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Arizona Diamondbacks 2020 Reviews: #5 - Merrill Kelly

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He was the shot in the arm the team needed - until he wasn’t anymore.

Arizona Diamondbacks v Oakland Athletics Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images
  • Rating: 5.68
  • Age: 32
  • 2020 Stats: 5 G, 31.1 IP, 4.42 ERA, 4.51 FIP, 1.315 WHIP, 158:57 K/BB, 4 QS, 179 ERA+, 1.4 bWAR/0.6fWAR
  • 2020 Salary: $3,000,000
  • 2021 Status: Playing on the first of two team option years for $4,250,000

Introduction

Merrill Kelly hails from Arizona, where he went to high school, junior, college, and finally, Arizona State University. Kelly was drafted three times, once at each stop from prep through university. The final time through the process, he was taken in the eighth round of the 2010 draft by the Tampa Bay Rays. After spending a few years in the Rays’ farm system Kelly hit something of a developmental wall. At that point, the Rays and Kelly had a frank conversation, one in which it was explained to Kelly that his future with the club was likely limited and would be coming from the bullpen. Kelly was not convinced of the limitations that the Rays saw and decided to bet on himself. Rather than looking at an uncertain future languishing in Tampa Bay’s bullpen, Kelly took his talents and went to the KBO. It took Kelly a bit to find his footing in the KBO. However, his (comparatively) larger frame and his durable arm allowed him to find a role as a rotation workhorse. Allowed to work as a starter in a hitter-happy league, Kelly was able to work on the skills the Rays felt were keeping him from being an effective MLB starter. Over the course of four years in the KBO, Kelly became one of the league’s better starters. His eventual KBO stats were as follows:

119 G (118 GS), 729.2 IP, 3.86 ERA, 641:/206 K:BB, 1.309 WHIP

He pitched in excess of 180 innings in three of the four seasons, demonstrating his arm was a durable one and up to the task of an MLB workload. His performance in the KBO garnered the attention of a few clubs, including the Diamondbacks. When Kelly became a free agent after the 2018 season, Mike Hazen struck a deal with Kelly to return home to Arizona. He made 32 starts as a member of Arizona’s embattled rotation. At the minimum, Kelly provided the rare health and innings that the 2019 rotation lacked. On his good days, he was dominant. On his off-days, he was out of the game early. Despite the inconsistency, he manged to provide 183.1 innings of work, the most of anyone on the team.


2020

Despite being the team leader in innings pitched in 2019, Kelly arrived in spring training with an uncertain future in front of him. While he had demonstrated the ability to work as a starter, the results had been inconsistent. Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks went out and signed Madison Bumgarner, a proven starter with top-of-the-rotation stuff. The emergence of Zac Gallen in 2019 and the arrival of Mike Leake at the trade deadline further complicated the situation. Finally, Luke Weaver was returning from injury. It seemed, for all intents and purposes, that Kelly would once again be relegated to the bullpen at the MLB level. While the talk coming from the organization was that the plan all along was for Kelly to pitch as a member of the rotation, the reality is, they showed no inclination of moving to a six-man rotation. Then, COVID struck. The first MLB player to opt-out of the pandemic season was Arizona’s Mike Leake, “Mr. I Eat Innings for Lunch” himself. Just like that, the rotation had an opening. Kelly was ready, willing, and able to fill that opening.

The Diamondbacks started the season 1-3, with only budding ace, Zac Gallen, turning in a decent start in that stretch. Kelly took the ball for the team’s fifth start of the season. IN that game, he turned in what would go on to become one of the entire team’s best starts of the season. He pitched 7 23 innings, while allowing only one run, which came on a no-hitter breaking solo home run by Texas’ Roughned Odor. Striking out seven and walking only one, he finished with a Game Score of 75.

Kelly, in addition to Gallen, was the only stability to be found in the Arizona rotation in the early going. In fact, other than Gallen, he was the only other starter turning in anything resembling even remotely decent starts. With Robbie Ray, Luke Weaver, and Madison Bumgarner unable to provide any significant innings, Kelly’s durability was a balm for the nerves of Diamondbacks fans every five games. Then, about an hour before Kelly was set to take the mound for his sixth start of the season, Kelly was scratched. There was some tightness and discomfort in his throwing shoulder. However, the more he pitched, the looser his arm got and the better he felt. Still, this is not normal, especially in a professional pitcher. Out of an abundance of caution, Kelly was scratched from his start and sent to be examined. A blood clot was found, sending Kelly to the IL. By itself, the procedure to dissolve the blood clot likely would have cost Kelly the remainder of the shortened pandemic season. However, the blood clot alone was not the last of Kelly’s problems. Kelly and the team still needed to figure out what caused the clot in the first place. Further investigation revealed the culprit and, on September 6th, it was announced that Kelly would undergo thoracic outlet surgery. Suddenly, the man who worked to find MLB success by being the durable, reliable arm was not only looking at the loss of two-thirds of the 2020 season, but potentially a loss of playing time (or even a roster spot) in 2021.

Not until the Diamondbacks traded for Caleb Smith at the deadline did the Diamondbacks find themselves another arm that could fill in for the loss of Kelly. Smith was, himself, recovering from an injury though. So, even after finally finding a reliable starter, the team still could not replace Kelly’s innings. 2020 will go down as the season that might have been for Kelly. Finally given the chance to show what he could do when the team needed him most, Kelly stepped up and provided the sort of results that team’s hope for out of a solid #2 starter.He was on his way to becoming a rotation stalwart. We may never know whether the pandemic’s influence on preparing for the season or the workload that Kelly took on at the last minute played into the eventual need to shut him down. What we do know is that Kelly went from having a clearly defined path as a future MLB starter to questioning whether or not he will ever be an effective MLB pitcher again.


2021

While there are indeed some famous cases of pitchers coming back from thoracic outlet surgery and having great careers, the lion’s share of TOS recipients have not had great returns to the game. This fact, along with the new financial situation of the Diamondbacks made Merrill Kelly a legitimate non-tender candidate entering the winter offseason. Mike Hazen and the Diamondbacks decided to roll the dice and tendered Kelly, bringing him back for the 2021 season and retaining potential control of him for the 2022 season as well. It still remains to be seen whether or not Kelly will be healthy and available by the time teams report for spring training. That is currently the plan. We all know what Mike Tyson said about having a plan though.

The team will give Kelly every opportunity to show what he still has. He will likely be given some extra chances should he struggle for a bit in the early-going. The fact remains though, Kelly will be playing for his proferssional baseball career. He will need to return healthy from the procedure and also show that he is still capable of controlling MLB hitters. Whether he is able to do so out of the rotation or will be forced to the bullpen is secondary to all of that. If he is able to return and perform as though he never missed a step, then he can expect his 2022 option to be picked up without hesitation while also potentially having the team explore an extension. If he struggles, or is only able to be somewhat effective out of the bullpen, he could be looking for a minor league invite by the time 2022 rolls around.

We here at the Pit are pulling for him.