Before the 2017 season, the Cardinals signed Eric Fryer to a minor-league deal with the expectation he would serve as Yadier Molina’s backup while Carson Kelly got more seasoning in the minors. Nobody thought Fryer was the better player, but the opportunity for Kelly to hone his skill regularly was available in Memphis—it wasn’t in St. Louis. And that was the priority, until Fryer consistently produced very little in his rare opportunities, and the Cardinals called up Kelly for the stretch run of their failed pursuit of a wild card.
The calendar may have changed, but the Cardinals’ view of Kelly’s path doesn’t seem to have evolved from where it stood last winter, as Kelly was among the players cut from the major league roster after Sunday’s 10-0 win over the Nationals. The team announced it also sent Jack Flaherty, Oscar Mercado, Ryan Sherriff and Breyvic Valera to Memphis Sunday.
The other notable demotion on that list, Flaherty's, isn’t exactly surprising since the Cardinals have not yet lost anyone from their projected starting rotation to injury this spring; he's likely as the first man up if and when the club needs rotation help this year. But Kelly’s demotion stands out after his road seemed to be winding toward a roster spot to start the year after he finished 2017 with the big club.
Though Kelly has struggled in spring—he’s just 3 for 30 (.100) at the plate and needs more fine-tuning defensively at a position he only began playing in 2014—this demotion does more to comment on Mike Matheny’s plans for Molina in 2018 than it does Kelly’s spring performance.
Molina has consistently professed his desire to play every day, to lead the league in innings caught—as he’s done in the NL since 2015—and the manager has shown no desire to get in the way of that. Rather than give Kelly some MLB experience, starting him once or twice a week to spell the aging franchise catcher, the Cardinals prefer he continue his progress on a daily basis in the minors. As for the idea that Molina and Kelly could coexist in the Cardinals lineup, neither player is a good enough hitter to make sense at any non-catcher position.
So Kelly’s emergence in St. Louis—which no longer feels like as much of a certainty as it once did, considering the Cardinals willingness to placate Molina’s ‘no rest for the wicked’ mentality—is pushed further down the road. With how he’s performed this spring and in his MLB opportunities to date (.171/.236/.220 in 89 career big-league plate appearances), it’s clear Kelly still has more work to do before he’s ready to be handed the reins as a franchise catcher. And the Cardinals want him to play, because they believe that’s what is best for developing his future.
Still, looking at the three years remaining on Molina’s contract, it’s worth wondering: if the situation were to arise over the next couple years for the Cardinals to improve the franchise by parting with Kelly in a trade, would they be as hesitant to go that route as they once were? It’s still too early to consider Andrew Knizner a surefire prospect at catcher, but he does represent some younger catching depth in the organization whose career trajectory might better align with Molina’s retirement. And short of an injury to the eight-time All-Star, Molina's retirement appears to be the only way another human will see regular time behind the plate in St. Louis.
Drawing definitive conclusions off this one transaction wouldn’t be wise, but considering all circumstances surrounding the catcher position in St. Louis over the last year, it no longer feels like a given that Kelly ends up as Molina’s successor when the time comes.