When Mike Matheny signed with the San Francisco Giants as a free agent after the 2004 season, his five year tenure in St. Louis came to an end. Among qualified players, FanGraphs rated Matheny as (inning-for-inning) the most valuable defensive catcher in franchise history.
That distinction would be short-lived.
Seizing the starting catcher job in 2005 was Matheny's protégé Yadier Molina, a role the then-22 understudy has held long enough to see his former mentor become manager. The man Molina supplanted in the starting lineup is now the one responsible for penciling him into it.
Only three active players who debuted in 2004 have remained with the same club: David Wright of the New York Mets, Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins, and Molina with the Cardinals. All three have long-since established themselves as the faces of their respective franchises. In the nearly 5,000 days since his first MLB game, Yadier Molina has been a constant the same way St. Louisans can always count on a midsummer night's dream...of one more Ted Drewes concrete.
Perhaps this was the most poignant aspect–at least for me–of Molina's Winter Warm-Up announcement that he plans to retire after his contract, which runs through 2020, expires. If Molina stays true to his word, I have at most three years before witnessing the first Cardinals catching transition of which I have any recollection. (I wasn't quite the baseball fan in 2005 that I am today.) I admit that I have never watched an Opening Day where #4 isn't the one crouching behind home plate to receive the first pitch.
But I digress. The point is that the Cardinals are approaching their first passing of the metaphorical torch in a considerable amount of time. Going on seven years as manager, Mike Matheny is set to enter uncharted waters in the near future.
Besides his seemingly random bullpen deployments, knee-jerk lineup configurations, and a starting pitcher hook that makes the speed of Allen Craig's pet tortoise enviable, one of the chief criticisms of Matheny's managerial career has been the handling of his now-35 catcher. Since Matheny's hiring, Molina has logged almost 500 more innings in the field than any other catcher.
There is ample reason to believe that a lack of rest has contributed to several disabled list stints and a more rapid decline for Molina. Though in Matheny's defense, the very best Tony Cruz ever gave the skipper was a 68 wRC+ and 0.1 fWAR in 2012. The Cardinals attempted to remedy their void at backup catcher by signing Brayan Pena in the 2015-16 offseason, but knee injuries limited Pena to 19 plate appearances of sub-replacement level production before he was eventually released. Because St. Louis waived Eric Fryer to clear a roster spot for Pena, they were left with [squints] Alberto Rosario to hold down the backup catcher fort. The plan to find Molina more days off backfired in the most extreme fashion possible. In 2016, Molina tallied career highs in both games played (147) and plate appearances (581).
Whether you agreed with Matheny's rationale or not, there is no denying that the excuse of uninspiring backups is one the Cardinals can no longer lean upon as a crutch. The Steamer projections expect Carson Kelly to post approximately 2.1 WAR per 600 plate appearances in 2018 while ZiPS is even more bullish at a 2.6 WAR/600 projection.
Barring an injury or surprise move between now and the end of Spring Training, the two catching spots on the 25-man roster are locks for Molina and Kelly. Of course, the prognosis isn't quite that simple. At the longer-term macro level, Carson Kelly is not your run-of-the-mill backup catcher. The industry-consensus is that Kelly, still only 23, is one of the best prospects at a position that generally doesn't grow top prospects on trees.
With just 89 big league plate appearances to his name, Kelly's development requires at the bare minimum semi-regular playing time. Needless to say, you can't bury him on the bench for a month and expect him to grow as a prospect. That said, this dichotomy shouldn't rack your brain. You have an aging catcher who, coming off his second worst season this decade, physically needs more rest to maximize his productivity over the final few years of his career. You also have a rising catcher whose prescription is more at-bats against MLB pitching.
As an organization, the Cardinals appear committed to beginning 2018 with Molina's heir apparent as his backup. So the question becomes: How will Matheny choose to allocate 162 starts between the two?
Other bench options including Jose Martinez, Luke Voit, Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader, and Greg Garcia all project for a higher wRC+ than Kelly, so pinch-hitting opportunities will likely be scarce for him. Besides, teams carrying the standard two catchers are reluctant to play with only of them game-eligible. The bottom line is that the vast majority of Kelly's playing time will come on days when he is inserted into the starting lineup.
As many of the changes from the 2017-2021 Collective Bargaining Agreement take effect this year, four additional off-days will be scattered throughout each team's regular season schedule. It remains to be seen exactly how managers will utilize these extra days to rest, but Matheny has historically preferred to sit his starting position players on "getaway days" as a way to give them back-to-back days without a game.
It is entirely possible that Matheny overcompensates for these newfound off-days and his "two for the price of one" resting scheme. Maybe he exacerbates the current situation by using his four days to justify playing Molina more frequently during extended periods without a breather.
The hope is that rather than continue the precedent of holding their nose twenty or so times a year, the Cardinals now have a legitimate imperative to play their backup catcher more often. Sitting Molina is no longer a decision predicated solely on getting him rest–grooming Carson Kelly will demand experience and time.
One of the key storylines to monitor over the next few years will be how the Cardinals manage the workload of their iconic catcher as he moves deeper into the twilight of his career. You have what would be beneficial to both Molina's deteriorating body and Kelly's progression, what would appease an adamant veteran, and caught in the middle of the fray a man tasked with arbitrating the first catching switch since he himself left town.
Getting Yadier Molina more rest has been a tagline employed by the Cardinals for years, yet to no avail. Considering the impending collision course of circumstances, 2018 could finally be the year St. Louis swaps their bark for bite.