Carson Kelly (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)

At this point, the only real question about St. Louis Cardinals prospect catcher Carson Kelly is “when?”

The Cardinal Nation’s top 50 prospect countdown for 2017 continues at #4 with St. Louis’ top catching prospect since Yadier Molina. Details for TCN members.

http://www.scout.com/player/161612-carson-kelly?s=321

2016 rank Pos. DOB Signed Round
12 C 07 14 94 2012 2nd

Selected 2016 stats

Tm AVG BABIP AB R H 2B HR RBI BB SO SB wOBA OBP SLG OPS
Mem 0.292 0.340 113 14 33 10 0 14 11 17 0 0.332 0.352 0.381 0.733
Spr 0.287 0.339 216 29 62 7 6 18 14 46 0 0.336 0.338 0.403 0.740
Tot 0.289   329 43 95 17 6 32 25 63 0   0.343 0.395 0.738
                               
STL 0.154 0.182 13 1 2 1 0 1 0 2 0 0.203 0.214 0.231 0.445
                               
AFL 0.286 0.264 77 12 22 4 3 18 13 4 2 0.387 0.387 0.455 0.842

Staff comments (individual rankings in parentheses)

Message board community (3): During the community vote, Carson Kelly finished as the third highest rated player. Kelly first appeared on the top prospect list back in 2013, debuting at #10. He then finished at #9 in 2014, #13 in 2015, and #15 in 2016, rounding out a rather consistent ranking history.

Mudville began the discussion saying that Kelly is easily St. Louis’ most valuable prospect due to his premium position and elite defense there. Brianpnoonan liked that Kelly ended up at Triple-A in his age-21 season and believes Kelly could be a multi-year All-Star due to his defense. 14NyquisT likes that Kelly took to the position so well despite being a converted third baseman. VegasjJim said that Kelly is most impressive in that we were hoping his bat would show enough that he could make it to the majors one day, but he did so well that he is now being penciled in as the heir apparent to Yadier Molina. – Jeremy Byrd

 

Derek Shore (3): Arguably, no other Cardinals prospect has shown the amount of growth Kelly has since the second-half of 2015. His opening assignment to the hitter-friendly confines of Double-A Springfield allowed his offense to catch up with his defense behind the plate and flourish in 2016.

A year after Kelly won the Rawlings Gold Glove Award at catcher, the Cardinals named him their 2016 Minor League Player of the Year after he batted .289 with six home runs and 32 RBI in 96 games played between Springfield and Triple-A Memphis. The one-time third baseman, who signed for an over-slot bonus of $1.6 million in 2012, has transformed into the catcher St. Louis has long craved as the eventual replacement for Yadier Molina. He reached the majors this past September and doubled off Antonio Bastardo in his first at-bat.

Kelly, who turned 22 in July, was the youngest Cardinals catcher to make his major-league debut since Molina at 21 years and 326 days in 2004. During the 2016 season, Kelly was a Texas League All-Star and was named to the USA Team for the Futures Game during All-Star Week in San Diego, where he was robbed of a home run in spacious Petco Park.

"Defensively it was more the mental side of the game," 2016 Springfield manager Dann Bilardello said of Kelly’s improvement. "Controlling the pitchers and calling games. There's still an improvement for that. I saw some improvement in being the captain on the field. (Defense) was probably the biggest thing for me. There weren't many worries when he was back there.

"Offensively, to his credit, he came out real aggressive, got after it, made some real quality swings, and I think with the some of the success, it just kept building."

The consensus on Kelly was that he was the most well-rounded backstop in the TL where numerous managers and pro scouts saw him as an everyday catcher at the highest level. By season's end, his arm strength was average to above-average as he threw out 33 percent of attempted basestealers in the league, but that is said to be his weakest tool behind the plate. He blocks balls well with solid receiving skills. At that point, his overall defense was above-average.

In addition, Kelly also played for the Glendale Desert Dogs in the Arizona Fall League this off-season and made the Rising Stars Game, leading all league catchers with a .286 batting average while adding three home runs and 18 RBI over 21 games. Scouts said he was the top catching prospect in the AFL this past fall.

Desert Dogs skipper Aaron Rowand had a positive assessment of Kelly.

"Carson is a guy that controls the game well behind the plate, knows how to deal with the pitching staff, has a great rapport with the pitching staff, has put together quality at-bats and has hit a lot of balls hard where he hasn't had success,” Rowand said. “You can't really judge on the numbers as far as his batting average.

"He gives you a professional at-bats and works counts - has a great idea of the strike zone. His ability to stay through the ball as long as he does - keep his bat in the zone - is what will give him success going into the big-leagues. He's got a great idea of being a catcher and knowing what a pitcher is trying to do to get him out and really keeps his barrel through the zone for a long time.

"He is able to hit the ball to all fields and do it with power. That's why he's going to be a middle of the lineup kind of guy."

Glendale's hitting coach Darryl Robinson added his viewpoint with emphasis on the hitting side.

"He showed me he could swing the bat for starters," Robinson said. "He's a hard-worker. I've seen he can drive the ball to all fields with some pop in there. He's a patient hitter, and that's something he can get more work on. Being more patient and more selective, getting his pitch early in the count.

"He's going to play in the big leagues, man. This next year, I'm sure," Robinson said with a laugh.

Despite only following him for six weeks, Robinson discussed Kelly's progress in his short time with him at the plate.

"He has shown me that he can go the other way," he said. "He tried to pull the ball a little bit too much, and now he understands he can drive the ball the other way. I don't know what he looked like before, but I know he can put the bat on the ball."

