Following their 10-0 victory over Washington this afternoon, the St. Louis Cardinals announced pitchers Jack Flaherty, John Gant and Ryan Sherriff, catcher Carson Kelly, infielder Breyvic Valera and outfielder Oscar Mercado to the Memphis Redbirds (AAA).
As he announced the moves, manager Mike Matheny acknowledged that optioning Kelly–who had been expected to be the backup catcher this season behind Yadier Molina, and Flaherty would likely draw some attention.
“Needs to play,” stated Matheny of Kelly. “Had that conversation, not an easy one. I think we saw last year too, it’s a tough position to take. He’s still too young with too high of a ceiling not to go and more than anything, be ready. If something happens, we need him to step in and be our guy. There’s not going to be a whole lot of repetitions until then.”
With Kelly optioned, the Cardinals have Steve Baron, Andrew Knizner, and Francisco Pena in the mix as backups but Knizner is expected to begin the season in the minors. So who’s the backup?
“We’ve not made any decision,” answered Matheny. “Between Baron and Pena, I believe we’ve got coverage of guys who are ready to catch at the big league level.”
By his own admission, Kelly wasn’t having the type of spring he wanted–both at the plate and behind it. To help his .100 batting average (3-30) he sought extra at-bats in minor league games on Saturday.
“He hasn’t been catching long enough, really,” continued Matheny on the difficulty of being ready as a backup catcher. “I think that’s such a hard position to come up here and pick up. Especially when you’re not getting reps. We’ve had a couple guys over the years who have made it look a whole lot easier than it is. I know, for his good and I think for the good of our team and our organization, it’s best to have him sharp. And he’s only going to be sharp if he goes and plays everyday.”
As a highly touted prospect, Kelly has been looked at as the heir to Molina for some time now. He made his MLB debut in 2016 with 13 at-bats in 10 games and followed that up last season with appearances in 34 games. While it was clear that Molina was going to remain the starter, 2018 was supposed to provide a full season of tutelage for Kelly so his reaction was what one would expect.
“Disappointed for sure,” said Matheny. “But you’re not going to find somebody that’s more professional. I’ll tell you that right now. I think the world of that kid. That was something that he obviously didn’t want to hear. I get it. I wouldn’t either if I was in his shoes. But I asked him to trust me to be honest with you–it truly is the best thing even though it’s not the most…not the best thing in his mind.”
Especially when from the outside, it appeared that Kelly had answered all the necessary questions at Memphis last year. He caught 68 games and hit .283/.834 OPS with 10 home runs and 41 RBIs.
“It really doesn’t have anything to do with Memphis,” explained Matheny. “For him to come up and do exactly what he did last year, we saw how that worked–he couldn’t stay sharp. He didn’t stay sharp so he needs to go prepare to be an everyday catcher. Even though you can say that he proved everything that you need to at Triple A, he hasn’t even had a full season there yet.”
Originally drafted as a third baseman in 2012, Matheny also made the point Kelly has only been catching for four seasons.
“Last year, I was the one bullish about getting him to us and pushing hard on the organization and only because every game means so much and do we have ‘the guy’,” acknowledged Matheny. “I’m still going to say we want to take advantage of every start we have and every position we have there but it’s also a big piece of the puzzle to have somebody ready to go. And to help them develop and does he still have things he needs to work on? 100%. He didn’t have Triple A conquered.
“He had a lot of things that he’s doing right and I think he’s a chance to be special. I think he has a chance to be really good behind the plate but we’ve got to work on some things. I feel really good if we ever had to, we just hope that never happens, that he’s a guy that could jump in here and do the job that we need to do. But right now we are, obviously, with the way Yadi’s going about it–he’s ready to rock and we’re going to be playing him.”
Moving forward, this raises a question as to if Kelly and the Cardinals may be better served like some of the other positions expect to be handled this year–with the “I-55” shuttle to keep extra outfield bats sharp or bullpen arms fresh.
“We haven’t said short stints or anything, we just said go get ready, you need to play,” said Matheny. “He’ll be locked in. He’s not far from having his timing right catching, he’s not far from having his timing right hitting. But right now it’s not even that as much that as he needs to go prepare to be an everyday guy. He’s not going to have that opportunity here.
While the option to Memphis is the same for Flaherty, his performance has not been the least bit disappointing this spring.
“Yes, that’s kind of the message to him–he did everything he needed to do,” agreed Matheny. “How he’s improved is really impressive.”
In his four starts, Flaherty pitched 13.0 innings and allowed 9 hits, 7 earned runs, 3 home runs, 5 walks, and had 20 strikeouts. Opponents hit .191 against him.
“To me it’s more about how he goes and continues to stay where he is, improving that sinker, improving that movement, and then over time jumping in when that opportunity presents itself,” said Matheny.
And as it stands, Flaherty would be that first phone call if the Cardinals needed rotation help.
“Anything happens, we want him to continue to pitch like he is right now, but there’s little question that if an opportunity jumped up we feel like we’re in very good hands with what he’s shown this spring,” said Matheny.
photo credit: Brian Stull/STLBaseballWeekly.com