With just under a month remaining until pitchers and catchers report to Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida, a familiar issue is resurfacing for the St. Louis Cardinals. Lost in the buzz of the offseason are questions of playing time for several young players. And while it’s natural to expect some of the roster competitions, such as the final spot in the bullpen or on the bench, to be solved over the course of spring training, one particular question of playing time remains unresolved as of now and may remain so at the early onset of the season. In what role will the Cardinals utilize top catching prospect Carson Kelly?
If the issue of Carson Kelly’s playing time sounds familiar to Cardinals fans, it’s because it is. One of the major story lines of last season came when perennial All-Star catcher Yadier Molina and manager Mike Matheny got into a public spat over the former’s playing time after the release of backup catcher Eric Fryer and subsequent call up of Carson Kelly from Triple-A Memphis. After Matheny hinted at easing back on Molina’s time playing time, Molina quickly took to social media to voice his displeasure, insisting that he was “not tired”. But while Molina may feel that he should be playing every day, this is simply not realistic for any catcher, let alone a 35 year old.
Over the weekend at the Cardinals’ 22nd annual Winter Warm Up, the team’s version of a fan-fest, President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak spoke rather candidly to both the media and in a Q&A session with the fans, during which several concerned members of the crowd asked specifically about the playing time for a number of 2017 call-ups such as Harrison Bader, Luke Voit, and the aforementioned Carson Kelly. And while Mozeliak was willing to name specific names such as Bader and Voit as being considered candidates for initial minor league assignments out of spring training, the question of Kelly’s role seemed to draw more questions from Mozeliak rather than answers. Mozeliak was not shy about referencing the Molina/Matheny dispute of last season and the implications it may have on the upcoming year. The exchange ultimately left Mozeliak responding with the classic “I don’t know, ask the manager” response, a sure sign of some level of uncertainty within the organization.
It’s clear that Carson Kelly needs significant playing time. The notion that full-time starters in the minor leagues won’t produce in a part-time role at the big league level may be slightly overstated in some cases. But it is certainly arguable that putting young starting players in a bench role for a few years may negatively impact their overall development. And for a young backstop who has been dubbed the heir apparent to Yadier Molina, every day experience behind the dish at baseball’s highest level seems imperative. With Molina announcing over the Winter Warm Up weekend that he will likely retire at the end of his current contract in 2020, it seems as if it’s almost now or never to decide what to do with Kelly.
Aside from the potential lack of playing time that would come from carrying Kelly as a backup on the Major League roster out of spring training, another glaring concern is Kelly’s lack of production at the end of 2017 in the same role. Some may attribute the rather underwhelming .174/.240/.217 slash to the previously referenced issue of lacking consistent playing time, as Kelly only had 69 at bats at the Major League Level last season. But to the eye test, something seemed a bit different about Kelly. While broadcasters often used the “tough to stay sharp on the bench” narrative, Kelly visual seemed a bit overmatched at times at the plate. And although he showed flashes of his highly regarded glove behind the dish, the bat simply never produced, likely leading to even less playing time than intended, at least until Yadier Molina’s season-ending concussion on September 25th. Much of Kelly’s hype has come from his bat, which makes the lack of any sort of production at the big league level even more of a red flag for the Cardinals entering 2018. Should Kelly really continue receiving minimal at-bats at the risk of struggling at the plate? Or is he just not ready to face big league pitching as a whole?
Barring an outstanding showing in spring training, the rather simple solution should be to once again start Kelly at Triple-A at the beginning of the season. While staunch defenders of Kelly may be agitated to hear it, Yadier Molina’s demand to play every day is not the only reason why platooning the two players didn’t work out last season. And although some claim Kelly may start to get burnt out in the minors or wasted during his younger years, the Cardinals must treat Kelly like any other prospect and be absolutely sure he is ready and polished to perform to some degree at the Major League level before calling him up to be either Molina’s backup or replacement. And thus far, Kelly has not at all shown that he’s ready at the plate.
Until Kelly reaches this point, the Cardinals should stop making excuses and take finding some form of backup plan seriously. The team did sign two journeyman catchers with very limited experience at the big league level, Francisco Pena and Steve Baron, to minor league deals earlier this offseason. Options from recent seasons such as that of Eric Fryer are off the table. This means the team may either be forced to commit to Kelly out of perceived necessity, test the waters with another inexperienced catcher from within such as Pena or Baron, or play it safe and look outside the organization for a somewhat experienced backup who will accept the limited role that comes with playing behind Molina. Time will tell which route the Cardinals will ultimately take.