St. Louis Cardinals 2016 spring training camp is officially underway for pitchers and catchers, but seven-time National League All-Star and eight-time NL Gold Glove Award winner Yadier Molina is on the sidelines. The 33-year-old is recovering from his second off-season thumb surgery.
One Cardinals prospect catcher in camp as a non-roster invitee is receiving considerable attention for his progress on the field. I am referring to Carson Kelly, drafted as a third baseman in the second round of the 2012 Draft out of an Oregon high school.
In his second season behind the plate, the 21-year-old was given the lone minor league catching Gold Glove Award in 2015. While focusing on his defense, however, the right-handed hitter’s offensive progress stalled – until a second-half push last summer at A-Advanced Palm Beach.
With the improved hitting environment of the Double-A Texas League likely just ahead, it is no stretch to forecast better offensive results from Kelly in 2016.
The Cardinals have to hope that will be the case.
Molina has a lot of miles on his frame, and was injured in each of the last two post-seasons. He is currently second on the active MLB games caught list at almost 1,500 and has two years plus a club option year remaining on his contract.
The meager offense provided by prior reserve catcher Tony Cruz may have contributed to Molina’s heavy workload. The starter was on pace for a career high innings caught count before his latest injury in September.
This off-season, the Cardinals traded Cruz away and signed a proven MLB backstop to a two-year deal in Brayan Pena. The unstated view is that Pena should keep the chair warm until Kelly is ready to apprentice directly with Molina.
From my perspective, if the organization hopes to replace Molina with an in-house catcher, all of their eggs are in Kelly’s basket.
Since Molina was selected in the fourth round back in 2000, the Cardinals have not made drafting a catcher a high priority. In fact, in those intervening 15 drafts, St. Louis took just three catchers before the fourth round – Daric Barton in 2003, Robert Stock in 2009 and Steve Bean in 2012. The former was traded to Oakland in the Dan Haren trade and was moved to first base. Stock couldn’t hit and was converted to pitching, but did not fare much better in that role.
That leaves Bean, an interesting case. The Cardinals took the Texas prep star with the 59th overall selection in the 2012 Draft – part of the return from the Colby Rasmus trade in that the pick was in compensation for the loss of Edwin Jackson as a free agent. The pitcher had been part of the take from Toronto that July in return for Rasmus.
Bean signed for $700,000, less than half of what Kelly received as the Cardinals’ next pick in that very same draft. Taken in the second round at 86th overall in 2012, Kelly picked up a $1.6 million signing bonus – over a million dollars above his pick’s pool amount – to put his college plans on hold.
As catchers, the two played together at Peoria in 2014, with Kelly receiving 100 more at bats. Kelly, who had a taste of the level the year before as a third baseman, posted an OPS of .692 while Bean came in at .630. The two parted ways in 2015, with Kelly moving up to the Florida State League and Bean repeating the Midwest League.
While he continues to receive strong marks for his catching, Bean’s hitting is not improving. In fact, at his second shot at Peoria last season, the now-22 year-old skidded to a .596 OPS. While Bean is again an NRI in 2016 big-league camp, his future remains cloudy.
The two other catchers in the system close to the majors are non-home grown players who do not appear to be starting material at the highest level of play.
Michael Ohlman had been on Baltimore’s 40-man roster despite having not progressed above Double-A. Last spring, St. Louis acquired the 6-foot-5 backstop for cash considerations and proceeded to use his first year in the system to improve his defense as he repeated the level. The 25-year-old’s ceiling appears to be as a major league reserve.
Eric Fryer was signed as a minor league free agent over the winter. The 30-year-old has been on 40-man rosters before, with Pittsburgh and Minnesota, but has been outrighted at least four times previously. Over the last four years, Fryer has averaged about 15 games per season at the big-league level, logging a .665 OPS.
In other words, in terms of grooming an in-house replacement for Molina as the long-term starting catcher, the current plan appears to be “Kelly or bust” – or perhaps more appropriately – “Kelly or prepare to spend big in the external market” to replace Molina.
For that reason, those keeping one eye on Molina’s health this season should keep their other on Kelly’s development progress at Double-A Springfield.
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