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Carson Kelly continues emergence as heir to Yadier Molina

St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Over the last 12 years, there has been one constant presence donning the Birds on the Bat. If Adam Wainwright is the first player to come to mind, you are not technically wrong as he made his Major League debut with the Cardinals in 2005, but given he has missed nearly two full seasons due to injury (and subsequent rehabilitation), “constant” is not exactly accurate. The presence I speak of is none other than the 34-year-old Yadier Molina, a fixture behind home plate for roughly 130 games per season.

Based on Molina’s 2016 numbers — he achieved a career high in games played (147), innings caught (1218.1), and plate appearances (581) — an outsider would not know it, but his career has definitely entered the “twilight” stage. Per Cot’s Contracts, Molina’s current guaranteed contract expires after next season with a $15 million mutual option ($2 million buyout) for the 2018 season. While I’d expect it to be Molina’s wish to retire a Cardinal, I wonder what the future actually holds between the two parties given his desire to play on a regular basis, his relative agelessness, and the emergence of Carson Kelly as a legitimate heir.

Regarding Kelly’s emergence, let’s first revisit how the Cardinals got here with the 22-year-old. Approaching the 2012 MLB Draft, Kelly was highly-touted out of Westview High School in Portland, Oregon. His hitting potential projected enough power for third base at the professional level, but if for whatever reason the bat didn’t fully develop, his strong arm was already reaching the lower 90’s on the mound. The allure of a “dual-threat” ability made Kelly a top target for many MLB teams.

Yet, Kelly’s strong commitment to the in-state University of Oregon affected his draft stock due to the uncertainty of whether or not he would forego college for professional baseball. Despite two (Stephen Piscotty, Patrick Wisdom) of their first five selections being listed as third basemen, the Cardinals simply could not pass on Kelly in the second round (86th overall) and eventually signed him away from the Ducks for $1.6 million.

Kelly’s story became intriguing in the years that followed. To open the 2013 season, the Cardinals, in hindsight, a bit overzealous to see what they had in Kelly, started the then-18-year-old with the full-season, Low-A Peoria Chiefs. Playing 3.3 years below the league’s average age proved too difficult of a challenge (.219/.288/.301 over 168 plate appearances) for Kelly, and he was demoted to the short-season State College Spikes once their year began. He bounced back in the New York-Penn League (.277/.340/.387 over 299 PAs), quickly reassuring the Cardinals front office of their $1.6 million investment in Kelly.

While his bat showed signs of life, his defense at his drafted position was not promising, as he committed 27 errors over 144 games as a minor-league third baseman. Unwilling to give up on the hitting potential, combined with the fact that pitching was the deepest part of the organization at the time, the Cardinals converted Kelly to catcher, instead of pitcher, to open the 2014 season. At catcher, if his bat lagged behind a bit (just as Molina’s did at the beginning of his career), he could still provide value to the team through his defense, throwing ability, and eventually, game-calling.

Now, converting to catcher is no simple task, but given Kelly’s age — he was 19 at the time — and tireless work ethic, the Cardinals considered it a worthwhile risk. And in just his second year at the position, while playing for the High-A Palm Beach Cardinals, Kelly was awarded the Rawlings Minor League Gold Glove for his defensive prowess behind the plate. Now, as he comes to the end of a successful stint in the Arizona Fall League (2016 statistics embedded below), he is simply considered a catcher, no longer a “converted catcher,” a term often used to give reason behind a given player’s shortcomings.

Not only is Kelly now considered a catcher, but he has successfully emerged as the heir to Yadier Molina. Enormous shoes to fill, to be sure, but Kelly has come quite a distance professionally, and when you look at all he has already accomplished, the fact that he is still only 22 years of age provides promise that he is ready to take on the monumental task. Given the contract of Brayan Pena, Kelly may start 2017 with Triple-A Memphis, but I would not be in the least bit surprised to see an MLB promotion midway through the season. The way I see it, learning directly from Molina, on a daily basis, is the next step in Kelly’s development, and here’s to hoping the front office of the Cardinals agrees with me.

2016 Hitting Statistics