Shawn Kelley definitely wins the MPP Award this spring — Most Praised PItcher. Everyone, from Jack Zduriencik and Don Wakamatsu on down, loves this guy’s potential, and I don’t think it will be long before we see him in the major leagues. Probably not to start the season — Kelley has just 42 innings at Class AA, and none higher in his 1 1/2 seasons as a pro — but he’s definitely on the fast track.
I talked to Kelley early in my stay in Peoria, intending to write a column, but for one reason or another — the signing of Chad Cordero bumped him one day — I never wrote it. Rather than let the interview die on the vine, I thought I’d put the highlights here.
Just for background, Kelley was the Mariners’ 13th-round pick in 2007 out of Austin Peay in Clarksville, Tenn., the same school that produced George Sherrill (and where Zduriencik coached baseball and football in the mid-1970s). Kelley had Tommy John surgery in 2003 but recovered to be Ohio Valley Conference Pitcher of the Year in 2007, really catching scouts eyes in the NCAA tournament when he lasted 10 innings in a duel with eventual No. 1 overall pick David Price of Vanderbilt. He throws in the mid-90s, but his killer pitch is a slider that Baseball America ranked the best in their minor-league system. He is regarded as future closer material.
So far this spring, Kelley has a 9.45 ERA in six outings (6 2/3) outings, but that’s a little deceptive. The coaching staff has been impressed with his poise and his stuff — and with the zero walks he’s issued to go with nine strikeouts. I asked him about opening eyes this spring.
“It’s always good, I guess, when you get noticed. But that’s what everyone here is trying to do, to do something to stand out, or so guys remember who you are. Anything I can do to get noticed or open some eyes, that’s always great.”
On his realisic goals coming to camp: “To be honest, coming into camp, I just wanted an opportunity to pitch, get some innings, get seen and hopefully open some eyes. I’m pretty realistic when I evaluate myself. I haven’t set a personal goal of how I’m going to make the team coming out of camp, because that may just not happen, regardless of how I pitch. There’s other things that go into that
I’m here to do my best and hopefully let this organization know I can pitch at this level, so whether it comes sooner or later in the season, maybe I get an opportunity. That’s all I can ask for.”
On planting a seed last year, when he advanced from Wisconsin (low Class A) to High Desert (high A) to West Tennessee (AA) and pitched well at each level, including 15 total saves: “I think when I got to Double-A and had a little success there, it probably opened up some eyes. Venezuela (where he was successful as a closer in the winter league) helped. At the end of last season and into the offseasn, maybe people started to know who I was. I hope.
On junctures in his career he’s contemplated giving up baseball to pursue a career in politics (he majored in political science at Austin Peay and likes the idea of working in a campaign): “There were some times I wasn’t 100 percnet sure if it would work out. I was a little older (Kelley turns 25 in April). I didn’t know if the organization had a lot of interest in me, or if I was going to get a good look. I was trying to be realistic with myself, weighing my options. I had my degree. But I think at this point I made the right decision. I’m giving it my all.
On his breakthrough last season: “Last year was big. I started off in Wisconsin, did well, and moved up to California. Then I moved up again to Double-A. Once I got to Double-A, I realized, ‘Hey, I can pitch at that level.’ A lot of what I heard, if you can get the job done at Double-A, you have a shot. I started to realize this is something I can do.”
On his strengths: “I throw a lot of strikes. If you look at my stats, I don’t walk guys. I’m not afraid to attack hitters, no matter who they are. That’s one of my strengths: I’m going to go at people and challenge people.”
On starting (his role in college) vs. relieving (all 61 of his professional appearances have been out of the bullpen): “Whatever. Right now, I’m a reliever. Whatever gets me to Seattle and keeps me there would be great.”
(Photo by Getty Images)