As Bengie Molina walked up to his younger brother’s doorstep Sunday, he expected to be greeted by his brother in a wheelchair due to a groin injury that will sideline Molina for roughly four weeks. He walked to the door and greeted Bengie on his own strength and in typical catcher fashion and said he’ll walk if he can.
For the remainder of Molina’s stint on the disabled list, touted prospect Carson Kelly will take over at catcher.
Although Molina continues to perform at an elite level in his 15th Major League season, he made it clear this offseason, he plans to retire after his contract expires in 2020.
Eventually, the Cardinals will have to turn to someone other than their 35-year-old, future Hall of Famer, who recently passed the legendary Johnny Bench’s record for games and innings caught by a National League catcher.
Kelly has been waiting in the wings for the past seven seasons. Now it’s his time to enter the spotlight.
MLB.com ranks the 23-year-old, as its second best catching prospect and 44th best prospect overall. A Minor League Gold-Glover in 2015, Kelly is widely heralded for his defensive prowess behind the plate. He boasted a .993 fielding percentage in 2017 and has “plus” grades for his arm, quick release, blocking, game-calling and leadership.
The converted third baseman has consistently performed at an elite level defensively since moving behind the plate, but his offense took some time to elevate itself to a similar level. He hit .292 in 2016 and .283 in 2017 as one of the focal points for the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds’ offense. While Kelly hasn’t posted gaudy power numbers, he’s one of the elite contact hitters at the position, striking out in a mere 14.3 percent of his at bats in 2017.
While Kelly didn’t start following his mid-afternoon arrival from Memphis on Sunday, he’s in line for plenty of chances while Molina heals.
“I would imagine we’d take this opportunity and have Carson [Kelly] catch,” President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak said. “Certainly when you think back to why we sent him down, we wanted him to play every day.”
Although Molina has had a productive season hitting thus far (.272 BA, 6 HR, 17 RBI), Mozeliak stressed that Kelly shouldn’t put a lot of pressure on himself to perform at the plate: “You look at the top part of this lineup, and I think it’s capable of scoring. So I don’t think we have to put too much pressure on what we get out of that catcher position.”
If there isn’t a lot of pressure to replace Molina’s offensive production at the plate, the same cannot be said about filling the void he leaves behind the plate with his command of the pitching staff and defensive alignments.
Molina’s eight Gold Gloves and four Platinum Gloves are enough hardware for him to be regarded as one of the best defensive catchers in baseball.
Molina’s familiarity with the current Cardinals pitchers and defense allows him the ability to call games and align defenders in the most beneficial way.
“There’s multiple challenges [for Kelly],” manager Mike Matheny said. “One would be jumping in and getting reacquainted with some of these pitchers and getting a good feel for some of the teams that we’re playing against.”
While Molina’s shoes are large ones to fill, Kelly just wants to focus on himself. “I have to be Carson Kelly, I can’t be Yadier Molina. But I’m going to do everything I can to be the best Carson Kelly I can be and help this team any way I can.”
The “best Carson Kelly” is something just about every Major League squad wants: an elite everyday catcher that can take over a game defensively and hit for a high average. This could force Mozeliak’s hand when the trade deadline approaches.
With Molina under contract through 2020 and another elite prospect in Andrew Knizner getting his chance to shine at Double-A Springfield, Kelly’s name has floated around in trade rumors. A strong performance in Molina’s absence could leave Mozeliak and general manager Michael Girsch with a major decision to make when July’s trade deadline rolls around.
In the short term, the next few weeks will provide a good look at the Cardinals’ future with a backstop not sporting a “4” on his jersey.
Jack Parodi covers the St. Louis Cardinals and you can find him on Twitter @jack_parodi