From a scouting standpoint, the 6-foot-2, 220 pounder has a relatively thick frame with broad shoulders and an athletic lower half, but he has solid strength throughout his body. Offensively, Kelly's plus raw power returned in the August 2015, but his hit tool had been his biggest issue. He has made progress with his approach in finding the right pitch, being more patient to employ his gap-to-gap power.

Although his swing can look stiff, he has loose hands with leverage to his pull-side with the potential to be an average hitter with average power in his offensive profile, but Robinson envisions near-60 power down the road.

"I could see 60-power," he said. "Probably a little above that. Once he continues to understand and work on the backside of his swing, I think that's going to help him out tremendously."

Kelly's biggest weakness as a hitter is covering the upper part of the strike zone with that being a potential hole that opposing pitchers may exploit.

Defensively, the Oregon native gets strong reviews for his solid to above-average defensive skill-set with one scout saying he has the potential to have a top-of-the-scale glove with more experience. He is a gifted receiver, who is quiet, fluid and natural to the ball. He is nimble and moves well laterally behind the plate while possessing quick transitions, averaging 1.9 second pop times in the AFL via plus arm strength

Pitchers like throwing to him, and for a good reason because of his upbeat personality and conscientiousness. He even keeps a book on hitters to aid him to get creative during his game-calling.

Developmentally, Kelly could step right in and play every day next year at the big-league level. However, the Cardinals would rather him get regular at-bats at Memphis than sitting behind Molina, getting sporadic playing time.

After all, he is the heir to St. Louis' best catcher of all time.

 

Brian Walton (4): During the AFL, as I was quizzed by a newspaper beat writer covering an American League team about Kelly as a potential trade target, I realized that the 22-year-old had made it. Maybe Kelly is not quite at the value level of Alex Reyes, but then again, the Cardinals have many other high-potential pitchers, but have just finally bred a true big-league catching prospect after literally over a decade of trying.

In fact, though Kelly's stat sheet alone would not warrant it, the organization named him their 2016 Minor League Player of the Year. More than numbers, it reflects his growth and importance to St. Louis - not unlike Reyes' similar choice the year before as the co-Pitcher of the Year despite being suspended at the time for marijuana use.

This fall, I set out to try to understand what is behind Kelly’s continued improvement.

I began with the catcher himself.

“I pieced everything together a little bit,” Kelly said. “Like I said at the beginning of the season, it was about putting catching and hitting together, and I did that this year.”

But how?

We’ve all seen it, though most often not as extreme as Skip Schumaker’s incessant tugging on his batting gloves, resetting the Velcro between every pitch. “It” is the routine. In a game in which a hitter might walk up to the plate 500 or more times in the same year, not having to think about how to prepare for each at-bat - having a repeatable process that is comfortable to him - can be extremely important.

So it is with Kelly.

Over the years, I have watched him in the cages and in drills countless times. As he struggled early on as a hitter, I sometimes wondered if his eagerness to learn might have actually led to an overload of information or conflicts in his approach.

This fall, when I asked Cardinals minor league hitting coordinator George Greer what made the difference for Kelly this season, his answer surprised me a bit. It wasn’t about getting more at-bats or the familiarity with pitchers in the eight-team Texas League or the smaller ballparks or any of that.

It is simply a matter of comfort.

“Carson has now developed a pre-game hitting routine and pre-game regimen that he uses and it has worked for him,” Greer said. “He is more confident that when he gets up to the batters’ box and he knows he belongs. He is just doing a fine job of progressing as a hitter.”

This was actually prior to the Arizona Fall League, but even after a long summer that included the month of September with St. Louis, Kelly continued to improve in the desert.

Kelly’s first stop as a catcher had been Class-A Peoria in 2014. The club’s pitching coach also worked with the organization’s pitchers in the Arizona Fall League this fall. Dernier Orozco spoke to me about Kelly’s impact with his hurlers in the desert.

“I knew him when he was a third baseman at State College,” Orozco recalled. “Right now, catching, I seem him being good out there. His relationship with the pitchers, how he calls the games, how he handles the position, he is good behind home plate.”

Still, Kelly remains an unfinished product, but with the only substantive question being when he is ready for the Major Leagues. Some think that is now. I am among those who advocate showing more patience.

While impartial outside observers such as Baseball America remain high on Kelly’s future, they indicate that with more experience behind the plate, Kelly can progress from being an average defender to a plus defender. That would not happen if Kelly is watching games from St. Louis’ bullpen as Molina’s caddy. His best route to get better is to play daily. That can only happen in Memphis, a level at which Kelly has just 32 career games of experience, by the way.

Further, because of Kelly’s MLB service time already accrued in 2016, by spending at least a month in the minors this season, the Cardinals could keep him away from free agency a year longer down the road. With about a half-season down at Memphis this year, the club could avoid the possibility of Kelly having four years of arbitration eligibility rather than three.   

So there are a number of good reasons to wait and no reason to rush. Now that the reserve spot in St. Louis behind Molina is back in the hands of Eric Fryer, Kelly can continue to develop with daily play in Memphis, but would remain a phone call away to take over if Molina is unable to perform.

TCN Scouting Grade: 6, Risk: Low (click here to review scales)

Our 2017 top 50 series continues

To see the entire list of top Cardinals prospects and remaining article schedule, click here. This includes the top 50 countdown and nine in-depth, follow-up articles. Most of them are exclusively for members of The Cardinal Nation. Thank you for being a member!

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