Much has been written in recent days (including here) about the evolving catching situation with the St. Louis Cardinals.
The clear heir-apparent to long-time star Yadier Molina is 22-year-old Carson Kelly. The prospect, just three years into catching, continues to demonstrate marked improvement in both his defense and his offense.
With the release of prior Molina understudy Brayan Pena on Monday, many have leapt to the conclusion that Kelly will be Molina’s new back up, starting with Opening Day.
While there are many reasons I think that is less likely, the most important one – the real clincher – does not appear to be fully understood by many. Like seemingly every other significant issue in the game, above all, this could boil down to a simple green and white matter.
That’s right, there are major financial reasons for Kelly to open 2017 in Memphis, not St. Louis. The only real question I have is how long he will remain there.
In early September, when Memphis’ 2016 schedule was complete, the Cardinals promoted Kelly to St. Louis, where he spent the remainder of the month in direct learning mode before reporting to the Arizona Fall League.
As a result, Kelly collected his first 29 days of MLB service time, despite making just two starts and eight mop-up appearances. As most probably know, a player can become an unrestricted free agent after accruing six years of Major League service.
Simple math tells us that if Kelly remains with St. Louis from here on out, at the conclusion of the 2022 season, he would have six years and 29 days of service, then eligible to test his value on the open market. He would be in the apparent prime of his career, at age 28.
However, if he spends at least 30 more days in the minors, his free agent eligibility could be delayed until after the 2023 season.
While that may seem too far out into the future to matter, I can assure you that one more year of team control could have a multi-million dollar impact. Remember that Kelly is expected to become the long-term starter at catcher and if so, his value will continue to increase.
A secondary, but also potentially important financial issue is Kelly’s future arbitration eligibility.
If Kelly remains in the majors continually, he will become eligible for arbitration following the 2019 season, as he crosses the three-year service time boundary.
On the other hand, if he spends part of 2017 in the minors, his service time could be kept under three years until after the 2020 season. The savings to the team could be several million dollars in 2020.
There is also the “Super Two” rule to consider, which enables the 22 percent most-experienced two-year players a fourth year of arbitration. In order for the Cardinals to avoid future Super Two eligibility for Kelly, his service time at the end of 2019 would need to be under about two years, 130 days. (The actual date varies by year.)
With a full season cutoff having been 172 days, but perhaps expanding slightly under the new CBA, here is the approximate math.
Kelly would need to remain in Memphis for at least 29 days (covering 2016) plus approximately 172 minus 130 or 42 days more. The total would be about 71 days into the season or roughly the middle of June.
Maybe two-and-a-half months would be too long to keep Kelly down in 2017, but maybe not. For me, it all depends on Molina’s health.
Once upon a time, back in 2004, the 21-year-old Molina was viewed as catcher Mike Matheny’s replacement. Yet, the youngster remained in Memphis, playing daily – until Matheny was injured and went on the disabled list that June. Molina never returned to the minors as he remained under Matheny for the rest of the year – until the latter departed as a free agent that fall.
One difference between the two situations is that Molina may or may not become a free agent this coming off-season. He and the Cardinals hold a mutual option for 2018 that it seems will be discussed – along with a potential extension – this spring. More details on that here.
Further, while impartial outside observers such as Baseball America remain high on Kelly’s future, they indicate that with more experience behind the plate, Kelly can progress from being an average defender to a plus defender. That would not happen while Kelly is watching games from St. Louis’ bullpen as Molina’s caddy. His best route to get better is to play daily. That can only happen in Memphis, a level at which Kelly has just 32 career games of experience, by the way.
Another topic that has been almost beaten to death is Matheny’s insistence to write Molina into his lineup almost every day. As long as Molina continues to perform, there is no reason to suspect it will change. With Kelly continuing to develop in Memphis, he can be just a phone call away, ready if something happens to Molina.
Put this all together and it is pretty clear to me that St. Louis should open 2017 with a no-name catching reserve such as Alberto Rosario, who is back with the organization for another shot after serving that role for two months last season. Or perhaps the Cards will sign another of the many Eric Fryer–Michael McKenry journeyman types prevalent in the free agent market place for a minimum salary to keep the bench warm for Kelly’s eventual arrival.
Kelly should be up for good soon enough, but there seem many very solid reasons for the Cardinals to not hurry and very few to rush.
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