JUPITER, Fla. • It looms.
Straightaway center at a practice field here, a monstrous greenish fence hangs in the batter’s eye, a “two-story” backdrop that also can shield the sun.
On Wednesday, during a serene batting practice session, Carson Kelly suddenly unleashed this swing of his, barbecuing a baseball that seemingly singed the upper part of the centerfield fence.
“That’s what I’ve been working on in my game this offseason — putting more power into my game and utilizing my body more, instead of my hands,” said Kelly, 23. “And that’s kind of a result of it.”
They call it “pitchers and catchers,” but the first day of organized workouts seems to be ceremoniously about pitchers and pitchers. There they are, these walking and talking demigods, unfurling their first hurls of spring to the anonymous armored storm troopers, crouched behind the plates. But it’s a big day for the catchers, too. And after a hard day’s work, there was the great Yadier, as well as the Yadi heir.
They have a positive relationship, and it was visible this day, the two backstops talking shop, Molina soaking up some sun, Kelly soaking up some Yadi.
But it looms.
Even in amicability, the reality is the Cardinals arguably have the best catcher in the league and the best catching prospect in the league.
Someone always will not be playing.
“Last year, in terms of (Kelly’s) development, he didn’t get as much playing time as maybe we would’ve hoped,” admitted Cards president of baseball operations John Mozeliak. “But he’s been very diligent this offseason. He’s shown up ready to go. He understands that this role is not an everyday role, but trying to find a way to keep him fresh, I think, is important.
“… The coaching staff will weigh in, but obviously the manager makes the lineup. That’s his decision. Now, probably the caveat to that is someone like Yadi, who’s had his career, does have some say in how he’s feeling, when he can go. And he’s a player that wants to go every day.”
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The Cards have spent ample time analyzing sleep cycles and the importance of body rest. You’ll read about that elsewhere. But will there be similar application of this approach to the catching position? And how will the parties involved handle it?
On a sunny day in February, one can’t help but think of a chilly day in September, with important baseball to be played and a lineup decision to be made.
We talk a lot about the education of manager Mike Matheny. How he continuously grows as a baseball thinker. And how this season, in particular, he’ll lean on his beefed-up coaching staff, in so many facets.
The return of beloved Jose Oquendo could be Matheny’s secret weapon, if utilized right.
Mozeliak wouldn’t share his desired balance of playing time for his catchers, “because I don’t want to be beholden to that, until we have a better feel on how that may play out.”
Is there a number good for Carson’s development?
“I’m going to defer back to what I’ve always said about young players — young players should play,” Mozeliak said. “There’s certainly a benefit of getting major-league experience, even if you’re sitting on the bench, getting exposure to that. But that’s a fine line between that and actually not playing. I think when you’re looking at someone in their early to mid 20s, I think playing is important.”
Perhaps it’s matching Kelly with, say, Luke Weaver during many of the spins of the rotation?
Last season, Kelly started 14 games. He hit .174 with the big club with a .240 on-base percentage.
In Memphis, Kelly hit .283 with a .375 OBP. He’s yet to homer in a major-league game. His swing Wednesday showed he very well might this season.
“You have to have that drive,” Kelly said. “And this game is all about adjustments. It’s staying sharp, being ready when you’re called upon, and I feel like this offseason I’ve really, really honed into that.”
Will perhaps the best catching prospect in baseball seldom play for the next three years? Molina turns 36 the day before Kelly turns 24 in July.
And Molina announced last month that he will play out the next three years of his contract, with the hopes of three parades. If the manager and coaches do this right, they could have a catching situation that would be the envy of baseball. If bungled, it could have ramifications.
So for now, we have a baseball situation similar to the Green Bay Packers — when one of the best quarterbacks in the game, Hall of Fame worthy Brett Favre, had the best quarterback prospect as his backup.
“I suppose you could say that from a talent standpoint,” Mozeliak said when offered up the comp, “but it’s also a little premature to take someone and say that Carson Kelly is going to be Aaron Rodgers. There are some differences there. The one thing you hope to have is Yadi mentoring and helping Carson’s learning curve of what to expect at this level. … I would say that he doesn’t have much to prove or anything to prove at Triple-A.”