JUPITER, Fla. • Four months after Carson Kelly graduated from high school and shortly after he reached legal voting age, the Cardinals pulled him out of the clubhouse and asked him to cast the deciding vote on a move that would change his career.
On the first day of the Cardinals’ 2013 instructional league — a fall camp for select minor leaguers — 18-year-old Kelly was invited into a coaches conference room. Farm director Gary LaRocque and five or six other officials were on one side, leaving Kelly alone at his side of a table.
“OK, so I either did something wrong,” Kelly recalls, “or something is up.”
Drafted that year partially because of how tall he stood at the plate, the Cardinals believed Kelly also could fit behind it, at catcher. Kelly carried a mitt in his bag throughout high school but had not used it in a game since eighth grade. He was familiar with the position, but not fluent. LaRocque told him to consider the possibilities because “it is going to be 51 percent your vote and 49 percent our vote.” After a few days, Kelly approached LaRocque. He had an answer.
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That was his first step toward possibly being the answer to bigger questions.
“You’re always trying to position your depth to have coverage but clearly before the emergence of Carson Kelly the catching position was a little like shortstop was,” general manager John Mozeliak says. “Where is it coming? When? Who is it going to be? And you could argue it was faceless. … You think back in my time with the Cardinals and you’ve had (Tom) Pagnozzi, Gold Glover; Mike Matheny, Gold Glover; and Yadi Molina, Platinum Glover. So I think sometimes we take it for granted what we have behind the plate. But in reality it’s not that we take it for granted — we understand how important it is.”
The Cardinals opened spring training this past week with the first official workouts for pitchers and catchers, and there, present but not participating, was Molina. The team’s Gold Glove-winning catcher is recovering from two hand surgeries and may not be able to catch until next month. The soul of the team, Molina personifies the modern Cardinals, the one player who links the 2004 World Series team to championships in 2006 and 2011 to the current run of three consecutive NL Central titles. The finest defensive catcher of his generation, Molina once was called “the complete package” by Johnny Bench, who suggested he could be a Hall of Famer. Molina has adopted a rigorous training program for durability, and he was on pace for a career-high in innings last year before the injury.
This spring, the Cardinals are getting a preview of reality they haven’t had to consider since Opening Day 2005 and don’t plan to confront for several more years: life without Yadi.
Molina’s recovery from a torn ligament in his left thumb clears playing time for prospects Kelly and Michael Ohlman this spring. Veteran backup Brayan Pena and seasoned backstop Eric Fryer also will see priority innings. Matheny, now the Cardinals’ manager, often tells the story of how he saw Molina during spring training and realized there was his replacement. Molina served as Matheny’s backup in 2004 and took over the next year. Matheny was 33.
That’s the same age Molina is now.
“I definitely think at some point, some point down the road, you want somebody to be challenging him,” Mozeliak says. “That’s like any position. But with regard to the timing of it, this year is going to tell us a lot, and a lot about Carson.”
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Kelly, now 21, had a one-word description for his first day behind the mask.
“Confusing,” he says.
The first pitcher he caught was slinging lefty Dean Kiekhefer. During that instructional game a hitter skied a pop fly straight up.
“I spun around four times,” Kelly describes. “I had no idea what I was doing. I looked like I was doing a dance and the ball came down and hit home plate.”
Still, somewhere in that early footwork the Cardinals saw the agility necessary for the position. That offseason, Kelly visited St. Louis and spent several days with Matheny, receiving personal instruction. In the club’s handbook for coaches and players, ‘The Cardinal Way,’ there is a chapter on catching that Matheny wrote. He outlines the 16 characteristics, from “exceptional flexibility” to selflessness, a catcher must have. Non-negotiable, he called them.
Kelly has read the chapter “like a ton of times.”
The 16 traits offer a dot-to-dot picture of the catcher he’s becoming, from the traits the Cardinals believed he had innately (conscientiousness, athleticism) to ones he’s developed (calling pitches) and harnessed (leadership).
