Carson Kelly is the Cardinals’ first bonafide catching prospect since Bryan Anderson. Anderson was a bat-only catcher - Kevin Goldstein of Baseball America called him the anti-Yadier Molina. Kelly is a better prospect than Anderson though. Anderson made the top 100 of both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus once - and fell out after his bat disappointed to the tune of a 92 wRC+ in his age-21 season. Yadier Molina, believe or not, was never as highly a regarded a prospect as Kelly. As near as I can tell, Molina was the 10th ranked prospect by Baseball America in the Cardinals system in 2003 and the #3 prospect - behind Blake Hawksworth and Chris Narveson - in 2004.
All of which is to say: this is uncharted territory for the Cardinals. Kelly has been learning defense since becoming a full-time catcher in 2014 at the age of 19. In a strange twist of events, the former 3B prospect became a top prospect not for his bat, but for his defense. His defense puts him on the map, but his bat is a little underappreciated. He’s been young for his level basically his entire professional career and while he hasn’t put up any flashy numbers, he’s been consistently around average. If the reports of his defense are true - and we haven’t seen enough of him at catcher to judge his defense with our own eyes in my opinion - that’s all he needs to be.
So why is everyone so eager to trade him? I use the term “everyone” loosely, but it certainly seems like a not insignificant part of the fanbase wants to trade him. It’s not just “let’s trade him for Machado or Donaldson” which I understand, it’s this sense that we absolutely need to trade him. That right now is the absolute peak of his value and if we don’t trade him now, he will be worthless. Part of that is that he’s blocked by Yadier Molina, but part of that is also a non-belief in Kelly himself. In the words a famous comedian, Kelly don’t get no respect.
Kelly began his life as a prospect when he was drafted 86th overall in the 2012 draft as a 17-year-old third baseman. Despite the fact that he would turn 18 a month later, they aggressively sent him to Johnson City instead of the Gulf Coast League. His numbers there look pretty bad - he showed some pop with a .174 ISO, but had an wRC+ of 81 thanks in part to a .226 BABIP. A low BABIP in the minors doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting unlucky.
But Kelly began his professional career 2-31 with one double and one walk. After that? He had a 101 wRC+ the rest of the year. Due to that, he was promoted to State College (A-), where he hit well enough (123 wRC+) to get a promotion to Peoria. He struggled in Peoria in 43 games and after that the Cardinals decided to move him to catcher. He was exactly a league average hitter in Peoria for his first full season as a catcher, but the more encouraging part was that he improved in just about every way as a hitter from the previous season. More walks, less strikeouts, more power, better BABIP.
This warranted a promotion to Palm Beach, otherwise known as the place where hitting prospects go to die. For his age-20 season, he struggled mightily and a large factor was his BABIP. It was .239. With the exception of a .301 BABIP in State College, he to this point had low BABIPs at every stop. It was starting to look like he just didn’t have good contact skills, despite not striking out much. Then Springfield came to the rescue. He actually had the same power and walked at the same rate, but struck out more at Springfield. Bad right? Well he also had a .100 point jump in BABIP, resulting in a 115 wRC+.
He got promoted midseason to Memphis in 2016, and in 32 games, he vastly increased his walk rate and K rate from Springfield. He also had less power, and that’s why his wRC+ decreased to 98. Meanwhile, reports of his defense kept impressing scouts. Last year, he kept his K rate and walked an elite rate of 11.8% while more than doubling his power, resulting in his best hitting season since he in was in Low A (120 wRC+). He got promoted to the MLB and he had 75 uninspiring PAs. In 21 games in AAA this year, it looks like he has maintained his hitting profile from the previous year, walking and striking out a similar rate. He has a lower ISO and BABIP, but 21 games so nothing too alarming.
The narrative that he is and will get blocked by Molina is overblown. Last year did not help. Up to this point in his career, he’s played 121 career games in AAA and is 23. It’s not the worst thing for him work more on his offense in AAA. He seems to be improving as an offensive player, as he’s finally added power to his solid K/BB skills. Now while Molina is hurt, it obviously makes sense to try those skills at the MLB level. Unfortunately, he had to get injured at the worst possible time.
Molina played at an insane pace prior to getting injured, but that will likely not continue for the rest of the year. I have to imagine for the first month he’s back at the very least, they’re going to scale back his innings to ease him back in. That would give Kelly a decent amount of major league innings until at least the All-Star break. It seems unlikely age-36 and age-37 Molina can play as much as he’s used to either. With potential injuries Molina might get, I’m not too concerned about Kelly’s playing time in the future.
It is of course worth pointing out that he has Andrew Knizner on his tails, a more exciting prospect because offense. Knizner’s timetable is also much more convenient. He just recently made it to AAA, having proven he can kill AA pitchers, which sets him up to be Molina’s backup in 2019 or 2020, a time when the backup will actually play. I would be remiss not to mention the irony that if given the choice, Matheny probably goes with the offensive option at catcher.
But the choice doesn’t have to be between Kelly and Knizner. Why not both? Is it really a better use of resources to have one of them bat 400-450 times and give the remaining plate appearances to a career backup who is probably replacement level than to give both catchers a near equal amount of PAs. Admittedly this theory presumes both are equal, but even if one of them surpasses the other, there’s a good chance both Kelly and Knizner would be better than average backup MLB catchers (the standard does not appear to be very high.) I don’t think most Cardinals fans realize how much a normal starting catcher sits given the fan reaction whenever Kelly sat while he was briefly healthy.
Plus, we don’t really know how good Kelly could be offensively. It took Molina a loooooong time to be anything with the bat. In Molina’s age-23 season - and for the purposes of comparing the two, they have birthdays conveniently in the same month - he had a 71 wRC+, but that fell to 54 the next season. Kelly doesn’t have Molina’s defense, but I don’t think he’ll be worse than that offensively. His projection is 77 already (and was 81 at the beginning of the season and I can’t believe 19 PAs MLB PAs changed it that much). Kelly has a history of starting each level he’s at slow and then gradually improving the more reps he gets.
I understand the temptation to want to trade Kelly. And if the right piece comes along, I’m not opposed. Kelly has looked so bad at the MLB level that it is probably expected that people think he’s expendable and the shiny backup QB that we’ve never seen sure looks like a better option at the moment. But he has 108 career plate appearances and the majority of those plate appearances came with less than ideal playing time. Of his 75 PAs last year, 11 came as a pinch-hitter, where he produced a -9 wRC+.
So I implore everyone to be a little patient. Whether or not he looks like a great catching prospect while he’s up here - and the amount of time he’s been playing in the majors is like 30 games worth of starts - he is one. I’d like to think people aren’t letting those MLB games impact their opinion of Kelly, but well that’s human nature. So that’s my case for not trading Carson Kelly. I am, to be clear, not saying to not trade him no matter what. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m just making the case that, hey, it will be alright if we never trade Kelly, because he’s a great catching prospect. Let’s enjoy having one while he’s here.