GENEVA, Ill. - Carson Kelly recognized the opportunity for what it was and seized it without hesitation.
The former second round pick of the Redbirds in 2012 accepted the organization’s challenge to move from third base to catcher during the last offseason, embracing the move without hesitation.
So convinced were the Cardinals that the then-19-year-old’s future in baseball lay behind the plate that Cards’ skipper Mike Matheny invited Kelly to come to St. Louis in early January for a three-day assessment and workout strategy with him and bullpen catcher Jamie Pogue. The development and investment in the likeable young man continued when he was invited to the Cardinals’ Spring Training camp to work with Yadier Molina and get a taste of big league life.
The experience energized Kelly whose improvement has impressed Peoria Chiefs’ Manager Joe Kruzel.
“He’s really done a tremendous job this year,” Kruzel said. “He’s throwing out runners, blocks the ball well and he’s getting better at calling games although there’s still some room for growth there.”
“I think the year has gone really well,” said Kelly, who said he is looking forward to instructional and fall league play to continue his development.
“I’ve had my ups and downs but I think I’ve made a lot of improvement both physically and mentally. Every day is a grind back there – your body really takes a beating.”
Matheny in an earlier interview cited Kelly’s leadership qualities and the way other players responded to that as one reason the organization felt Kelly would be suited to that position. The Cards have a history of converting promising players to catcher, including current Cards’ back-up catcher Tony Cruz.
“I like to focus on the strengths of the pitcher (in calling a game),” Kelly said. “That gives the pitcher confidence. Then I try to exploit the hitters’ weaknesses later in the count.”
Cardinal catching coordinator Dann Bilardello said that if the manager and his entire coaching staff were ejected before a game started, they would hand the lineup card to the catcher because he is the one who runs the game. Kelly has learned that through his first 140-game season with the Chiefs.
“You have to know the situation, the pitcher, what play might be on, whether you want a pick-off and you have to call the (pitches) and try to stay on the same page as the pitcher,” he said. “I’m getting in the groove with that.”
Kelly’s batting line - .248, seven doubles, four triples and six home runs – is consistent with his previous minor league average, showing that his offense did not suffer with the additional workload.
Chiefs’ pitching coach Jason Simontacchi also noted the improvement in the young Cardinal prospect. “You know, he just turned 20 years old. Sometimes we forget that. He could stay in the minors for four more years and he would still be considered young.”
In the off-season, Kelly, 6-2 and 200 pounds, said he plans to work on his physical development as well. “I lost some weight as the year went on,” he said. “I think I need to get stronger and put on some weight.”
Whether he is promoted to Palm Beach or returns to Peoria, Kelly said he is in this for the long haul.
“I’m going to work hard. I’m totally focused.”