“I believe (catcher) is the most teachable position,” Matheny says. “Now you have to have the skillset to start. There is a whole lot of things you can learn just by grunt work. … I said it was the most teachable position. I didn’t say it was the easiest to learn. It comes down to a whole lot of repetitions, a whole lot of setbacks, a whole lot of struggles. It has a lot to do with the demands that come from the position.”
The Cardinals selected Kelly 86th overall in 2012, and he commanded a $1.6 million bonus, the highest in the second round. Kelly played shortstop and pitched in high school. He played outfield for Team USA. He started at third in the minors. He was the only kid on his high school team, he says, that carried five different styles of glove in his bag. His father, Mike Kelly, had been a closer and catcher in college, so “it’s in our blood to just do kind of everything,” Carson says.
It was his father who offered Carson his catcher’s mitt when he heard about the conversion with the Cardinals. It was his father who urged him to write down what he learned, as did Matheny.
With the same studiousness that Carson has pursued a degree in economics at Oregon State — he’s a year shy — he has chronicled his move to catcher and the pitchers he sees. Kelly has a little black book that he jots notes in about hitting, catching, and life. He flips it over and has detailed reports on every pitcher he’s caught and the pitches they throw. That prepares him for the game and shows the pitcher he pays attention. He cares.
In the past season, Kelly has felt his play behind the plate shift from reaction to anticipation, a skill helped by the notes in his little black book. Matheny describes how Kelly had to learn the "mechanics" of the position, from the catch and release of throwing out a runner to the drop and block of a ball in the dirt. On the manager's first day at the spring training facility, he was talking to members of the media -- but watching beyond them as Kelly caught an informal bullpen. On a ball in the dirt, Kelly fished for it with his glove instead of getting his body in front of it.
Matheny didn't let it go without comment.
"That's the pride in the position," Kelly says. "That's what he wants."
The work at catcher has come at a cost. His offense has lagged. At High-A Palm Beach, a notoriously difficult place to hit, Kelly batted .219 with a .263 on-base percentage. He spent this past instructional league prioritizing hitting.
At the same time, his defense was decorated.
Kelly was selected as the one minor-league catcher to receive a Gold Glove.
“It started out as an experiment, and now no longer,” Kelly says. “It’s about putting two and two together — the hitting and the catching together. I’m in a good place right now.”
The Cardinals, who once saw “a void” at young catching, are also doing the math, putting two and two together. They signed Pena to a two-year deal. Molina has two more guaranteed years on his contract and an option for 2018. Likely headed to Class AA this season, that puts Kelly two levels away from the majors. Developing internally is always preferable to chasing externally, especially given the market for catchers. The Cardinals have openly discussed reducing Molina’s workload, and they also see the benefit of having a young catcher apprentice under Molina, especially if that catcher could start some.
Molina did with Matheny, and he said that first year in the majors underscored what many other mentors taught him. Jose Oquendo and the late Dave Ricketts, an adored coach, helped shape Molina, and with two brothers as major-league catchers Molina was “maybe the most-blessed catcher on Earth as far as mentors,” Mozeliak says.
“You want to find ways to help your teammates,” Molina says. “But it’s also up to them. I can help (a young catcher). I can say whatever I can. But if he doesn’t listen, then it won’t do anything. My mentality is to help. Any one. It’s not only prospects. It’s anyone who wants it.”
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Early Saturday morning, the sun still hitting the snooze button, Molina and the other catchers went through their receiving drills. Matheny was struck by how Kelly had adopted some of Molina’s mannerisms with the mitt. That only comes from watching and listening.
It was after a similar workout, two years ago, that Kelly heard Molina say something that still echoes behind his mask.
“He had us in a circle and said, ‘I just want to be the best,’” Kelly recalls. “He is one of the best and he’s telling us, ‘You guys should want to be the best, too.’ That will stick with me forever.”
That is, after all, what the Cardinals seek.
The next best.
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• Photos: Saturday at Spring Training