Carson Kelly spent six years pursuing his college degree in economics at the same time he was climbing through the Cardinals’ system, and sometimes encountered questions on exams or for papers that he had a hard time answering.
None of those questions, however, likely were as hard for Kelly to answer as the one he is facing this winter: Does he have a future with the Cardinals?
The hardest part of the question is that Kelly is really not the one who will have to provide the answer.
Considered one of the Cardinals’ best prospects the last several years as well as one of the top catching prospects in baseball, Kelly – at age 24 – is facing a crossroads this winter in his baseball future. With Yadier Molina coming off his best season in years, showing no signs of slowing down at age 36 and with two years left on his contract, the Cardinals will have to decide if they want Kelly to be Molina’s backup or look to move him to a team where he would have more of an opportunity to play.
That is likely one of the discussions the team’s front office staff already has had internally, and could be one John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch have with other teams as the general manager’s meetings get underway this week in California.
Mozeliak has said, and Kelly agrees, that there really is nothing more he can prove by returning to Triple A next season.
“They said I have proven everything I need to prove in Triple A and I would agree with that,” said Kelly, who is spending this off-season in St. Louis.
The dilemma for Kelly is that as much as he likes the Cardinals and feels indebted to the organization for drafting and developing him, how can he really improve if Molina is going to play almost every day for two more years?
“With my big league career so far I don’t think I’ve had a chance to go out and prove and show what I am capable of,” Kelly said. “It’s definitely a difficult situation.”
Kelly has started a combined total of 25 games the last two seasons for the Cardinals, but only once has he started more than two consecutive games, starting the final six games in 2017 when Molina was dealing with a concussion.
“At times you start to question a little bit when you are going up and down; what can I do to stick and show them I am ready to be at this level?” Kelly said. “I don’t think I’ve really gotten an opportunity to show who I am as a player, as a person and as a teammate. When you get an opportunity (to play) you feel pressed; ‘all right, this is my chance to show what I can do,’ and you try too much and it ultimately hurts you and the team. It’s almost like a setback.”
Not surprisingly, Kelly has struggled offensively in his limited chances with the Cardinals. He has a combined 16 hits in 104 at-bats in the majors the last two seasons, far below his career .278 average in Triple A, which includes 17 homers and 96 RBIs in 183 games.
“I didn’t play very much and it was definitely tough,” he said. “When I would go home and see I was in the lineup the next day I would be really excited and barely get any sleep. Then I would play and if I didn’t perform to what I thought was an exceptional level then the chances of me getting out there the next day were slim. It’s tough; it’s a tough thing to go through.”
Kelly does believe he is better now, however, for having gone through that experience the last couple of years and would be better prepared to be Molina’s backup next season, if that is what happens. At the moment he and Molina are the only catchers on the Cardinals’ 40-man roster after Francisco Pena refused an assignment to the minors and became a free agent last week.
“I think I’ve persevered through a lot of things,” Kelly said. “It would have been easy for me to crumble and just go through the motions but I got to work and had some very positive things happen for me this year. I think that’s made me a better player, made me persevere through some anxiety and things of that nature and it was just another step.
“Every year you are going to encounter different successes and struggles and I think this year was a big year for me mentally. I’m grinding to be a better player every single day.
“I’m in a good place mentally. I feel strong and I’m working out and trying to take my training and diet to another level because I want to be completely prepared for whatever is thrown at me.”
Kelly just has no idea what that will be.
If the plan is for him to be Molina’s backup in 2019, and play sparingly, he is prepared to do that. If the plan includes a move to another organization this winter, which might offer more playing time, he is prepared for that as well. Kelly saw what happened with Luke Voit when the Cardinals traded him to the Yankees.
“I was with Luke when that happened and it was exciting,” Kelly said. “He’s from St. Louis and he was bummed he was leaving, but at the same time he was excited because he knew he was going to get an opportunity, and he made the most of it.
“I’ve been part of this organization since I was drafted out of high school (in 2012) and it’s very special to me. … If my role is going to be the backup to Yadi, I’m ready for that opportunity. The previous couple of years I’ve had the experience of only getting to play once every couple of weeks, and that experience can help me to formulate a plan if my role is to be a backup.”
It will be up to Mozeliak, Girsch and others in the Cardinals’ hierarchy to decide if Kelly will be more valuable to the team in 2019 as Molina’s backup or as a trade chip in discussions with another organization. One team which might be a good fit is the Astros, who only have one catcher on their 40-man roster, Max Stassi, and no high catching prospects in the organization.
The Astros also have enough offensive weapons in their lineup that adding a defense-first catcher such as Kelly could make sense.
Other teams which would seem likely to be looking for catching help this winter include the Angels, Athletics, Diamondbacks, Phillies and Rockies.
Kelly admits playing quality defense is his first priority, but he also thinks he can contribute offensively at the major-league level if he has a chance to play on a consistent basis.
“Defense is always going to be number one,” Kelly said. “Playing defense is my strong suit, and what I take pride in, and is always what’s going to come first; taking care of the staff and being a general on the field. On offense, there is such high expectations but when you only play a couple of times here and there, it’s hard to stay hot the entire year. I’m the type of player that when a team is playing well and in a groove, that’s when I feel I do my best and just stay in the flow of things.”
While Kelly doesn’t know what will happen as far as his baseball future goes this winter, he does know he will be on the move in the coming weeks. First is a trip to Las Vegas for Voit’s bachelor party, then he will be off to Hawaii for Thanksgiving, back home to Portland for Christmas, and then off on a vacation to start the new year in Portugal.
By the time Kelly returns, a decision about his baseball future might have been reached – or maybe not. That’s the kind of limbo status where he finds himself right now.
“Obviously there are a lot of unknowns,” Kelly said. “There are things we can plan for, but then things all of a sudden can change. … You have to focus on what you can control, and all of the other stuff will take care of itself. I’m a big believer in that.
“I worry about the things I can do and I can control, and I’m content with where I am at the end of the day. That’s how I’ve lived the last couple of years … I can’t predict the future. I can only prepare for the present.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains