2016.
Since he has been drafted, he has been one of the top catchers in the Cardinals farm system, and is currently the number 5 prospect in the system according to MLB Pipeline. Kninzer’s rise has been meteoric, as he moved up a league each season, and only hit under .300 in one of them. His OPS gradually decreased, which is to be expected for a player moving up the ladder at the speed Knizner was, but his OBP has actually made gradual improvements.
This year has been no different, as he has very solid numbers during his time in both AAA Memphis and AA Springfield in 2018. He finished the season hitting .313 with seven home runs and 45 RBIs. He was even great behind the plate, with a .993 fielding percentage and a respectable 27% caught-stealing rate.
You would be using Knizner for his offensive production as opposed to defensive ability, which may be a bit of a shock for St. Louis Cardinal fans so used to the defensive wizardry of Yadier Molina. With Knizner’s offensive upside and development at such a young age, risking having average or even below average defense is worth it.
If the St. Louis Cardinals decide that Carson Kelly is not the catcher of the future, and they want a offensive-minded backup for Molina, Knizner could definitely be the guy for St. Louis.
Jeff Mathis, Arizona Diamondbacks
If the Cardinals want a defensive-first catcher to back up Molina, Jeff Mathis has to be a candidate for the job. Mathis had a great season behind the plate, with a .998 fielding percentage and throwing out 38% of baserunners. He even took home the SABR Fielding Bible award, which goes to the best defensive catcher from a sabremetric standpoint.
Though he did not qualify for a Gold Glove award due to the lack of innings played, he could have taken the award from Yadier Molina due to his stellar defensive play in 2018. He even had a 17 DRS, which leads all catchers. He did this in only 524 innings. That’s impressive, in my opinion.
Mathis has also been around in the Majors for a while. He was drafted out of high school all the way back in 2001, and there are only four active MLB players from that draft class. The 35 year old could also be a solid veteran catcher to backup Molina.
If you want a purely defensive guy for a backup catcher, Mathis is the guy for you. However, you have to keep in mind he likely won’t be a good hitter. Mathis is coming off a .200 BA and .544 OPS season, and is hitting below the infamous Mendoza Line for a career batting average. I know that seems unattractive, but the guy is still a great option behind the dish for whenever Molina takes his rare off days.
BONUS: He is a position player who can pitch as well.
Carson Kelly, Memphis Redbirds
Yes, I know I just railed on Kelly’s performance last season, and I know that many St. Louis Cardinals fans are just about done with Kelly, but hear me out.
Though Carson Kelly did a poor job in the Majors last year, we should still throw his hat into the ring for the position. He has an excellent glove and even won the Gold Glove award in the Minor Leagues in 2016. He still has a lot of potential and might be the next Cardinals catcher after Molina retires.
Yes, Carson Kelly was brutal in his limited major league at-bats, hitting only a .114 SLG. Yikes. After getting sent back down to Memphis after Molina returned to the major league team after his groin injury, Kelly’s bat started to heat up, yes I know, it was in Memphis, but it was a sign of optimism that Carson Kelly isn’t a lost cause for the Cardinals.
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Kelly might be a trade candidate for the Cardinals going into the offseason as well, with potential partners such as the Seattle Mariners, who traded away their catcher Mike Zunino earlier this week, checking in on Kelly. If the Cardinals do decide to hold on to Kelly, they might as well give him a shot in the Majors, because he has nothing left to prove in Memphis, putting up respectable numbers each season for the Redbirds.
There is a reason that Kelly was one of the most valued prospects in the organization at one point. There’s no question that he has the tools to develop into a solid catcher, but whether or not the St. Louis Cardinals decide to use that for their own team or to acquire better suited assets remains to be seen.
Whatever the case may be, Carson Kelly still has the opportunity to be the backup catcher for 2019 and possibly take the first steps towards becoming the player that so many saw him as when the St. Louis Cardinals drafted him.