Editor's Note: Red Baron has compiled this year's top prospects in three parts, which can be found by clicking on Part I, Part II, and Part III. The post below is a portion of those massive posts, focusing in on a single prospect at a time, which should make a search of any one prospect easier to find. All of our 2016 prospect coverage and write-ups can be found at the Viva El Birdos 2016 Prospects hub.
#15: Carson Kelly, C
Opening Day 2016 Age: 21
2015 Level: High A Palm Beach
Relevant Numbers: .113 ISO, .239 BABIP, 80 wRC+, 15.3% K rate
So, what's so great about this guy?
I'm sure a lot of you by now know the story of Carson Kelly: the high-ceiling third base prospect from a Portland-area high school the Cardinals paid well over slot in 2012 then moved to catcher when it became apparent his physical tools lent themselves well to work behind the plate, and perhaps his lackluster offensive performances did as well.
It's been slow going for Kelly in trying to develop as a hitter. Somewhat miraculously, he's taken to the catching position, so often considered the most difficult in the game, far faster than he has the offensive side of the game. His defensive abilities, in fact, are the vast majority of the reason he still appears on this list at all, much less within the top fifteen.
Kelly has come along quickly as a backstop, and his blocking, framing, and catch and throw skills are all well above-average at this point. Calling games and handling pitchers he's still working on developing, but he receives rave reviews from pitchers and coaches alike for his baseball IQ. Being that's the sort of thing that's exceedingly tough to spot even watching carefully, I'll defer to player testimonials just this once.
On the offensive side, Kelly is a pretty exciting catcher. He's always made lots of contact, and even this year, when he posted the worst strikeout rate of his career, he still didn't whiff at a concerning pace. What is concerning, however, is the quality of contact, which has never been all that good for Kelly in pro ball. He's never cracked a .120 ISO at any full-season stop, and has pretty consistently put up below-average BABIPs, as well. He's not fleet of foot, but even so, the consistently poor results when he puts the ball in play is indicative more of weak contact than it is misfortune befalling him. There is still plus power potential there, as he's capable of putting on batting practice shows from time to time, but in game action he simply fails to control the strike zone or get the barrel of the bat to the ball. He did finish the 2015 season on a bit of a tear, but it will take more than a few weeks of hot hitting to turn around the evidence presented up 'til now.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign for Kelly offensively was a sizable reduction in his ground ball rate; it's something to keep an eye on going forward, for sure.
The offensive bar to jump over for catchers is a low one, and it's possible Kelly could still clear it as he matures and moves up the ladder. He's been such a quick study as a backstop it seems hard to believe he's incapable of improving his hitting, but so far that's been the reality of the situation. Even if he never hits at even a league-average level, however, the glove may end up good enough to earn him a starting job, particularly if the organisation for which he plays happens to be one that values catcher defense highly. (ahem)
Player Comp: well, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, Kelly resembles a taller version of the man whose job he might one day hopefully take: Yadier Molina. We can only hope his bat develops late in the same way as Yadi's.