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The transition from Molina to Kelly

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Yadier Molina is a beloved sports figure in St. Louis. Impressively, that might even be an understatement. His contributions to the team over the past 14 years are astounding. Aside from his leadership and his intangible ability to lead the pitching staff, he has been an all-star eight times and has received MVP votes in five different seasons. From 2008 to 2015, he won eight straight gold glove awards. He is the face of the franchise.

In mid-January we learned that he plans to finish out his current contract, which goes through the 2020 season, and then hang up the cleats. That leaves Molina with three full years to stay behind the plate. More notably, that leaves Carson Kelly with three more years as a backup.

Kelly has been on top prospect lists for some time now. Most recently, he was ranked as the second best prospect on KATOH’s 2018 Top 100 List. He is projected for 12.1 WAR over his first six full seasons. That is just over 2 WAR per season. To give that number some context, let’s look at Molina’s WAR up through 2017.

Molina made his debut in 2004, but his first full season wasn’t until the following year. In his first six full seasons, he accumulated 10.3 WAR. So, Kelly is projected for 1.8 more WAR than Molina over his first six years. While Molina’s number is deflated due to a -0.3 WAR value in 2006, the fact that Kelly is projected for more WAR over his first six years is still pretty significant.

As a counterpoint, these projections are just that—projections. Kelly is not guaranteed to provide the kind of value for which he is projected. Still, he is a top prospect for a reason—he is talented. It begs the question, does he really need to ride the bench for three years? Or more controversially, should he ride the bench behind Molina through 2020?

Molina is still producing at a level above 2.0 WAR per season. In fact, over the last three years, he is averaging exactly 2.0 WAR per season. However, it does not take an expert to look at an aging curve that projects Molina to regress from that number over the next three years. It is time to consider that Kelly may very well provide more value than Molina from 2018 to 2020.

There is an obvious counterargument to this point: Molina’s value is not accurately measured in wins above replacement. If we consider intangibles—experience, leadership, reputation—Molina outranks Kelly and it isn’t close. Kelly should not be the starter in 2018. But what about 2019? That should be up for debate. And in 2020? If only going by talent level at the time, Kelly should certainly be given a fair shot at the starting job.

There are parallels between this situation and the Brady-Garoppolo situation in New England. First, there is an established superstar currently starting. Additionally, said superstar is still planing to play for a few more years. Furthermore, the backup has enough talent to start on many other teams. New England ended up trading Garoppolo, but there are differences, too. Garoppolo was approaching free agency, while Kelly is under team control for the considerable future. Also, Molina’s retirement is set in stone, while Brady’s is not.

The takeaway here is that Kelly does not need to be traded. While it may not be the most efficient allocation of resources, keeping Kelly, even if he must wait his turn behind Molina for a couple years, is the right way to handle the transition.