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What to do with Carson Kelly

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An apparent extension could change plans for the heir apparent.

MLB: Spring Training-Minnesota Twins at St. Louis Cardinals Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

So, the Cardinals extended Yadier Molina. Or did they? Well, the team hasn’t announced anything, but the usual sources that usually report these sort of things seem to think that’s the case. According to Ken Rosenthal, the Cardinals will pay Molina between $55M and $65M from 2018 to 2019.

One of the most often used points for not extending Yadi is that he’s a catcher in his late 30’s. The observation is that not many catchers play into their late 30’s, and the implication is that catchers play too grueling of a position not to expect a rougher aging process than average. However, when I wrote about the prospect of an extension back in January, I found that this was not the case:

That is all players from 1960 to 2016 in blue, and all catchers from 1960 to 2016 in red. Catchers age similarly to everyone else, historically speaking. Aging curves have changed over time, so when projecting Yadi we’ll use an aging curve from 2006 on, when they started drug testing in the majors. The point is, there’s no statistically validated reason to discriminate against catchers when it comes to aging,

Zips and Steamer project Molina similarly, with an average of the two producing a 2.6 WAR projection. However, that notably doesn’t include framing. Statcorner had him at 9.3 runs above average last year, and adding that to his projection puts him at 3.5 WAR. Remember, that still doesn’t include game calling or veteran leadership, both of which we can’t measure well, but are pretty sure Yadi provides value at. Using an average aging curve, a price of WAR of $9M, and 5% inflation, here’s how Molina projects from 2018 to 2020:

If you’re iffy about this kind of deal, hopefully this chart makes you feel a little better. Even if it’s announced to be $65M, the Cards eked out some savings. Baseball players are expensive, and Yadi may not be the player he was from 2011 to 2013 anymore, but that doesn’t mean he’s not worth the deal. And remember, that’s just based on how the market is acting. Consider this image I’ve shared a few times in the past from some research by Nathaniel Grow:

We see player salaries are going higher and higher in absolute terms, but compared to the rest of the modern era their salaries are low as a proportion of MLB revenue. The teams are swimming in money, Scrooge McDuck-style. A three year deal guaranteeing a middle eight figure salary just isn’t a risk for an MLB club right now. It’s just a matter of if the owners want to spend, and Bill Dewitt wanted to spend in this case.

The next thing to consider is Carson Kelly’s future with the club. The idea is that if the Cardinals re-sign Molina, that blocks Kelly. However, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. For one, teams need backup catchers. I know, the Cardinals are a team that bucks that trend, but at some point, Yadi will have to catch less innings.

There’s no guarantee Yadi ages well or stays mostly healthy anyway, so Kelly is a nice insurance policy. He’ll eventually hang up the catcher’s gear, and the org’s best bets at producing a future catcher after Carson Kelly are both still yet to start their first full year of professional baseball. That’s Jeremy Martinez and Andrew Knizner, taken in the 4th and 7th round of last years draft respectively. The Red Baron has questioned both of their abilities to stick behind the plate. Really, the reason they’re the “best bets” is that they haven’t had a chance to fail in pro ball yet.

While it’s not a necessity, it does make Kelly a fairly likely trade chip, should the Cardinals be buyers at the deadline. Expect to see his name mentioned a lot in rumors as the season progresses. Let’s look at where Kelly has ranked on Top 100 lists this off-season, as well as the corresponding surplus value of prospects with that ranking :

Most outlets consider him to be in the 80’s, with MLB and ESPN considering him a little better than that, but missing Baseball America’s list. If you guesstimate Baseball America’s valuation at 3/4th the value of a hitter in the back of the top 100, than an average of these values come out at $23M surplus value. You’ll want to add a million or two that to account for a year of inflation. Of course, that doesn’t mean the specific team with a player the Cardinals target will value him at that, but it does ballpark how teams might value him. Maybe they agree with Baseball America, maybe they agree with MLB pipeline.

When it comes to scouting the stat line, things are a little worse. KATOH is the best public system for projecting minor leaguers based on their stats, position, and age. Here’s Carson Kelly’s likelihood of outcomes under team control according to KATOH:

Overall, this comes to an average of 2.1 WAR. Even without adjusting for NPV (Net Present Value), that comes to less than what the public scouts imply. It’s not much less though, and the closeness implies that the distribution above shouldn’t be much different than one based on the scouting community’s aggregated opinion.

The take away from all this is that this new extension, without a trade, probably won’t lead to a situation where the Cardinals have too many good catchers.. According to KATOH, over his team control years he has about 2/3rd chance of being worth less than a win, and only about 8% chance of being worth more than 7 wins.

The most common trade target in these discussions has been Jose Quintana. Using his salaries, his current projection, and the same assumptions we used for Yadi, here’s how his contract grades out:

Quintana is a great pitcher not yet 30, signed for four more years with a $9M AAV. As such, he’s a pretty amazing trade chip. Kelly doesn’t even get the conversation started. It would take several pieces to get such a deal, and would probably have to include Alex Reyes, unless the White Sox happened to have a really good opinion of Luke Weaver. I’m not saying the Cardinals shouldn’t pursue Jose Quintana, just that Carson Kelly becoming more trade-able doesn’t exactly set up a perfect match.

As we see here, Kelly’s value is more comparable to one year of Jose Quintana, not four. So, if it’s a high-end starting pitcher the Cardinals are after, looking for a rental is more appropriate. Looking at pitchers who will be free agents in a year, Yu Darvish of the Rangers and Masahiro Tanaka of the Yankees both play on teams that could be sellers at the deadline.

That might be disappointing to read. I understand that about three months of even an elite pitcher might be an underwhelming return for someone we’ve all hoped to take the torch from Yadier Molina. But that’s how the market works. The Cubs gave up a much better prospect for a weaker return at last year’s deadline.

Perhaps a deal for a pitcher with a year and half of team control left at the deadline would be more palatable, even if they weren’t quite as dominant and required adding more prospects going the other way. That pitcher could at least eventually allow the Cardinals to recoup a compensation pick. Looking at pitchers that are free agents in two years shows a strong top of the class, but many play on teams that have no plans on trading them. There is Garrett Richards of the Angels and Drew Smyly of the Mariners (who I now see is hitting the D.L. with an elbow injury) , but that’s probably not you’re idea of a big move.

When previewing the Cards as buyers, I named nine prospects that other teams could see value in acquiring. Those nine were all either named on a Top 100 list, or were ranked similarly overall to a prospect that had. Kelly was probably one of the least likely to be traded. Now, he’s probably one of the most likely. It’s not bound to happen though. It’ll be interesting to see how things play out.