JUPITER, Fla. -- They are a group of eight professional athletes between ages 19 and 34 and spend about eight hours of every day in close proximity to one another. They gather at the spring-training clubhouse just before sunrise, do their conditioning and early work, and fine-tune the positioning of their mitts by catching balls propelled from a pitching machine in a batting cage as the morning sun begins to creep over the horizon toward the beach.
They eat together. They travel the back fields together, tugging all that equipment in the hot Florida sun. They squat side by side at times, catching pitchers they’ll need to be acquainted with for the grinding season that beckons.
With that much time together on the job, it’s hard not to notice the guy everyone thinks will one day take your job. It might even get a bit awkward at times. The St. Louis Cardinals try not to let it. It’s part of their way.
“When I came up, [Mike] Matheny was there for me when I needed him,” catcher Yadier Molina said. “It’s the same thing for me when I see young guys coming up.”
Hang around baseball long enough, and it begins to feel as if the same things keep happening to different people. So it is in South Florida this spring.
The best catcher in the minor leagues works next to one of the best catchers in the major leagues. Carson Kelly looks to be more and more capable of replacing Yadier Molina. Matheny, now the Cardinals' manager, yielded the catcher’s box to Molina a dozen years ago. In spring training of 2004, Molina was 21, a year younger than Kelly is now, and Matheny was 33, a year younger than Molina is now.
If there was anyone who saw what Molina might one day become -- a Platinum Glove winner and seven-time All-Star -- it was Matheny. Molina sees promise in Kelly, who is widely tabbed as the best catching prospect in the game coming off a season in which he had a .738 OPS and threw out 27 of 87 base-stealers in the minors.
“You can tell. He looks like a natural catcher,” Molina said. “He worked hard, let me tell you that. He wants to be the best. I’m just happy for him, you know?”
Molina could be in his final year with St. Louis. He has a $15 million option for 2018, and general manager John Mozeliak promises to meet with his agent at some point this spring to discuss the future. It’s possible, if not probable, that the Cardinals could do what they did with another franchise icon, Matt Holliday: let the season progress a while before coming to any conclusions about Molina’s future. By September, they alerted Holliday they were declining his 2017 option. He now plays for the New York Yankees.
The decision will hinge nearly as much on Kelly’s performance at Triple-A Memphis as it does on Molina’s in the big leagues. One could argue Kelly could step in for Molina now, but Molina shook off a sluggish start in 2016 to have one of his finest offensive seasons, batting .307 with 38 doubles. He still is a major asset to the team's pitchers. For the Cardinals, it’s about orchestrating the best transition they can, realizing that contract pressures often make such moves messy.
Without going into detail about a conversation that hasn’t yet happened with Molina’s agent, Melvin Roman, Mozeliak described a dilemma he knows well from similar questions about Holliday last spring.
“Having players that have achieved elite status during their career and trying to balance that with the future can always be challenging,” he said. “As I look toward the future, I understand that this may be difficult to achieve ideal harmony but will welcome those challenges.”
Aging veterans always are aware when a younger, cheaper replacement is getting close enough to push them out. It can fuel productive competition. Matheny said he dealt with it in college at Michigan, where a higher-touted catching prospect jostled for attention. He saw it again in the minor leagues, where another catcher was just behind him in the organization’s rankings.
By the time he arrived in the big leagues, the Milwaukee Brewers had their guy. Brian Harper was 33 and had a World Series resume from his time with the Minnesota Twins. Matheny said Harper helped him rather than clamming up or, worse, actively sabotaging his career.
Matheny said it still felt different when he first put on a Cardinals uniform 17 years ago.
“That group came together, and there was something about this place that created this environment of learning,” Matheny said. “Guys put down whatever guarded insecurities they had and said, ‘You know what, if we’re going to win, this is going to continue to look like it should, and we’re going to have to help the other guy get better no matter what.’”
The next in line has impressive credentials. Kelly played shortstop in high school back in Portland, Oregon, and third base one season in the minors. As a third baseman, he excelled in leadership potential, arm strength and the ability to hit for power. He lagged in lateral quickness. The Cardinals moved him to catcher, and, five years later, he just might be a finished product. If not for the presence of Molina -- a major impediment, to be sure -- many in the Cardinals organization think Kelly is major league-ready.
If Molina remains healthy, Kelly will get an extra year of training at Triple-A. That’s the plan, anyway.
Kelly remembers the first day he felt like a catcher. It was Day One. When he stood up after a day of squatting, his hip flexors were so tight, he couldn’t feel his legs. Two seasons ago, he worked so hard on his defense he won a Gold Glove, but he batted just .219. He makes a checklist of things he has to master, and, last season, it all clicked into place. Now, he is fine-tuning. He is working this spring on removing a drift from his batting stance and on blocking sliders in the dirt without going to one knee, the worst position a catcher can be in if he is forced to throw to a base.
Molina watches everything and sometimes offers guidance, many times from personal experience gleaned by catching 13,245 career major league innings. His most common suggestion is wordless.
“He goes like this,” Kelly says, tucking his right thumb into the palm of his throwing hand.
Molina’s worst injuries were torn tendons in both thumbs, one in 2014, the other at the end of 2015.
“He’s always watching you,” Kelly said. “The things he’s learned and experienced he wants to bring to us. He’ll be like, ‘Hey, this is what I’ve experienced. You might encounter this in your career.’ That’s something that’s really cool to have.”
So this spring offers another four weeks in class time for Kelly to study Molina as closely as he can and to listen when there is a lesson to be gleaned. A year from now, he could be the one answering questions, the one everyone is counting on to help carry a pitching staff to the playoffs. He’ll want to keep those lessons handy for the occasions he might need them. That’s when they’ll know for sure. Was that hunch they had when he was still a teenager, the one about leadership capabilities, sound enough to make him the next great Cardinals catcher?