Rays fans who are interested prospects may remember the name Merrill Kelly. He played in the Rays minor league system for five years after being drafted in the 8th round in 2010, and was eventually promoted to Triple-A where he showed good performance.
He entered Korean baseball at the young age of 25, and he’s grown into a great starting pitcher, playing in Korea in four seasons, and gaining the attention of MLB scouts.
Among the teams rumored to be following Kelly in the last year are the Rays, Padres, Red Sox, Pirates, Phillies, and Dodgers, so it seems he can expect a good offer upon his return to the States.
One interesting free agent to watch in the coming weeks: 30-year-old right-hander Merrill Kelly, who has spent the last four years in Korea. He is eligible to sign Dec. 1 and will be a rarity: goes to Asia never having played in the big leagues and returns on a major league deal.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) November 27, 2018
The new Merrill Kelly
The report of BA at draft is as follows, an important baseline for who he is today:
RHP Kelly gets results, but does it with a lot of funk and deception. He sinks an average fastball that touches 92 mph, and he throws it for strikes. But he’s rigid with an “iron Mike” delivery, and as one sup that Because of this mechanical problems,
And after spending four seasons in Korea, Kelly has changed in four ways:
- He added a Fastball velocity (Up to 96 mph, averaging 92~93 mph overall)
- His main weapon is not an ‘above-average change up’ anymore, having added a Cutter that is now his best pitch, and adding important variety to his repertoire (SL/CH/CT/FT/FF)
- He became a viable starting pitcher in Korean pro ball, pitching 729 innings (average 182 innings). KBO has a shorter season than MLB, so that is a significant difference, because...
- His delivery is not funky anymore. Fixing the delivery improved his durability.
Here was Kelly before he was drafted by the Rays:
And now? I think you’d better take a look at the video.
What will Kelly’s contract look like?
As JT Morgan wrote earlier this offseason, there are many ambiguous pitchers in the Rays 40-man roster. It may be difficult for the Rays to give him an obvious place, as it’s hard to become an impact pitcher in the Majors, regardless of how well you performed in Korea.
This is especially true when considering previous players who performed well in the Korean baseball, but returned as Quad-A players or replacement level pitchers, such as Josh Lindblom, Tyler Wilson and Hector Noesi.
But with the number of MLB teams that paid attention to him, and the fact that the Rays were one of them, I think he stands a decent chance, as Kelly can likely play various roles on a major league pitching staff like the Rays.
But even if he doesn’t break into the major league squad immediately, having never been on the 40-man roster before, Kelly will have three options years available on his contract as his rookie status resumes — a concept you may remember coming into play when Dae Ho Lee was able to be optioned by the Mariners after signing a major league deal in 2016.
For a comparison to what Kelly’s contract will look like, pitcher Miles Mikolas was signed by the Cardinals out of Japan on a two year, $15.5 million deal for the 2018-2019 seasons, but will then be arbitration eligible in 2020, 2021, and 2022 as he concludes his rookie status left over from 2012-2014 with the Padres and Rangers. Mikolas was an All-Star for the Cardinals in 2018.
Kelly has never been on a 40-man roster previously, so he will have six years of team control to negotiate with on whatever contract he eventually signs. Some players, like Jung Ho Kang, have negotiated to be released at the contract’s end, becoming a free agent.
Merrill Kelly will return to the states entering his age-30 season. He currently owns a 4.09 ERA in the KBO over 28 games. He previously ranked 7th in the KBO in 2017 (3.60 ERA) and 4th in 2016 (3.68 ERA). He earned $1.4 million in 2018 as the SK Wyverns ace, earning the win in Game 3 of the 2018 Korea Series, which the Wyverns lost 4 games to 2.
Danny Russell contributed to this article.