In the heat of the Hot Stove season, you might have missed a minor move earlier in the week. The Cardinals signed Eric Fryer (along with four other players) to a minor league deal, with an invite to Spring Training. You probably remember Fryer from his short stint in 2016 with the Cardinals. Fryer hit fantastic, with a 131 wRC+, though his stats were bound for regression as that featured a completely unsustainable .442 BABIP.
On June 28th, the Cardinals designated Fryer for assignment to make way for Brayan Pena’s return to the roster. He was claimed by the Pirates, and Pena re-injured himself shortly afterward. Despite signing a two year deal for $5m before the 2016 season, Pena took just 14 PA in 2016 and has since been released by the team. Fryer fell back to earth, with a 59 wRC+ with the Pirates, though that included a three RBI game in his first game back at Busch Stadium.
Some fans are excitied for Fryer’s return, with fond memories of his hot streak justified by his good game against the Cardinals as a Pirate. I don’t think Fryer will be much better than replacement level going forward, but that’s not the reason I’m happy about his return. I’m happy that the Cardinals don’t seem like they’re planning on having Carson Kelly head north with the club to start the season.
That’s not to say I don’t like Carson Kelly, or think he will be a bust as a prospect. It’s just that I don’t think Kelly will be afforded much playing time. Behind Molina, here’s how many PA the second most used Cardinals catcher received, by year, starting with 2016 and going backwards: 37 (Fryer), 113 (Cruz), 139 (Cruz), 108 (Cruz), 115 (Cruz). On a team with Yadier Molina and managed by Mike Matheny, the backup catcher is an afterthought. You can say the backups generally were bad, and they were, but Matheny has always shown a preference for playing Molina as much as he possibly can.
I’d hate to see Kelly buried on the bench during such a important year for his development. Twenty-two year old prospects should be playing everyday, trying to get better and better. That goes double for Kelly, who converted to catcher in 2014. Not only does it take a lot of work to learn the position but said positional work can tend to get in the way of developing his hitting.
Kelly has been a below average hitter for most his minor league career, but he seemed to gain some ground last year. Here’s his minor league stats from last year by level:
Not bad considering 2016 was his age 21 season. He did look bad in his MLB debut, but it was also just 14 plate appearances, and it’s not unheard of for a 21 year old to look a bit over-matched in his first taste of big league action.
Besides, as a catcher, Kelly doesn’t need to be a great hitter to be a valuable contributor in the future. With the catching position being 12.5 runs more valuable than average, Kelly, could be a slightly below average hitter with average defense relative to other catchers, and still be a 3 win player. I’m not a scout by any means, but those that are have generally had great things to say about Kelly’s transition behind the plate.
If the Cardinals put Kelly in a backup role now, it will limit his development. I just don’t see Mike Matheny giving him as much as 200 PA unless Molina suffers an injury. In a year that the team plans on contending for playoffs, it's hard to blame him. Instead, he should be playing everyday, with the hope that he can become the best future starting catcher he can be. Yadier Molina has one guaranteed year remaining on his contract, along with a team option for 2018. While there is the possibility of an extension, Yadi won’t be around and productive forever. He’ll turn 37 in July of 2019. At some point, we have to think about the future. Behind the plate, Carson Kelly is currently the team’s best bet on the future.