JUPITER, Fla. -- Cardinals officials still envision a day when Jack Flaherty and Carson Kelly comprise a high-ceiling battery in St. Louis. But the realities of their current roster still keep that day earmarked for sometime in the future.
Two of St. Louis' three top prospects were among the six players reassigned Sunday following the Cardinals' 10-0 win over the Nationals, when the club optioned Kelly and Flaherty to Triple-A Memphis. John Gant, Ryan Sherriff, Oscar Mercado and Breyvic Valera were also optioned, leaving the Cardinals with 40 players remaining in Major League camp.
The arrival of Flaherty, the Cardinals' No. 2 prospect per MLB Pipeline, appears imminent after an impressive spring. President of baseball operations John Mozeliak characterized the 22-year-old righty as "the first man up" when the Cards need a starter come league play.
For Kelly, the Cardinals' No. 3 prospect per MLB Pipeline, the future is less clear. For months, club officials toyed with the idea of bringing the 23-year-old catcher to St. Louis to learn under the apprenticeship of longtime catcher Yadier Molina, as they did last July. But with Molina healthy and entering the first year of a three-year extension, playing time for Kelly looked scarce.
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"He needs to play," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "He's still too young with too high of a ceiling not to go and be ready. If something happens, we need him to step in and be our guy. There are not going to be a whole lot of repetitions to get here."
Kelly hit .174 without a home run playing sporadically last summer, then went 3-for-30 this spring. His numbers at Triple-A Memphis reflected an ability to produce when playing every day, as Kelly hit .283/.375/.459 over 68 games. MLB Pipeline ranks him MLB's No. 2 catching prospect behind Cleveland's Francisco Mejia.
"Last year I was the one bullish on getting him to us, and pushing hard on the organization, because every game means so much and we need to right guys. It's also a big piece of the puzzle to have someone ready to go and to allow them to develop," Matheny said. "For him to come up and do exactly what he did last year, we saw how that worked. He couldn't stay sharp. He has to go prepare to be an everyday catcher."
Resigning Kelly to the bench most days in St. Louis, club officials fear, could hinder his development.
"Everybody knows my philosophy on young players," Mozeliak said. "Last year we definitely changed how we were thinking about that to get him experience at the MLB level, to learn under Yadi. But at the same time, you have to have that balance of actually playing."
Flaherty entered camp an intriguing but unlikely candidate to crack a starting rotation already five starters full. Still, he drew rave reviews over a spring he spent fine-tuning a two-seam fastball and showcasing his wipeout slider. He struck out 20 batters over 13 innings, forcing officials to look past his 4.85 ERA over four starts. Much of that was skewed by one bad inning against Baltimore, when he allowed a grand slam to Manny Machado.
"He's ready. He showed that by how he pitched," Matheny said. "He did everything he needed to. How he's improved is really impressive. I told him to go get ready. There is no question that if an opportunity jumped up, we'll be in very good hands with what he showed this spring."
"I think both these guys are going to be in St. Louis this year," Mozeliak said.