By Tyler Brandt, from Cardsblog.com
This is the first piece in a series in which we look at the state of the Cardinals organization at each position. We will be giving an analysis of the current roster, the short-term expectation, and the long-term expectation. We begin our positional outlook series with the catcher position.
Yadier Molina is still the guy, but don't count out Carson Kelly as a key contributor this season.
At 35 years of age, Yadier Molina is still going strong. He played in 136 games last season, a mark that he has missed only once since 2009. You've all heard the concerns about his declining performance, but other teams are doing a lot worse. He may no longer be an MVP candidate, which he absolutely was in 2012 and 13, but there are still few players that any team would rather have working with its pitching staff than Molina.
Last season, Molina helped a pitcher who never struck out more than 22 percent of batters in AA or AAA to a K rate above 25 percent (Carlos Martinez). He guided a second-year pitcher with only one plus pitch to a 28.6 percent K rate (Luke Weaver). And he helped reestablish Michael Wacha as a Major League pitcher after the hurler's dreadful 2016 campaign.
Look around the division and you won't see catchers with that resume. Willson Contreras has a better bat, and Tucker Barnhart won a Gold Glove. But neither of them can work with pitchers the way that Molina has throughout his whole career. I am aware that the chances of Molina turning in an average season at the plate are low.
His defensive metrics alone will probably be good, but not great. But you won't find Molina's ability to work with a pitching staff by looking at WAR. You just have to look at the numbers of the pitchers and know that his impact is there.
As for the eventual heir to Molina, the Cardinals think they already have him. You'll hear Carson Kelly's name on every top prospect lists this season. Kelly draws rave reviews for his work behind the plate, especially for a guy who made the transition late in his career. Look for Kelly to play more often than most backup catchers this year.
That may involve moving Molina to first base on some days, but Kelly might be worth it. Kelly's bat slowly improved in the minors, reaching career highs in homers, slugging, and on-base in AAA last year. His major league sample isn't great, but as you'll hear in a moment, you can probably disregard that.
This season's outlook: Good
Two Years in the Future
Carson Kelly will take over the permanent catcher position by this time, and the Cardinals will be pleased.
Over the past few years, the price of acquiring catchers has quietly crept upwards. Sure, Jonathan Lucroy is unsigned, but he did net the Brewers Lewis Brinson and Luis Ortiz pretty recently. Brian McCann proved to be a good addition for the Astros, but the price of Albert Abreu (top 100 prospect) wasn't cheap. The Cardinals themselves had to pony up $60 million to keep Molina.
Wouldn't it be nice if a team could have a really good catcher without having to pay for one? Enter Carson Kelly. The Cardinals refused to trade their top catching prospect, and with good reason. Kelly seems like a natural fit to replace Molina once it's time to pass the torch. He is one of the few players who manage to combine a high walk rate with a low strikeout rate, and his power is coming along after a slow start.
If you don't want to take my word for it, check out KATOH's top prospects projections. Yes, that would be a lofty number two ranking for the Cardinals future everyday catcher, behind only Ronald Acuna. Another way of interpreting that chart is to say that KATOH projects Kelly to average 2 WAR per season over his first six major league seasons. Considering that Buster Posey led National League catchers with 4.3 WAR in 2017, that would be a nice place to start.
In addition to Kelly's superb plate discipline, he has a knack for making good contact. Over his past two seasons in the minors, Kelly hit line drives on 23 percent of balls in play. The MLB average is just 20.1 percent.
He also uses all fields, with more than 30 percent of his balls in play going to right field since 2013. As he adjusts towards a more fly ball oriented approach, Kelly's home run totals should end up average or better for a catcher.
Kelly's wRC+ of 114 over the past two minor league seasons suggests that the potential for him to be a strong hitting catcher is relatively high. But even if that doesn't work out, Kelly's glove work should make him an everyday catcher.
The 23 year-old has developed a good rapport with several of the Cardinals minor league pitchers. He also draws plus reviews for both his glove work and his arm. The Cardinals had a vision of him as a catcher when they drafted him. That vision paid off, as his work with his receiving hand may end up being among the best in baseball.
Despite playing just 162 innings at the catcher position for the major league team, Kelly rated as the 13th best pitch framer on StatCorner. Baseball Prospectus had him as their 27th best catcher in terms of total value and 28th in terms if pitch framing.
Kelly did all of that in just 1/8 the amount of chances that the top catchers get. If he's doing that at age 23, with pitchers he has only worked with in March, then the ceiling must be high. I should caution against using small sample sizes with framing stats, but these numbers back up the scouts' takes. Kelly will come at a low cost for what should be six strong seasons behind the plate.
Short-term outlook: Excellent
Five Years into the Future
The Cardinals hope that Carson Kelly will still be their everyday backstop, but Andrew Knizner represents a backup plan.
Given everything I just said about Kelly, the short-term plan doubles as the long-term plan at catcher. However, there is one contingency in place already. The Cardinals drafted Andrew Knizner in the 7th round of the 2016 amateur draft. If you're not familiar with the name, don't worry; he has only played 51 games above A ball. But if he continues at this pace, his bat will certainly be making some noise.
Knizner might not actually be a catching prospect, as some view a corner infield spot as a more likely destination. In the meantime, it sure is fun looking at his stat line. Across rookie ball, A, and AA, Knizner has an on-base percentage above .370 and a slugging percentage over .475. In just 148 professional games, Knizner has knocked 18 homers despite just average fly ball rates.
If he has the power to hit 18 homers from behind the dish without a ton of fly balls, then his raw power is above average for a catcher. Like Kelly, Knizner also doesn't strike out much, and his high contact rate will likely accelerate him through the minors.
In a best case scenario, Knizner will be ready for backup duty in 2019. Given the defensive deficiencies, I am not sure if he ever will be more than a backup catcher, but the potential for more is certainly there. At the very least, a bat like that in your farm system is worth keeping an eye on.
Long-term outlook: Good if Kelly is still starting, Fair if they turn to Knizner