In a bit of a surprise, Kelly is not going to start the spring in minor league camp, having scored an invitation to Major League camp as a non-roster invitee. Realistically, his changes of making the big league roster at this time are exactly zero. By the time minor league games start, Kelly should be back on the Kissell Quad.
Even more than his second-round draft status in 2012 and the $1.6 million invested in him, it is clear that the organization is putting a considerable amount of focus on the 19-year-old as an emerging prospect. In remarks at Winter Warm-Up, multiple Cardinals executives, including GM John Mozeliak, singled out Kelly as one of a few players system-wide to watch in 2014.
In all fairness, so do we here at The Cardinal Nation. Despite my wait-and-see attitude about Kelly the catcher, I ranked him 11th among Cardinals prospects this winter because of the potential in his bat. The reader community was more bullish, with their number nine ranking powering Kelly to that same spot in the overall list. No other catchers made our top 39 players.
I see this spring camp invitation as a perk and a reaffirmation to Kelly of his importance to the organization. Even including the always-present extra catchers, Kelly received the one and only NRI given to any player that finished last season below A-Advanced Palm Beach.
Even as a second-year third baseman, he was competing two levels lower, at State College last summer. At this early stage of catching, Kelly probably isn't yet even ready for the New York-Penn League.
That raises the question of where Kelly should begin 2014. Last spring, the Cardinals initially left Kelly behind in extended spring training camp. Given he was still 18 years old and his professional experience consisted of just 56 games with Johnson City, the move was understandable.
Yet, less than three weeks later, an injury at Peoria created an opening. The Cardinals took a calculated risk by assigning Kelly to the Midwest League on April 20. Player development officials repeat over and over that a player's assignment in April does not matter - it is where he is performing in July and August that is what counts.
As Cardinals farm director Gary LaRocque often says of the organization's approach with young players, "We're going to get caught trying."
In this case, they tried, but were caught. Kelly was simply not ready for full-season ball in 2013.
After hitting .219 in 168 plate appearances with Peoria, he was sent down to State College when the short-season clubs began play in mid-June. That proved to be the right level for the teenager.
What can be learned from that experience for 2014?
One of the things for which I am going to be looking most closely in spring camp - wherever Kelly is at the time - will be his readiness to handle the fast-paced action behind the plate - handling pitchers, managing the running game, becoming a field general.
One can reasonably assert that if Kelly is assigned to Peoria out of camp that his bat may be ready. However, his season-opening ticket could very well be punched based on the rate at which his catching skills ramp up to the level of his competition.
From this perspective, long before players report to Florida, I can see the Cardinals being right back where they were with Kelly at the end of camp last spring. Do they push him aggressively into full-season ball or not?
More so than most any other player in camp, how Kelly performs defensively in March may determine his initial assignment. If the decision is that he will benefit most by spending more time catching in the lower-pressure extended spring training camp, it would certainly not indicate a problem.
The best news with Kelly is that there remains plenty of time.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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