One week after being designated for assignment, we now know that the Brayan Pena “era” is officially over in Saint Louis, as the 34-year-old catcher has been granted his unconditional release. Last offseason, general manager John Mozeliak tried once again to acquire even minimal value from an aging free agent on a two-year, $5 million contract. Unfortunately, the results were almost identical to the Ty Wigginton contract, as the Pena contract failed to even reach its second year (both players still got paid, but the point being that neither remained with the Cardinals). Heck, if it weren’t for Pena’s extended disabled list stint, the Cardinals probably could have pulled the plug on the experiment even sooner.
Enter Carson Kelly. The 22-year-old with only 126 career plate appearances at the Triple-A level, but also 94 more in the competition-laden Arizona Fall League. With only 220 plate appearances above Double-A, one could make a very strong argument toward Kelly beginning the year with the Memphis Redbirds in order to receive regular at bats. That being said, while opening the season in Triple-A may benefit Kelly’s long-term development from a hitting perspective, what impact would it have on the present big-league Cardinals as well as his apprenticeship opportunity?
Frankly, it is an undeniable fact that Yadier Molina would start every single game if Mike Matheny, and his own health, for that matter, allowed him to. Yet, it is also must be noted that Molina turns 35 years of age halfway through next season and will be coming off a career high in regular-season innings caught — 1218.1 innings, or 41.2 innings (roughly 4.5 games) higher than his previous high way back in 2009. This is on top of the fact that no MLB catcher even comes close to the amount of regular-season innings Molina has caught since entering the league in 2004. Add 89 games of postseason experience and the gap widens even further.
One of the reasons Molina desires to start every game is that the Cardinals, up until this point in his career at least, have failed to provide a capable backup for him. Offensively, bringing back A.J. Pierzynski in 2015 (111 wRC+) probably could have helped, but he was really bad last year (41 wRC+ plus injury issues), so the usual two-year deal would’ve looked bad once again. And if you are looking for humor, this link brings you to a comprehensive list of catchers with a minimum of 100 innings caught for the Cardinals since 2004.
The previous two paragraphs were a roundabout way to reaching the obvious conclusion that Molina needs more time off behind the plate. It is time to move beyond the talk of more rest. Cardinal managers haven’t yet been inclined to give Molina time off because of the noticeable drop-off in performance provided by the backup. This is no longer the case now that Kelly is on the doorstep of the 25-man roster. Sure, we don’t yet know the offensive ceiling of Kelly, but it is higher than nearly every backup found on the list I linked to above. Defensively, we know Kelly’s story: he won the minor league Gold Glove in 2015 and his throwing arm is very strong.
Yet, Molina is under contract through 2017 plus a $15 million mutual option for 2018. I don’t think Molina will be ready to hang up the spikes after the 2018 season, either, and it would be very strange to see him sign outside of Saint Louis. Thus, Kelly would serve as the backup for at least two full seasons. For those worried about Kelly’s playing time, I get it, but there is a way for Kelly to easily accumulate 250-300 plate appearances per season, all while benefiting from the tutelage of one of the decade’s best catchers.
Go with Kelly for the majority of Mike Leake’s starts (30-32 per season). Lance Lynn’s fastball-heavy repertoire allows for easier game-calling than say, Adam Wainwright or Carlos Martinez, so Kelly could conceivably start many of Lynn’s starts as well. Essentially, we are shooting for 40-45 starts for Kelly (at 4.5 PAs per start, this equates to a range of 180-203 PAs), which will subsequently limit Molina’s workload to ~120 starts behind the plate. Factor in interleague play, pinch hitting, and potential extra-inning affairs, and Kelly will reach 250-300 plate appearances easily.
Bottom line, once the 60-day disabled list comes back into play, the Cardinals could go the boring route and call on Alberto Rosario to open the season, but in my opinion, it is time to embrace the Yadi Heir (hat tip to @aaronbelz).