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All the Cardinals’ Catching Eggs are in Kelly’s Basket

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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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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28 Responses to “All the Cardinals’ Catching Eggs are in Kelly’s Basket”

  1. blingboy says:

    I am optimistic that the hitter friendly Texas league will push Carson’s OBP up close to .300. Not that it matters. Enthusiasts will continue to spin a hopeful narrative whatever the on field results. Anyway, I am resigned to the inevitable.

    Do we know much about the young guy up from the DOSL a couple years ago? I think he doesn’t hit any worse than Kelly or Bean.

    • Brian Walton says:

      About the same. Luis Cruz was paired with Bean at Peoria last summer. Cruz’ OPS was .605 in 2015, while Bean’s was .596. Both are NRIs in MLB camp this spring.

      P.S. FWIW, I am not sure OBP alone is the best measure of a catcher.

      • blingboy says:

        ” I am not sure OBP alone is the best measure of a catcher”

        Agreed. But, as illustrated last year with Cruz, meager offense makes a catcher unplayable.

          • crdswmn says:

            Going to have to disagree a little bit here.

            Meager offense plus average defense makes a catcher unplayable, see: Tony Cruz

            Meager offense but elite defense is a different story.

            1. Carson Kelly is only 21 years old. The idea that his bat won’t improve is a conclusion that I decline to get behind at this time.

            2. An improved bat plus above average defense makes Kelly very playable. If his defense can approach elite, then all the better.

            Because I believe, like the Cardinals do, that defense, especially for a catcher, is very important and equal in importance to offense, I maintain an optimistic outlook on Kelly, unless/until he proves I shouldn’t.

            • Brian Walton says:

              I don’t disagree with anything you said. Based on his improvements on both sides of the game, I ranked Kelly 9th in the system this year. That was far better than the community, which had him at #15. That helped pull his overall site ranking down to 12th.

              After all, the whole focus of the original post is that Kelly is the lone bright star among the catching prospects. The differentiator is offense. At roughly the same age and competition level, Bean is generally considered a better defender, but Kelly is the top prospect and Bean is not – due to offensive upside.

              Based on his comments here and on the message board, bling apparently does not think Kelly can hit, despite his 2H improvements. For me, it is too early to make those kinds of declarations.

  2. JumboShrimp says:

    The situation is rosier than just Kelly, though it’s encouraging he has been saluted for defense.
    Another strong defender okeefe, 7th round 2014, had an ops of 820 at Peoria.
    The AAA catcher collected a million dollar bonus from the Os.
    Mc carvel and chinea were interesting at Johnson city.
    Every year we invest significant bucks in a Latin catcher.
    4th rounder Stanley was sidetracked by suspension on the cusp of the majors. Another 4th rounder Bryan Anderson has been good, just not good enough. 6th rounder Adam Erlich was injured and did not pan out. Neither did big bonus Stock.
    We did a good job to unearth tony Cruz at a low round. He socked a playoff homerun off Baumgardner in 2014.
    The cards frequently invest in amateur catchers and have more talent beyond kelly.

    • Brian Walton says:

      Every org has quantity. The need is quality.

      O’Keefe had one good month. It will be interesting to see if he can keep it up in 2016. Perhaps he and Chinea will carry the load at Peoria this season.

      • blingboy says:

        The Cardinals have had ridiculously good catch-throw guys behind the plate for a long time, quite often without great offense. There is every reason to expect the trend to continue forever.

        • Brian Walton says:

          … especially with the heavy investment in pitching. Yet someone has to rise to the top with a credible bat, too. That is clearly the challenge. Find the best balanced performer.

        • crdswmn says:

          Because, see above, defense is equally important to offense, especially for a catcher.

          If the Cardinals can keep up with well above average to great defensive catchers, more power to them. And that is with or without great offense.

          • Brian Walton says:

            Interesting question as to whether defense and offense are truly equal and if so, are they in all cases? There is no way to ever get a definitive answer as everything is a matter of degrees and situations.

            For example, does a team lacking offense play a defensive catcher to double down on helping the pitching? Or does it play the better bat to try to score more runs and take the potential hit on defense? A lot of factors, some of which are external to the catchers themselves.

            P.S. This is not Cardinals specific, but Mike Piazza had a career that has taken him to the Hall of Fame. Despite being a below-average catcher, his offense was more than enough to compensate. Molina has been roughly the opposite, but they will likely end up in the same place.

            My point is that if the Cardinals had a Piazza in their system, they would take advantage of it.

            • crdswmn says:

              Offense is equal to defense in the general sense, was what I meant. A run saved equals a run earned, this is a fact. In individual cases, it depends on how good the defense is versus how bad the offense is and what the makeup of the overall team is.

              Ozzie Smith hit .262 career but was an elite defender and is in the HOF. Mike Piazza is a HOF catcher with a different profile. Is Piazza a better catcher than Smith is a shortstop because he hit better? There are some who believe he is.

              I take exception to those who prioritize offense over defense as a general principle. One can argue about the merits of individual players, but drawing conclusions based on offense only in every case is just misguided, in my opinion.

  3. blingboy says:

    Now days glove only guys are out of favor. See Brendan Ryan. However good a defensive catcher Kelly is, it will take more offense than would have been the case in the past. We will just have to see if a miracle happens. Lets hope for the best.

    • crdswmn says:

      33 year old Brendon Ryan doesn’t have a job, ergo all defense dominant players are out of favor.

      Thanks for the fairy tale, Mr Aesop.

    • Brian Walton says:

      Miracle? To replace Molina in a few years? What kind of odds do you apply to a “miracle”? I think I may want a piece of that action.

      • blingboy says:

        .194 .242 .283 .525 Kelly’s line vs RHP last season, his fourth.

        As he has moved up, pitchers have gotten better faster than he has with the bat. There is no reason to think that will change. Kelly is not going to hit upper level pitching. His chance of replacing Molina is remote.

        Besides, you are already going to have to spring for dinner at BPV.

        • Brian Walton says:

          That is because I can make easy money taking advantage of strong statements made based on weak foundations. This one is entitled small sample conclusions.


          The first one is Kelly at Peoria in 2014 vs. RHP. The second one is Kelly at State College in 2013 vs. RHP. In both cases, he hit better against RHP than LHP.

          I plan to win drinks and dessert, too.

        • Brian Walton says:

          Age 19: .280/.331/.384/.715 (vs. Kelly at .692)
          Age 20: .275/.327/.382/.660 (vs. Kelly at .594)

          The first is Molina’s line at Peoria – same age as Kelly, same level.
          The second is Molina’s line at Double-A – same age as Kelly last season at Palm Beach.

          Unfortunately, I don’t have splits from 15 years ago and I didn’t know you then, but I bet you would have ripped on Molina’s offense, too. One should also remember at that point, he already knew how to catch.

          Let’s see how Kelly performs this season in the Texas League at the ripe age of 21. Molina managed to hop over Palm Beach, considered by most to be a tough place to hit. Yet Kelly seemed to figure it out in the second half after a very bad start.

  4. JumboShrimp says:

    Steve Bean is another good defensive catcher. His defense should keep him on the field and earn at bats. Enough at bats and he might improve as a hitter.

    • JumboShrimp says:

      Kelly played SS or pitched in high school. It is encouraging that he has become so proficient at catching, in a short amount of time. He was not tutored by older brothers in MLB as was Yadier.

      Kelly has the physique of a hitter. There is raw material to work with. It’s not going to be easy however.

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