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With Yadier Molina Out, Carson Kelly Should Be the Cards’ Starting Catcher

Back in March, the MLB Pipeline ranked Carson Kelly as the No. 2 catching prospect in baseball behind Cleveland’s Francisco Mejia.  Even though he won’t turn 24 years old until July, Kelly is a longtime favorite of the prospect watchers.

As The Pipeline wrote of the young catcher:

“With a tireless work ethic, Kelly has turned himself into a premium defender behind the plate, one who looks like he’s been back there for years. He has a plus arm that has thrown out almost a third of would-be base-stealers since he switched positions. He has outstanding hands and footwork, the type of backstop who could win Gold Gloves in the future, and he is the kind of natural leader teams love to have behind the plate…his bat started to catch up to his glove. He has some raw power and has really improved his approach and pitch selection, where it looks like he should be able to hit for average and power in the future.” 

Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, GM Michael Girsch and manager Mike Matheny have spoken so highly of Kelly, no one was surprised when they promoted him to St. Louis last July 21 to be the backup to Yadier Molina. At the time, the gentlemen who run the Cardinals gave the impression that Kelly was in the big leagues to stay.

Except that Kelly sat … and sat … and sat.

From Kelly’s July 21 call-up through Sept. 23 of last season, the Cardinals played 59 games, and Molina started 88 percent of them. During that stretch Kelly was the starting catcher for only seven of the 59 games, and caught about 18 percent of the innings. After getting pounded hard on the mask by two hard foul balls that left him shaken, Molina stood down. And with the Cardinals shoved out of postseason contention, Matheny allowed Kelly to be exposed to sunlight again. Kelly caught seven of the final eight games including the last six on the schedule.

The rust and dust wasn’t beneficial for Kelly’s development. After hitting poorly in spring training this year, Kelly was sent to Triple A Memphis. Team management wanted Kelly to play every day, take a full load of at-bats, and get his swing back on track. It was the smart thing to do. No MLB catcher starts as many games or logs as many innings as Molina, and the Cardinals’ No. 2 catcher just doesn’t see much action. And other than the few times Molina was lost to injury, there hasn’t been any extensive playing time available to backup STL catchers since Yadier became the full-time starter in 2005.

Knowing that …

Well, pardon me for being a tad confused.

Questions:

1. Why did Cardinals’ management have an urge to promote Kelly last July 21 when — except for an injury to Molina — there was no chance he’d receive anything more than token appearances and one start every eight or nine days? What, did Mozeliak and Girsch really believe Matheny would significantly reduce the number of games started by Molina to give a larger share of the job Kelly? Please. That was a non-starter. And after Molina ripped Matheny on Instagram — which rattled Matheny — the probability of the manager increasing Kelly’s work load  … well, that was down to about ZERO.

2. I’ll ask the question now — does any of this make sense? — which actually comes with an answer (hell, no!) as you will discover after you read this … Matheny  wanted  Kelly promoted last summer. According to the Beloved Leader of Men, he lobbied for Kelly to join the big club last July.  In spring training this year, in explaining Kelly’s return to Memphis, Matheny said this to reporters:  “Last year  I was the one bullish on getting him to us, and pushing hard on the organization,  because every game means so much and we need to right guys. It’s also a big piece of the puzzle to have someone ready to go and to allow them to develop. For him to come up and do exactly what he did last year, we saw how that worked. He couldn’t stay sharp. He has to go prepare to be an everyday catcher.”

OK, I’m a little dizzy after that one … but let’s recap:

Matheny was “bullish” on promoting Kelly last summer, and he went “pushing hard” on his bosses to promote Kelly … and then after the bosses promoted Kelly …  Matheny hardly played Kelly … even though Matheny was the guy leading the charge to get Kelly to St. Louis  … and Matheny’s conclusion to this is … but of course: “He couldn’t stay sharp.” …

Well, YEAH.  Because as the manager …  you didn’t play the kid,  skipper.

3. Now, let’s jump ahead. If it’s so crucial for Kelly to play, then why isn’t Kelly starting at least 75 percent, of 80 percent, of the games now? When Molina suffered internal bleeding on May 5 after being struck in the groin by a hard foul ball — undergoing emergency surgery, placed on the DL, and expected to be out a month — Kelly was summoned from Memphis. He was at Busch Stadium many hours before the May 6 game Sunday night contest vs. the Cubs. But veteran Francisco Pena started.

And during the first week of Molina’s absence, through Sunday, Kelly and Pena shared the job.

Kelly started four games; Pena three.

Kelly caught 37 innings; Pena 33.

Kelly has 17 plate appearances; Pena 16.

