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The Carson Conundrum

The Cardinals have a blocked prospect who also happens to be one of the best in baseball at his position. How seriously should they consider moving him?

St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

I’m not sure how closely you all are following the Arizona Fall League; I would hazard a guess not that closely, but I could be wrong. Our very own Josey Curtis is, of course, keeping up with the AFL and posting updates, but the fall league in general is an odd animal. The time of year coincides with the major league playoffs, so there’s probably a reasonable chance you just don’t have mindspace to worry too much about the minors in October. (Well, unless your MLB franchise happens to be in the midst of an apparent soul-crushing dry spell of two whole years missing the postseason, that is....) The quality of competition is tough to get a handle on, as well; the AFL is often referred to as prospect finishing school, but it’s a little more complicated than that. You do have prospects coming in who are at the top of the game, auditioning for their organisational audience, but there are also players who missed time during the year, players who need extra work, players who need to showcase health, players who are just sent along to fill a team’s quota. In other words, it’s mostly fair to treat the AFL as the top of the mountain as far as the minor leagues go, but not entirely fair.

Anyhow, there’s a point to my incoherent rambling about the Arizona Fall League, and it’s this: in case you haven’t been paying attention, the Cardinals sent a group of eight players, and some have been good. Some have been bad, too, but that’s less fun to talk about. Of the eight, though, there’s really one guy who has stood out head and shoulders above the rest: Andrew Knizner.

Now, in case you’re not super familiar with Knizner, here’s the scoop: Andrew Knizner was drafted by the Cardinals in the seventh round of the 2016 first year player draft out of North Carolina State. His position playing for the Wolfpack was slightly complicated; he mostly manned third base, but saw time at catcher, first base, and in the outfield as well. It’s the sort of thing that happens to college players all the time; the constant churn of graduation and new blood causes positional uncertainty for plenty of guys.

The Cardinals, however, drafted Knizner as a catcher, and they seem devoted to developing him as such. He split time between catching and first base last year after being drafted, but this season was spent entirely behind the plate. (Well, he did play 26 innings at first, but that’s compared to over 650 at catcher. So, you know.) The reports on his glove have been mostly very positive, which surprised me, and the arm has been outstanding in terms of throwing out runners. (45% caught stealing rate between Peoria and Springfield this year.) I don’t feel like I’ve seen enough of him catching to really have a good handle on the finer aspects of his defense, but he looks fine in what I have seen, and people who are much better with catcher defense than me seem to like him.

In his pro debut last year, Knizner put up a 156 wRC+ with a 1:1 strikeout to walk ratio (9.5% on each), in Johnson City. This season, he moved up to Low A Peoria to begin the season, and posted a 124 wRC+ in just under 200 plate appearances. He struck out just 11.5% of the time and had a .201 ISO. He moved up to Double A Springfield, bypassing the horrors of the Florida State League entirely, and performed to the tune of a 133 wRC+. His strikeout rate soared all the way to...13.4%. He didn’t walk much at either stop this year, but the guy has elite contact skills and pretty decent pop.

Knizner has been the breakout star of the Cards’ group of eight in the AFL; through seven games and 30 plate appearances he’s hitting .393/.433/.643 with a pair of homers. That’s a cool 1.076 OPS, and while Arizona tends to inflate offense somewhat across the board, we’re still talking about a monster performance.

So a catcher, with a good glove, good catch and throw skills, well above-average contact ability, and pretty good quality of contact. He’ll play all of 2018 at 23, is currently bashing AFL pitching, and making a case to start next season in Memphis.

All of which brings us to the subject of today’s post.

Carson Kelly.

I think we all know the story with Carson Kelly at this point, right? High school third baseman, third round draft pick, power potential, iffy hitting, bad footspeed, catcher conversion, top five prospect, occasionally mentioned as a top 1-3 catching prospect in baseball. That pretty much sums it all up, I believe.

You know what is a good thing? Having one of the top catching prospects in baseball. Catchers are incredibly hard to find, and developing one who looks like a real quality player is invaluable. That’s what the Cardinals have in Carson Kelly. He’s not going to light the world on fire with his bat, but he made significant offensive progress this year. At Triple A Memphis, Kelly hit .283/.375/.459, for a 120 wRC+. He walked in almost 12% of his plate appearances, and his strikeout rate was an outstanding 14.3%. The power potential he showed back in high school prior to being drafted has never really come around as a pro, but a .176 ISO as a 22 year old in the PCL isn’t bad at all.

Kelly also gets rave reviews from pretty much all corners for his defensive work behind the dish as well. You would usually expect a catcher conversion project to lag with the glove, but Carson took to the position remarkably well. Pitchers love him, coaches love him, scouts mostly love him. He hasn’t hit well yet at the big league level, but it’s also been extremely sporadic playing time in the majors, with the exception of the last week or so this season after Yadi went down.

Oh, speaking of Yadi, you know what else is a good thing? Having one of the best catchers in baseball. Yadier Molina is 35 years old, has caught more innings over the past decade than any other catcher in baseball, and just put up another outstanding defensive campaign with a batting line near league average. Yadi has had brutally slow starts the last couple years, but both seasons has managed to turn it on in the second half with the bat. FanGraphs WAR model puts him at 2.1 for the 2017 season, but we know catcher defense is still underrepresented in those sorts of numbers. By how much? Well, that’s tough to say, but there’s an element of catching that we’re still working on properly valuing. Bottom line, Yadier Molina is still an excellent catcher, both in terms of the stuff on the field and the really invisible stuff, such as leading and teaching a pitching staff that has skewed younger and younger in recent years. He’s not the player he was five years ago, admittedly, but he’s still the heart and soul of this Cardinal club.

