By JAY LeBLANC
Casey Kelly gave his classmates plenty of reasons to consider him for the “Most Likely to Succeed” superlative during his high school days in Sarasota, Fla. As a senior, the 6-foot-3, 194-pound shortstop hit .473 with five home runs and also showed tremendous potential on the mound by going 8-1 with a 1.16 ERA. Kelly’s versatility extended beyond the diamond as well. He threw for 4,212 career yards and 37 touchdowns as a high school quarterback and was offered a football scholarship to Peyton Manning’s alma mater, the University of Tennessee.
Kelly might have accepted Tennessee’s offer if not for the fact that baseball is in his blood; his father, Pat Kelly, played nine seasons in the majors for the New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals and Toronto Blue Jays and is now coaching in the Cincinnati Reds organization. The Boston Red Sox, who selected Kelly with the 30th and final pick of the 2008 draft’s first round, provided plenty of additional incentive for him to choose baseball over football by offering a $3 million bonus - $700,000 more than No. 6 overall pick Kyle Skipworth got from the Florida Marlins.
The Red Sox reportedly prefer Kelly as a pitcher, but he enjoys playing shortstop and was given the opportunity to do so last summer in his pro debut. Kelly held his own in the field but struggled at the plate for the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Red Sox, hitting just .173 with a home run and nine RBI while striking out 34 times in 98 at bats. He fared much better after a late-season promotion to the short-season Class A Lowell Spinners, hitting .344 with five doubles in 32 at bats. Baseball America ranked him as the sixth-best prospect in the Red Sox organization this past offseason.
The plan for Kelly entering this season was for him to pitch a certain number of innings, then switch to shortstop and play the rest of the season there. Assigned to the Class A Greenville Drive to begin the year, the 19-year-old dominated the mostly older and more experienced South Atlantic League competition, going 6-1 with a 1.12 ERA and 39 strikeouts in as many innings. His stellar performance earned him a late-May promotion to the advanced Class A Salem Red Sox. Kelly has a no-decision and two losses in his first three Carolina League starts, but has posted a respectable 3.78 ERA and an outstanding 14-to-1 K-to-walk ratio in 16 2/3 innings.
I had the chance to speak with Kelly on Monday night before his Salem teammates took on the Kansas City Royals-affiliated Wilmington Blue Rocks at Frawley Stadium in Wilmington, Del.
Q: You passed up a chance to play quarterback for the University of Tennessee to sign with the Red Sox. How difficult of a decision was that for you?
A: It was tough. I really wanted to play football, and especially play at a big-time college like that. It was tough but you know, one of the first loves I had was baseball and they gave me an offer I couldn’t put down.
Q: Your father played nine seasons in the majors and is now a coach in the Reds organization. How much of a role did he play in your development as a baseball player?
A: Oh, huge - I mean, I wouldn’t be the player I am today without him. Everything he’s taught me, from on-the-field stuff to off-the-field stuff … I just owe all of my success to him.
Q: Could you talk a bit about the different pitches you throw and how you like to use them?
A: I throw a fastball, changeup, curveball - just kind of standard. I like to establish my fastball early in the count, or early in the game at least, and show them the curveball and changeup, you know, not too much - just enough for them to see it and put it in the back of their minds. Later on, the game kind of dictates how everything goes and which pitches you use more, [depending on] which ones you’re feeling better with. But all of my pitches are working right now, and I think that’s the credit to my success.
Q: The plan is for you to pitch a certain number of innings this year and then play the rest of the season at shortstop. When will you be making the switch, and are you excited about doing so?
A: Yeah, I’m super excited (Laughs). I get to go out there and start playing shortstop and hitting, and I’m really excited about that. You know, I think I’ve got a couple more starts to go and maybe at the end of this month or the beginning of next month I’ll switch over and start playing shortstop. But for right now I’m just kind of concentrating on pitching and getting this part of the season over with.
Q: At this point, what are your strengths and weaknesses as a positional player?
A: You know, I really don’t know yet, because I’ve only played half a season as a positional player. I think this year I’ll learn more about that, and go from there.
Q: What position do you think you’ll end up at in the long run?
A: (Laughs) You know, your guess is as good as mine. I think after this year we’ll sit down as see which one is going to be the best - [the one that] that gets me to the big leagues the fastest. It’s kind of wait-and-see. I’ve had a good start at pitching, and we’ll see how I can end up playing shortstop.
Q: Is there any player, past or present, that you either look up to or try to model yourself after?
A: I try to have fun with the game like Jose Reyes. I love the way he plays; he smiles on the field and he has fun. That’s the guy that I watch the most. Playing shortstop, and as a great big league player, I think I look up to him.
Q: How about in terms of pitching?
A: That’s a good question. I like watching Jon Lester throw. I think him and [Josh] Beckett are probably the two most exciting pitchers to watch, just [from] being around them in spring training and stuff. I think those are the two pitchers that I look up to.
Q: How soon do you think you’ll be ready to help the Red Sox?
A: Hopefully as soon as possible. I think I’ve got to develop a lot more and learn some more things, but hopefully within the next few years I’ll be up there helping the team win a World Series.
Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Be sure to check out our previous National Pastime Prospect Q&A’s:
2009 - Jack McGeary, Nationals; L.J. Hoes, Orioles; Jordan Danks, White Sox; Mike Moustakas, Royals; Danny Duffy, Royals; Kyle Skipworth, Marlins; Xavier Avery, Orioles; Ryan Kalish, Red Sox; Derek Norris, Nationals; Zach Britton, Orioles; Pedro Alvarez, Pirates; Robbie Grossman, Pirates; Brandon Waring, Orioles.
2008 - Matt Wieters, Orioles; Ross Detwiler, Nationals; Adrian Alaniz, Nationals; Jake Arrieta, Orioles; Greg Golson, Phillies; John Shelby III, White Sox; Brandon Erbe, Orioles; Chris Marrero, Nationals; Jason Donald, Phillies; John Ely, White Sox; Nolan Reimold, Orioles; Michael Burgess, Nationals; Wes Hodges, Indians; Colton Willems, Nationals; Chris Tillman, Orioles; Dominic Brown, Phillies; Brandon Hicks, Braves; Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals; Nick Weglarz, Indians; Gorkys Hernandez, Braves; Beau Mills, Indians; Stephen King, Nationals; Brad Bergesen, Orioles; Fernando Martinez, Mets; Derrick Robinson, Royals; David Hernandez, Orioles; Jason Castro, Astros; Bobby Parnell, Mets; George Kontos, Yankees; Brian Matusz, Orioles; Matt LaPorta, Indians; Austin Jackson, Yankees; Jeff Bianchi, Royals; Cole Rohrbough, Braves; Pat Venditte, Yankees.