In a rather surprising move to some, the St. Louis Cardinals announced shortly after their Grapefruit League matchup with the Washington Nationals on Sunday that prized catching prospect Carson Kelly is amongst the latest group of Major League camp cuts and has subsequently been optioned to Triple-A Memphis to begin the upcoming season. Kelly, the Cardinals’ no. 3-ranked prospect entering the season, had previously been expected to open the season on the big league roster as the primary backup to Yadier Molina.
Cardinals President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak has, on several occasions this offseason, hinted at potential playing time issues persisting for Kelly at the Major League level while still on the same roster with Molina. It’s an issue that was well documented at times last season, and I’ve written on this challenging subject before as well. To no surprise, Mozeliak and the Cardinals are once again attributing Kelly’s demotion to a lack of opportunity for consistent playing time and at-bats, especially when considering the torrid start to spring that the 35-year-old Molina has been on. But I would argue that the Cardinals might be reaching the point of running out of patience with Kelly’s development as well.
This spring marks the fourth year in a row that Kelly has been a part of Major League camp, and there’s no doubt that the Cardinals have been extremely high on the young backstop’s talents ever since taking him in the second round in the 2012 draft and converting him from a natural third baseman to a catcher. Kelly has shown a tremendous defensive ability at times in the Minor Leagues (and in limited time in the Major Leagues a season ago) and has a Gold Glove from the minors to prove it. His arm strength and accuracy have never been questioned, but now other parts of his game that were expected to develop with time, such as game calling, pitch receiving, and overall offensive production, are now being questioned more than ever.
While Kelly’s lack of offensive output at the Major League level has mostly been blamed on the aforementioned issue of lacking consistent at-bats and overall inexperience against big league pitching, it’s starting to less of a waiting game for the Cardinals and more of a “now or never” situation. Kelly hit just .174/.240/.217 last year in just 75 plate appearances with the Cardinals, with no home runs and just three extra base hits. Many thought this spring would be a breakout opportunity for Kelly to show off his full potential, especially when considering he was practically being handed a roster spot on the big league club for the first time. But in 35 trips to the plate this spring, Kelly managed to only hit .100, with just three total hits. His defense this spring has also publicly drawn the ire of a pair of former Gold Glove catchers, Bengie Molina and manager Mike Matheny. Both expressed some disappointment in Kelly’s pitch receiving in games thus far from what they’ve seen, and although Bengie’s perspective may be a bit biased, Matheny’s lack of hesitance to call out Kelly shouldn’t be taken lightly. Even though the team’s overall public comments remain mostly high on the 23-year-old, perhaps Kelly is no longer thought of as untouchable by his manager or the organization.
For now, it appears that the Cardinals will likely go with Francisco Pena as the Opening Day backup catcher option. Pena is still likely unfamiliar to most fans, but his play this spring has undoubtedly turned some heads. Francisco is the son of former big leaguer Tony Pena, and has limited big league experience with both the Kansas City Royals and the Baltimore Orioles. The Dominican-born backstop was added earlier this offseason on a minor league deal with the intent to provide a bridge at Memphis until the Cardinals’ next-best catching prospect Andrew Knizner is ready to advance to the Triple-A level. Pena’s extensive time in the minor leagues has resulted in a reputation for a strong glove and weak bat, but thus far in camp he has impressed many with just how good his hands behind the plate are, all while providing a number of very solid at-bats. Pena is not on the 40-man roster, so expect a corresponding move late in camp if the Cardinals elect to go this route. Could giving the formerly untouchable Carson Kelly a change of scenery be part of the Cardinals’ plans? Only time will tell.