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St. Louis Cardinals: Demoting Carson Kelly was the Right Move

When I began putting together information to write this piece, Carson Kelly was still in Major League camp, and I planned to make the case that he should be starting the season, and spending the majority of it, as the everyday catcher in Memphis.

Then the Cardinals went and optioned him before I had even settled on an opening line.

And so it goes in the blogosphere.

My original premise was inspired by some fine reporting by the Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold. In a clairvoyant display, he reported how non-roster invitees, Francisco Pena and Steve Baron had shown themselves as capable backup options. This, teamed with Kelly’s offensive struggles this spring and need for more developmental time, had turned this into more of competition than we first thought. That piece was published Sunday morning and before the sun had set, Kelly was on his way to minor league camp. If you haven’t read the piece, check it out when you finish up mine.

Luckily, the talking points I had for this article remain valid. Just, instead of insisting that Kelly be optioned, I can explain why it was the right move.

Starting with the New Backups

The first bit of intrigue that comes out of the move is tied to the 40-man roster. Someone will have to be DFA’s in order to place Pena or Baron on the roster. My first instinct was that Breyvic Valera‘s ride on the 40-man would be coming to an end. With Greg Garcia out of options (and likely locked in as the only LH bench bat), plus Yairo Munoz emerging as a utility man that can play the same positions but with more offensive upside (albeit RH), Valera is a bit of a redundancy. Nothing against the guy, but he probably hits waivers at some point. More than likely, he makes it through, much like Alex Mejia did in November.

However, they don’t have to make that decision quite yet. A little homework by Kyle Reis of Birds on the Black produced another, more likely scenario. At the start of the regular season, Alex Reyes can be placed back on the 60-day DL, retroactive to the start of spring training. This would effectively remove him from the 40-man, allowing them to add Pena or Baron, but still have him available to be activated by the “soft” return date of May 1st. By then, the situation with the roster may change, and perhaps the choice of who to DFA will be more obvious.

In due time.

And Now To Kelly

Carson Kelly is ready and waiting to join the St. Louis Cardinals

He Needs to Play

This is plain and simple, Kelly needs regular playing time. It was a curious move when the Cardinals promoted him in late July of 2017. I mean, it’s not that he hadn’t earned it by performing at Memphis, he had. It was just questionable because you had to wonder how often he would play. Surely, they had formulated a plan to give Molina more rest down the stretch and allow Kelly to play regularly?

Nah.

From his promotion on July 21st to September 6th, the Cardinals played 44 games. Kelly started 7 of those. That’s one out of every 6.28 games. Over a full season that would come out to 25 or 26 starts. That isn’t enough for a 23 year old that A) just started catching in 2015 and B) struggled to adjust to big league pitching in spotty at-bats.

As if the 25 start pace weren’t bad enough, Kelly then went 15 days without garnering a start from September 7th thru the 23rd. He finally got one on the 24th. The next night, Molina suffered a concussion which ended his season, allowing (forcing?) Kelly to start the remaining 6 games. Had Molina not been out, there’s a good chance Kelly would have only started 8 (maybe 9) times in the 66 games he spent with the team.

There was no reason to believe that 2018 would have looked much different.

Here’s the thing, like it or not, Yadi is an iron man behind the plate. I personally believe we would see a better Yadi overall if he played only 120 games, compared to 140. However, you just can’t pry the man off of the field.

Consider the number of starts by his backups since 2005:

2005: Einar Diaz – 30, Mike Mahoney – 21, TOTAL – 51 (Molina spent 35 games on DL)
2006: Gary Bennett – 43, TOTAL – 43
2007: Bennett – 41, Kelly Stinnett – 20, TOTAL – 61 (Molina spent 26 games on DL)
2008: Jason LaRue – 44, Mark Johnson – 4, TOTAL – 48 (Molina spent 12 games on DL)
2009: LaRue – 26, TOTAL – 26
2010: LaRue – 14, Matt Pagnozzi – 12, Bryan Anderson – 6, TOTAL – 32
2011: Gerald Laird – 22, Tony Cruz – 8, TOTAL – 30
2012: Cruz – 28, Bryan Anderson – 1, TOTAL – 29
2013: Cruz – 27, Rob Johnson – 6, TOTAL – 33
2014: Cruz – 35, A.J. Pierzynski – 20, George Kottaras – 1, TOTAL 56 (Molina spent 41 games on DL)
2015: Cruz – 30, Ed Easley – 1, TOTAL 31
2016: Eric Fryer – 8, Alberto Rosario – 8, Carson Kelly – 2, TOTAL – 18
2017: Fryer – 15, Kelly – 14, TOTAL – 29 (Molina missed 6 games in concussion protocol)

 

See the trend? The backups are limited to right around 30 starts, unless Molina gets hurt. Even less when he’s been healthy the past 2 years. (Note: Should Molina hit the DL, Kelly would be recalled to be the starter in his stead.)

Kelly would have needed AT LEAST 40 starts this year to even justify carrying him. And they would have had to be on a routine, with him serving as a de facto personal catcher for Luke Weaver or Miles Mikolas (or alternating between the two), allowing him to start at least 1 out of every 5 games.

But that still wouldn’t have been enough. As highly rated as Kelly is, the fact remains that he is not quite a finished product. Letting him rot on the big league bench wouldn’t benefit him. That’s the same reason the team will likely rotate its final bench spot between Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, Yairo Munoz, Luke Voit and others this year, because allowing any of them to gather dust all season would be detrimental.

Consider Tony Cruz

Cruz was never the highly rated prospect that Kelly has become — because of his defensive skills — but that isn’t the point. Much like Kelly, Cruz was moved from 3B to C a couple years into his minor league career. Cruz was a solid hitter in his minor league career, with a combined slash line of .267/.326/.414 with 182 XBH across 545 games. For comparison, Kelly has a line of .253/.315/.377 with 148 XBH across 539 games, to date. Granted, Cruz started his career at age 20, and Kelly did at 18, but strictly by the numbers Cruz had the superior offensive profile in the minors.

And what happened when he reached the majors and no longer got regular at-bats?

Across 5 seasons and 633 plate appearances, he produced a slash line of .220/.262/.310.

In the 4 seasons that he served as the primary backup, he averaged 140 plate appearances per year.

With the sporadic play, his bat — once at least a respectable tool — became a non-factor.

We didn’t really care, or notice, that this happened to Cruz because we never envisioned him as anything more than a backup.

But why would you allow that to happen to a prized catching prospect and heir presumptive to Molina?

You don’t.

That’s why demoting him was the right move.

Thanks for reading!

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Rusty Groppel
I'm a diehard Cardinals fan that feels privileged to write about his favorite team in this corner of cyberspace. I'm also the bass player for the best damn band in the 618, Tanglefoot. Check us out some time.
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