ST. LOUIS, MO - JUNE 10: Joe Kelly #58 of the St. Louis Cardinals throws to a Cleveland Indians batter during his major league debut at Busch Stadium on June 10, 2012 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images)
Prospect of the Day: Joe Kelly, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
St. Louis Cardinals rookie Joe Kelly made his major league debut last weekend, allowing seven hits, one walk, and one run in five innings of work against the Cleveland Indians, fanning four. Let's take a look at his past, present, and possible future.
Kelly had a successful freshman season at the University of California-Riverside in 2007, posting a 1.32 ERA and saving six games. However, he was ineffective as a sophomore (9.35 ERA in 17 innings) and erratic as a junior, saving 12 games but posting a 5.65 ERA. Scouts were still impressed enough with him that he was drafted in the third round in 2009, seen as a potential closer. The Cardinals used him in the bullpen at Batavia in the New York-Penn League, where he posted a 4.75 ERA and a 30/11 K/BB in 30 innings.
Kelly pitched 2010 with Quad Cities in the Midwest League, using him as a swingman (18 starts, eight relief appearances). The starts were originally meant to get him innings, but he took well to the role. His overall numbers weren't great (4.62 ERA, 92/45 K/BB in 103 innings, but a 3.40 GO/AO), but the Cardinals were happy with his progress. He began 2011 with Palm Beach in the Florida State League and was impressive (2.60 ERA, 62/34 K/BB in 73 innings, 56 hits, 1.96 GO/AO). Promoted to Double-A Springfield at mid-season, he scuffled somewhat in the Texas League (5.01 ERA, 51/25 K/BB in 59 innings, 70 hits).
He entered 2012 as something of an enigma, but he got off to a good start for Triple-A Memphis, posting a 2.86 ERA in 12 starts with a 45/21 K/BB in 72 innings and a 1.91 GO/AO. This put him in line for a major league trial, and he got the call when Jaime Garcia got hurt.
Kelly is a 6-1, 185 pound right-handed hitter and thrower, born June 9, 1988. His key pitch is his fastball, clocked as high as 98-100 MPH when used in relief. It is a consistent 91-95 MPH pitch as a starter. The fastball has unusually strong sinking movement; sometimes it moves like a splitter. His secondary pitches are a slider, a curveball, and a changeup. These all have their moments, but none of them are dominant pitches and ultimately he lives and dies with the sinker. His strikeout rates were adequate in the lower minors, but he fanned just 5.60 per nine innings in Triple-A. On the other hand, he showed the best control of his professional life this spring, a major reason for his step forward.
Many scouts still see Kelly as a reliever in the long run, fearing that his secondary pitches will be overexposed as a starter, or that his non-textbook mechanics (his arm action is long) could lead to durability problems. While these concerns are understandable, he's shown steady improvement and deserves a shot in the rotation. Kelly could be a very solid inning-eating ground ball machine.