Two years ago, the Red Sox drafted 18-year-old Casey Kelly in the first round of the MLB first-year player draft (pick No. 30 overall) out of Sarasota, Florida. At the time, he was a 195-pound two-sport schoolboy star who had signed a letter of intent to play quarterback at the University of Tennessee.
But then the Sox lured him to baseball with their checkbook and a promise that he could both pitch and play shortstop in the minor leagues. The agreement between the player and club was that he’d have to choose one or the other at the end of last season.
The son of former major league catcher Pat Kelly (Toronto) spent last winter re-sculpting his physique at IMG Performance Institute. He spent his first full season of professional ball splitting time between the mound and shortstop.
But while his pitching exploits earned him a selection to the Futures Game—the minor league showcase held the weekend before the MLB All-Star Game—he struggled offensively throughout the second half of the 2009 season and in the Arizona Fall League.
When it came time to select which position he would pursue in the future, the choice was clear.
Kelly is now a the team’s top prospect, a 220-pound pitcher with three “plus” pitches (fastball, curve, and changeup) and an uncanny presence for a prospect of his still-young age (20 years old). He was invited to Boston in January to participate in the organization’s ‘Rookie Development Program’, and he is now experiencing his first spring training with the big league club.
He is knocking the socks off his bosses.
Earlier this week, pitching coach Josh Farrell said: “He’s got genuine confidence in himself, and I mean that in the right way. He’s not cocky by any means. He’s very respectful. When you see him go about his work, he’s not in a rush. He carries himself with a very good air about him, like one who genuinely is comfortable with himself, even being in big league camp for the first time.”
Manager Terry Francona echoed Farrell’s sentiment: “When you talk to him, he seems to get it. He’s very young, yet he doesn’t give you youthful answers. He’s poised. He asks good questions. There’s a reason that the organization is very excited about his future. There’ a lot of reasons why—it’s not just a big arm.”
He threw his first live batting practice session yesterday in front of an audience that included Farrell, Francona, general manager Theo Epstein, and others. While Kelly was surprised by all the attention in the session, he just went about his business as a professional. He got his work in. When he was his hard, he just picked up the next ball and threw his next pitch… as if he’d been doing it that way all along.
Afterwards, he said: “I don’t really take them hitting me well to heart. I’m just trying to work on my location, trying to make sure everything feels good. Watching how (Jon) Lester and (Josh) Beckett threw their (B-P sessions) today, guys hit it off them, they threw the next ball and moved on. They are just trying to get their work in and aren’t worried about what the hitters are doing.”
The Boston brass was suitably impressed with his approach and understanding. Francona said: “You can tell Casey has been around the game” (referring to the exposure Kelly received from his father). Farrell added: “It speaks to his poise and having an understanding of the purpose of batting practice.”
Kelly is expected to start the 2010 campaign with Double-A Portland. He says he plans to work on his curveball this spring because he understands that is the next step in his evolution: “I’m going to try to throw it a lot more because the higher you get up the more you have to mix it up.”
He says his first spring training has already been a resounding success due to his exposure to a pair of Sox veterans—Josh Beckett and Jon Lester.
“I (thought) you throw one day and then you do nothing the next day; but, just by being around (those guys) you learn the days you don’t pitch are the days you work the hardest. The days you pitch you get your conditioning in, but the days you don’t pitch are the days you work the hardest.”
The ballclub has witnessed his physical development from afar over the last eighteen months, now it is getting to see his emotional and mental maturation from up close.
Manager Terry Francona already seems to be counting the days until Kelly finishes filling out physically and refining his pitching repertoire: "It will be fun to show up two years from now and imagine what this kid will be."