PORTLAND — To this point in 20-year-old Casey Kelly’s brief adult life, the giant, fork-in-the-road decisions seem as simple as paper or plastic, Coke or Pepsi.
Play baseball and football at the University of Tennessee, or sign as a 2008 first-round pick with the then-world champion Boston Red Sox? Hey, the corn don’t grow at all on Rocky Top, and neither do $3 million signing bonuses.
Eighteen months later, Kelly — admittedly with the help of Red Sox executives — was faced with another now-or-never choice that didn’t exactly require a crisis counselor or a Magic 8-Ball.
Pitcher or shortstop?
On the hill, the 220-pound Kelly throws his fastball, curve and change-up with major league mechanics and location. In two seasons of Class-A competition, he’s 15-6 with an ERA under 2.00. Scouts compare him to six-time all-star Kevin Brown.
In just over 300 at-bats, conversely, Kelly’s skills as a shortstop were more reminiscent of Mark Belanger and Mario Mendoza. Good glove, unspectacular speed, minimal power, average around .200.
Kelly’s arrangement with the Red Sox organization was that he would choose the mound or middle infield after the 2009 season. He didn’t engage in much soul-searching or hand-wringing about what would be his quickest route to The Show.
“People ask me if I‘m going to miss it. But you see these guys hit every day and you see how hard it is,” Kelly said. “I kind of kept an open mind and whatever happened, happened. If the worst thing is me being a pitcher and maybe being in the big leagues in a couple years, that’s not a bad thing.”
A prodigious bat at Sarasota (Fla.) High School, Kelly was nearly unhittable as a pitcher, weaving a combined 19-1 record his junior and senior years.
He continued to ply both skills in his first full year of minor league ball at Greenville and Salem in 2009, but his low-90s fastball and 12-to-6-o’clock deuce developed the strongest identity. After an unsightly 11-game stint at the plate for Mesa in the Arizona Fall League (.171, 17 strikeouts in 41 at-bats), Kelly’s professional fate was sealed.
Local Red Sox fans will reap the immediate benefits this spring and summer. Kelly begins 2010 in the Portland Sea Dogs’ rotation.
“He’s fun to watch,” Sea Dogs manager Arnie Beyeler said of his first impressions. “He’s young. He’s very athletic. He throws strikes. He gets outs. For a guy who hasn’t pitched a lot professionally, he’s a great kid.”
If pitching wasn’t necessarily Kelly’s obvious fate on draft day, baseball probably was.
Once projected as the eventual starting quarterback at Tennessee, Kelly could have followed the trail blazed by Peyton Manning. But he never needed to peek around his family tree to find idols in professional sports.
Kelly’s father, Pat, played nine years in the majors as an infielder with the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays. His uncle, Mike, suited up for five teams in a six-year career.
Pat Kelly has managed in the minors since his playing career ended in 1999, and Casey was a constant tagalong. So nothing about the professional baseball lifestyle leaves him awestruck, or even surprised.
“He has great control. He has so much poise on the mound for a young guy,” said Eammon Portice, who advanced from Class-A to Double-A with Kelly this spring. “And he’s a really humble guy. He’s not one of those guys you can’t stand. He’s a good guy.”
Without the distractions of double duty, Kelly was splendid in his first spring training with the Sox.
In his final spring start, Kelly confronted a Tampa Bay Rays lineup that featured Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Jason Bartlett and B.J. Upton. He allowed four hits and struck out four in a strong three-inning stint.
“Kind of fun to watch it. That was some good stuff today,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona told the Boston Globe after Kelly’s appearance. “I think we know he’s a pretty special kid.”
Kelly started the spring with the Sox as a non-roster invitee. He was sent to the neighboring minor league camp for two weeks before the recall to face the Rays on March 30.
The seven-week stretch was helpful in getting Kelly back into a rhythm. He pitched a total of 95 innings last season for Greenville and Salem — not many more than his senior year of high school. He struck out 74 while walking only 16.
“It’s definitely a little different. It was nice to know what I was going to do, so all my workouts were geared toward pitching,” said Kelly. “I think it’s a lot easier to know what I’m going to be doing all year and trying to get ready for it.”
Ranked as the No. 2 Red Sox prospect by Baseball America, Kelly is aware of the pressure to match the ascent of homegrown hurlers Clay Buchholz, Jonathan Papelbon, Daniel Bard and the since-traded Justin Masterson, all of whom ascended the minor league ladder in short order.
So far, he won’t say he feels the heat.
“It’s a tremendous honor to be in this organization and be named one of the top prospects,” Kelly said. “I just try to go out there and play every game as hard as I can, and the outcome will take care of itself.”
Kelly’s stated personal goals are modest: To top last year’s career-high total of innings pitched by 20 to 30, to get used to pitching in cold weather, and to start every fifth day.
The minors are rife with stories of young pitchers who developed dead arms and career-threatening elbow and shoulder problems. There’s understandable caution with Kelly, because he already throws a diverse repertoire of pitches and hasn’t borne a normal workload due to his professional cross-training.
“All these guys work certain days and do certain things. We’ll just kind of set them up out there and see what happens. (The Red Sox) kind of tell us where to go. It always works out that way,” Beyeler said. “A guy like (Kelly), it’s his first year pitching, so we’ve got some restrictions on him. It’s all about getting him out there to pitch and getting his reps in and seeing how he develops.”
In a world full of burning questions, the Sox don’t seem to have any about that.