So it’s a good thing to have one of the best catching prospects in the game, right? Of course it is! Having good prospects is good.

And it’s good having one of the best catchers in the game, right? Of course it is! Good players is good too!

It’s also good to have one of the more intriguing catching prospects in the minors rising up fast through your system. Of course, part of why that’s good is because it might, just might, maybe, a little bit, make the prospect ahead of him, who is also blocked at the major league level by one of the still-best catchers in the game who has been the defining on-field voice of this most recent era of Cardinal baseball, slightly more expendable.

All of which is to say this: the Cardinals have a decision to make this offseason with Carson Kelly. And it’s a complicated one.

When Yadi signed a three year contract extension last spring, lots of us thought it signaled the immediate obsolescence of Carson Kelly. Or, perhaps not the obsolescence; perhaps just expendability. If you’re serious enough about keeping your possible Hall of Fame catcher in your uniform his whole career to hand him an extension for three more years at ~$20 mil a year, then the 22 year old kid pushing into the high minors at the same position is probably not going to be a huge priority. Ergo, Carson Kelly was trade bait the moment Yadi put pen to paper.

Weeellllll, not really. I mean, Carson Kelly probably did become somewhat more expendable with Yadier Molina signing up for another three years, but a lot of us jumped too quickly, and too easily, to selling Kelly off for parts. (I include myself in this, for the record. I expected him gone at the deadline this year since the organisation clearly didn’t need him anymore.) But, like most things in baseball, it’s not nearly so cut and dried.

That point was driven home pretty convincingly at the end of the regular season this year, when Molina was clocked twice by foul tips and sent off into the abyss of the concussion protocol. Now, back-to-back fouls off the mask represent a complete fluke event, and there’s every reason to believe Yadi would have gotten his cage rattled at 27 if those exact two fouls had come back on him, same as he did at 35. All the same, though, you start to worry a whole lot more about a 35 year old coming back from something like that than you do a 27 year old.

Investing the kind of money into a player in his mid-30s the Cards invested in Yadi last year has the paradoxical effect of making it more important to rest the player to try and protect your investment, even as you hope to get as much value from that player’s service as possible. From that perspective, having Carson Kelly on the roster, on the big league club, backing up Yadi, is an extremely valuable commodity.

On the other hand, Carson Kelly coming into last season was something like the third to fifth-best prospect in the Cards’ system, depending who you asked. This offseason, he’ll probably place right around that same range. I think he’s third on my list. Maybe fourth; haven’t decided if I like Tyler O’Neill better than him or not yet. The point is this: Carson Kelly is one of the most valuable prospects in the Cardinal system. He’s going to be a top 100 overall guy this offseason in all likelihood, and is one of the biggest bullets the Cards have if they want to make their team better.

And, like it or not, if you really are committed to Yadier Molina as an organisation, then that makes your backup catcher a little less valuable. Sure, it would be nice to have a quality player backing Yadi up all year, but at some point you have to ask whether Carson Kelly is going to be more valuable sitting on the bench and getting ~220 plate appearances or heading to another organisation as part of a trade. How much value do we really believe Kelly could offer in extreme part-time duty? And how much value would he have to another club?

There is also, of course, that little issue of the new kid on the block coming up fast behind Carson Kelly. It would be easy to dismiss Knizner as a significantly lesser prospect, or much less a finished product. And, yes, to a certain extent he is. Almost certainly less polished behind the plate, at the very least. But Knizner is also only about six months younger than Carson Kelly, so it’s not as if one is a far-off dream and the other is right here, major league aged and major league ready. They’ll both play most of 2018 at 23 years old. Knizer topped out at Double A this past season, Kelly played mostly at Triple A. They’re not that far apart.

And with the bat? Carson Kelly put up a Triple A wRC+ of 120 at age 22; Knizner posted a 133 wRC+ one level lower and six months younger. My point is, Carson Kelly is the stronger prospect, yes, by dint of his superior defensive reputation. But the difference is not miles, maybe not even yards.

All of which brings us back to that very tough question the Cardinals are going to have to answer this offseason. What do they do with Carson Kelly? So long as Yadier Molina is at the big league level, it’s going to be a struggle to get the backup much playing time. Yadi is here through 2020. In 2018, 2019, and 2020 Carson Kelly will be 23, 24, and 25. Is it better to have him sit on the bench from 23-25 and then hopefully take over? Or is it better to cash in that big chip now, get the best value you can somewhere else on the field, and sign another journeyman backup for at least this year, and hope that Andrew Knizner continues to develop?

The Cardinals don’t need Carson Kelly. But then, they kind of do. They have another catching prospect who’s nearly as good. But then, he’s not going to rank third on anyone’s system list, now is he? They have an investment in Yadier Molina, and to protect that investment they need to use it less. But then, if Molina is just this much of a freak who refuses to get old, how hard should they really try to protect him?

Losing Yadier Molina at the end of this season was one of the scariest things about the whole year. It’s easy to forget just how much for granted we take his eternal presence behind the plate. Carson Kelly is much, much too important to trade.

He’s also potentially the biggest bullet they would be even somewhat willing to fire.

You see where I’m going with this, right?

If you said, “In a circle,” then you’re absolutely correct.