Honestly,  I intend no disrespect to Pena here. He plays hard, he’s done a solid job defensively, and seems to know how to handle pitchers. They like him. But Pena is also a journeyman. He caught 22 innings for Kansas City over two seasons (2014-2015), then moved to Baltimore to catch 122 innings over 2016 and ’17.

St. Louis signed Pena — specifically — to serve as the No. 2 catcher because the organization wanted Kelly to play every day, and that would only be possible in Memphis. So in a roundabout way, Pena got a major-league gig because of Carson Kelly. Why? The Cardinals view Kelly as a special prospect who must play, even if it’s in Memphis for a while longer, just so he can fulfill his potential as a hitter. You don’t glue Kelly to the bench. He’s too good for that.

So Pena was added to the 25-man roster to start an occasional game whenever Molina needed a breather … and  Pena was hired to do that because team management strongly believed it would be a waste of time — and detrimental to Kelly — to have him cast as the marginal, career, big-league backup that sits and watches the great Molina play on.

Management clearly views Kelly as the superior catching talent, and it’s obvious to say that Kelly has a brighter future. Because if the front office didn’t hold Kelly in high esteem, he would have been collecting more rust and dust doing little as Molina’s temporary relief help.

Except that when Molina was struck down by a painful injury that will keep him sidelined for several weeks, the starting job at catcher became open. And that starting catcher job will be open until Molina has the health and strength to return and resume playing.

So why is Carson Kelly — the No. 2 catching prospect in baseball, a particular favorite of the Cardinals’ front office — splitting time with Francisco Pena? Why is Kelly sharing the job when team management wanted him playing on a daily basis? Understand that Kelly  would  be the regular catcher in St. Louis had the Cards and Molina failed to reach agreement on a new contract that kicked in this season.

Kelly hasn’t hit in the majors; his stats are awful. But he hasn’t had enough at-bats to matter. In 495 plate appearances for Memphis spread over three seasons — second half of 2016, first half of 2017, and first five weeks of 2018 — Kelly batted .276 with a .362 onbase percentage and .422 slugging percentage against Triple pitching. The profile includes 27 doubles, 12 homers, 66 RBIs, a healthy walk rate (11%) and a disciplined strike zone (14% strikeout rate.)

Kelly was coming on strong as a hitter before the Cardinals promoted him last July. In 280 plate appearances at Memphis before the promotion, Kelly batted .280 with a .375 OBP, .459 slug, 13 doubles and 10 homers. But after being added to the Cards roster, Kelly’s bat decayed through inactivity. In time, he will be a good hitter.

He’s got to play, though. That’s all we’ve heard.

Kelly is intelligent, serious, mature, a student of the game, competitively driven, and defensively advanced. But for his bat to come alive, he must play as much as possible.

Kelly’s gotta play. Gotta gotta gotta play.

It’s one thing for Kelly to be a backup to Yadier Molina, greatest defensive catcher of his generation, a Cardinals’  living legend, and a likely Baseball Hall of Famer.

But with Molina on the DL, and the Cardinals finally having the opportunity to start Carson Kelly extensively … he isn’t the automatic, no-doubt, slam-dunk, starter over  … Francisco  Pena? 

In the same 2018 spring training conversation with the media, Matheny said this about Kelly:

“He needs to play. He’s still too young with too high of a ceiling not to go and be ready. If something happens, we need him to step in and be our guy.”

(Columnist smacks own forehead.) 

Should Mozeliak and Girsch decide to offer up Kelly as a trade piece later this summer — the Cardinals have other catching prospects in the pipeline, most notably Matt Knizner — this will do wonders for Kelly’s trade value. And yes, I’m being sarcastic.

Hypothetical conversation, with another team’s GM speaking to Mozeliak:

“Why would I want Kelly? Why are you talking about this Kelly as if he’s Johnny Bleeping Bench? Hell, your manager wouldn’t even start Kelly over Francisco Pena … and there are something like 250 Francisco Pena type catchers in professional baseball. You can pick up the phone and order three Francisco Pena types, at minimal cost with free shipping included. What happened to this Kelly kid, anyway? You guys really managed to muck this one up. This is how you DON’T handle a prospect.”

(OK, I’m back. Me. Bernie.)

Hey, maybe there’s hope.  Kelly started three of the four games in San Diego. And he’s in the lineup again for Tuesday night’s game at Minnesota, catching his Memphis battery-mate buddy, Jack Flaherty.

I’d like to think Matheny got an email, text or phone call from Mozeliak or Girsch. Perhaps they offered a suggestion on the best way to put Kelly to use. No, let’s be nice here.

Kelly is Matheny’s guy. Kelly has been Matheny’s guy, all the way.

Who fought for Carson Kelly’s promotion last summer when no one else would?

Michael Scott Matheny, that’s who.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

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