When the Cardinals called up mega-prospect Oscar Taveras in 2014, it was seemingly in order to allow him to take playing time from struggling veteran Allen Craig. Taveras started 9 of the first 11 games after being called up. But he went 7 for his first 33, leading Mike Matheny to semi-bench him (despite Craig hitting miserably). At the time, Matheny explained his decision by saying that the Cardinals are “not in the development business” at the MLB level. He thought Taveras had things left to work on, and wanted to put his best team on the field rather than letting Taveras work on them against MLB competition.
Fair enough, if you grant Matheny his assumptions – though, as former VEB managing editor Ben Humphrey wrote at the time, those assumptions should not necessarily be granted. And that was, presumably, the same kind of logic that led Matheny to bury Kolten Wong for a stretch of 2014, ultimately leading the front office to demote Wong to Memphis so he could at least play every day. Now this year, we’ve seen it again, with Tommy Pham, Stephen Piscotty, and Randal Grichuk each sent to Memphis at various points in favor of Jose Martinez, so they could at least play regularly instead of riding the bench through slumps. Fine: if that’s how the organization (whether you think it’s Matheny or the front office or both) wants to handle young players struggling, that’s how they’ll do it. The principle appears to be that they don’t want young players whose futures they value to simply ride the pine in the majors.
Carson Kelly has ranked around the middle of recent top 100 prospect lists (#51 on BA’s midseason update, #52 on FanGraphs, etc.). Today marks Kelly’s one-month mark since he was called up. In that time, he has started five games, batted 29 times, and caught 57 innings. There’s no reason to expect him to play more going forward, because Yadier Molina (who leads the league in innings caught) has been pretty good this year. Moreover, Kelly hasn’t hit a bit and doesn’t project to – his wRC+ is just 5 entering today, and while that’s an insignificant sample size, he projects in the 65-75 range. That’s replacement level even for a very good defensive catcher.
Why in the world, based on how the Cardinals have handled struggling young guys without paths to playing time in the past, is Carson Kelly on the team?
I’ll tell you right now I have no idea, only guesses. Here they are, ranked from least (in my opinion) to most likely to be the case:
1. The Cardinals care a lot about the quality of their backup catchers and Kelly’s the best they think they have
The latter part of that may be true, but the former part is not. This is a team that opened 2016 and 2017 with Eric Fryer as the backup (they tried to open 2016 with Brayan Pena, but he was also not any good, nor does their small $5M investment in him indicate they thought he was very good), 2014 and 2015 with Tony Cruz, and so on. This is a team that has literally never made a move indicating they cared more than a tiny bit about the quality of Yadier Molina’s backup – and they just extended Molina for three years. Next argument.
2. The Cardinals think it’s good for his development
This is immediately suspect. The logic goes, I’d guess, that it’s good for Kelly’s education as a ballplayer and catcher to be around a big-league staff and Yadier Molina every day. That may be true, in a vacuum, but choosing it over keeping Kelly in AAA means you must think that watching other people play and prepare is not only good for him, but better for him than being in Memphis playing himself. Evidently, this logic did not apply to Wong staying in the majors in 2014 to observe veteran infielders like Matt Carpenter, Mark Ellis, and Jhonny Peralta. Nor did it apply to the Cardinals outfielders who have toiled in the minors due to slumps and lack of playing time this year and last.
The statement “we’re not in the development business” only makes sense if you presume that bad performance plus lack of playing time is a problem that is not outweighed by sitting very close to the field and hoping for development by osmosis. It is a problem that is better addressed by sending a buried player somewhere he’ll play, every night, and work to hone his craft (at least, in Kelly’s case, until what could be an annual September call-up). That is apparently a principle the team believes in, and in addition to finding it sensible, I will take them at Matheny’s word.
3. The Cardinals don’t care about wasting Kelly’s service time
The value of a prospect to his team is the 6+ years of cost-controlled service time they can receive from him before he is eligible for free agency. Every day a pre-free-agency player spends on the MLB roster erodes that value, so one would expect a team not to roster a valued prospect unless his expected on-field production is greater than the value of his lost service time. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Kelly, who hardly plays.
(By the way: this is coldhearted, maybe, but even if you think Kelly’s MLB-ready, the Cardinals are not “wasting” anything by keeping him in the minors. He can be optioned to Memphis during any parts of three years before being exposed to waivers. Kelly began 2017 on the 40-man roster, so an option was burned as of opening day. If kept continually in Memphis, Kelly would not be out of options until 2020. That’s not an especially nice thing to do to a MLB-ready player – if you assume Kelly’s ready, which I’m not sure we should – but it’s factually true. Kelly loses essentially no value to the team while stashed in Memphis, for now.)
Sometimes analytically-minded fans on the outside looking in assume that teams should view everything through the coldest possible value-maximizing lens. And through that lens, it certainly looks wasteful to have the service time of the roughly #50 prospect in baseball ticking away with him on the bench.
Maybe the Cardinals just aren’t as cold about this as I am. But... one disconcerting reason that Cardinals might not be concerned about Kelly accruing service time while not accruing on-field value is that they might not think Kelly’s future value is really that high. They’re not acting like they care about conserving his future value, anyway, and maybe we should pay attention to that.
To be clear, I think possibilities #1 and #2 are unlikely because they are so inconsistent with the team’s prior actions. I think #3 is, by default, more likely than those because I simply don’t know management’s mind. As much as we don’t want to think this one is true, we shouldn’t discard it.
4. The team messed up their roster and Kelly’s now the only option
As of today, the only catchers the Cardinals have on their 40-man roster are Molina and Kelly. They rolled into spring with Eric Fryer as the only reasonable non-Kelly backup option. When Kelly was called up (apparently to make one spot start?) Fryer was DFA’d and elected free agency. The Cardinals had a free spot on the 40-man they could have filled with a guy like Alberto Rosario, but they left it open until Josh Lucas was added yesterday. So now – pending some sad news about Adam Wainwright, maybe – they’re stuck with Kelly on the 25-man unless they want to waive somebody.
It would be very disappointing if simple carelessness about the backup catcher position and the 40-man roster is the reason Carson Kelly, one of the top couple catching prospects in the game, is chewing sunflower seeds and not playing much baseball as summer turns to fall. But this looks like the simplest available explanation to me. I’m at a loss to think of a better one.