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Carson Kelly and the predictability of top catching prospects

Since it is still far too early to evaluate Carson Kelly’s MLB career, here is a look at MLB careers of players with similar prospect statuses.

MLB: Spring Training-St. Louis Cardinals at Houston Astros Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like only yesterday that Carson Kelly was a St. Louis Cardinals prospect. Well, I mean, he still is a St. Louis Cardinals prospect, I guess, but that he was just one of many.

Following the 2012 season, Carson Kelly was ranked by as the 12th best prospect in the Cardinals (at the time, quite deep) organization, sandwiched between Maikel Cleto, who was claimed off waivers by the Kansas City Royals in June 2013 following an atrocious two months spent mostly in AAA Memphis, and Charlie Tilson, whom the club traded last season to the Chicago White Sox for non-blockbuster deadline reliever acquisition Zach Duke.

Following 2013, with many of the top prospects now fully graduated to the big-league club, Kelly rose to sixth in the organization, five spots ahead of Randal Grichuk and three behind John Gast. After 2014, he fell back down to 11th. And after 2015, Kelly tumbled even further, all the way to 17th. Viva El Birdos thought slightly more highly of him at the time, ranking him 15th. Regardless, Carson Kelly was, to put it generously, a secondary prospect.

While the most recent list of top Cardinals prospects by has yet to be unveiled, the MLB Top 100 Prospects list reveals two things about Carson Kelly—that he is ranked as the second best prospect in the Cardinals system (#39 overall), and that he is the highest ranked catcher on the list.

Carson Kelly’s name has circulated for several years as the potential heir apparent to Yadier Molina, but when he was being taken only semi-seriously as a prospect, it was hard to get too excited about the idea of him replacing the future Hall of Fame candidate behind the plate at Busch Stadium.

But #1 prospect at his position sounds important and exciting. It is new territory for Carson Kelly, and for Cardinals catchers in the prospect list era (when Yadier Molina was just entering his prime, the Cardinals were rightfully hesitant to invest a ton of resources into developing a whole army of Tony Cruzes). But no matter how tantalizing the notion of baseball’s top catching prospect may be, fans ought to keep in perspective what this means, exactly.

This is one of those rare cases where older information is superior to newer information, as prospects from several years back have had more time to develop (or solidify their bust status). But since MLB prospect archives only go back to 2011, we will look at newer information, as well.

2011 Prospects

#2 Cardinals prospect: Carlos Martinez (#25 overall)

#39 overall prospect: Wilmer Flores

#1 catching prospect: Jesus Montero (#6 overall)

2012 Prospects

#2 Cardinals prospect: Shelby Miller (#19 overall)

#39 overall prospect: Jackie Bradley

#1 catching prospect: Travis d’Arnaud (#11 overall)

2013 Prospects

#2 Cardinals prospect: Kolten Wong (#50 overall)

#39 overall prospect: Jake Odorizzi

#1 catching prospect: Travis d’Arnaud (#20 overall)

2014 Prospects

#2 Cardinals prospect: Rob Kaminsky (#93 overall)

#39 overall prospect: David Dahl

#1 catching prospect: Austin Hedges (#22 overall)

2015 Prospects

#2 Cardinals prospect: Jack Flaherty (#100 overall)

#39 overall prospect: Archie Bradley

#1 catching prospect: Jorge Alfaro (#59 overall)

Three of the comparably ranked Cardinals prospects turned out to be viable members of the Major League club: Carlos Martinez, the team’s ace in spirit if not in name (and possibly in name if somebody bothers to ask); Shelby Miller, a Rookie of the Year finalist before being traded for Jason Heyward (and who was later flipped in an obviously lopsided trade that somehow got worse as time went by); and Kolten Wong, the second baseman who, at 26, still has room to grow but to this point has been somewhere in the vicinity of average in the Major Leagues.

The other two are less enticing—Kaminsky was traded in 2015 to the Cleveland Indians for Brandon Moss and has yet to reach the big leagues, and Flaherty, while it is still far too early to reach any significant conclusions about his future, did take a somewhat minor step back last season.

Some good news for Cardinals fans is that each of the other #39 prospects have made the big leagues (though so has Carson Kelly). And the results have been generally decent—Wilmer Flores, although perhaps most famous for the time he almost got traded for Carlos Gomez and started crying on the field when fans gave him an ovation, has been an adequate, if expendable, shortstop. Jackie Bradley hit 26 home runs in 2016 for the Boston Red Sox in his breakout season in center field. Odorizzi has been slightly above average (you may remember him from trade rumors last off-season). David Dahl, 22, showed above-average hitting potential with the Colorado Rockies last season. And while Archie Bradley’s control issues have kept him from thriving in the big leagues, his ERA has under-performed his peripherals and he may be an adjustment or two away from MLB success.

It is the catchers, however, which should give fans the most pause. Jesus Montero was a highly routed prospect, but in his four seasons with the Mariners, he was a sub-replacement level player. He spent 2016 in the Blue Jays’ minor league system and concluded his season with a 50-game PED suspension. Travis d’Arnaud had a very promising 2015 but after suffering injuries in 2016, it remains to be seen if he is able to bounce back and become the star he was expected to be. While Austin Hedges has too brief of an MLB resume to judge him too confidently, his career wRC+ of 19 leaves more questions than answers. And while I could snark about Jorge Alfaro’s career wRC+ of -43, this seems unfair given his 17 career plate appearances.

An important note about Carson Kelly is that 2017 is his age-22 season. Barring injury, he will not be a full-time MLB catcher. Just ten men have caught in at least 50 games at age 22 or younger this century—Yadier Molina is one of just three players (the others were Brian McCann and Dioner Navarro) to pull this off at age-21 and age-22.

Carson Kelly’s MLB future will not be determined by what he does in 2017, and if he is not an unmitigated success immediately, this does not mean that he cannot grow into one. At the same time, though, prospects are never a sure bet.