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On the radar for 2016: Cardinals catching prospect Carson Kelly

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The St. Louis Cardinals began their project last season to find the heir apparent to Yadier Molina. In just his second full season behind the plate, Carson Kelly has made great strides.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Yadier Molina has not only become one of the best catchers in baseball, he is enamored by the fan base in St. Louis. While he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere for the next few seasons, there is no denying that age — and the annual bumps and bruises — may be catching up to the fan favorite. Who are the Cardinals going to look to as the heir apparent to Yadi?

Carson Kelly, of course. The Cardinals have seemingly done it again, transforming a middling defensive prospect into a possible piece for their ever contending Major League squad. So, who is Kelly?

Kelly was drafted by the Cards in the second round of the 2012 out of high school. The 6 foot 2, 200 pound right hander was a third base prospect drafted with hopes that his raw power would mature into a future at the hot corner.

Surprisingly, the Cardinals decided to throw Kelly a curveball in 2014. They converted the third baseman, who had yet to show anything more than being an average defender, to catcher.

His first full season behind the plate for the Peoria Chiefs (A Ball) was actually not too shabby. He made nine errors in his first 682 innings behind the plate (a .987 fielding percentage), while allowing 13 passed balls, but his range factor was a surprising 8.82. He also threw out 33 % of attempted base thieves (37 of 112) with his cannon of an arm.

2015 saw a promotion to the Florida State League and more improvement from the now 21-year old. In fact, he recently took home the 2015 MiLB Rawlings Gold Glove Award for catcher. He raised his fielding percentage to .996 committing just three errors in 821 chances, 115 more chances than he had in 2014. All three came on throwing errors, so his receiving skills — although still a work in progress — are seemingly improving. He lowered his passed balls to a mere six and while his range factor lowered a bit (7.87) it is still at a modest level. He also threw out base runners at an increased rate, nailing 31 of the 86 attempted base stealers (36 %).

The real concerns for Kelly may be at the plate, where that power the Cardinals once envisioned has been in a holding pattern. He did hit eight home runs this season, his second highest total since his 2012 debut, but he posted a career low 5.3 % walk rate with a career high 15.3 % strike out rate. He wouldn’t be the first prospect to struggle offensively in his pitcher-friendly Florida State League debut, however.

He definitely has some nice pop when he can connect:

It’s tough to say right now if Kelly’s bat will develop, but he has shown the ability to control the strike zone in the past. Now that he is seemingly settling in as a catcher, perhaps that power bat comes around in 2016. While he won’t supplant Yadi anytime in the near future, he is the highest ranked catching prospect in the Cardinals farm system, which if you have followed along, has been rather impressive through the years.

Kelly is certainly a few years away, but the strides he has shown in his conversion to catcher have been pretty impressive. He has definitely merited himself to be a prospect to keep an eye on in 2016.