September 14, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Joe Kelly (58) pitches in the first inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

Checking In With the Top Prospects: Joe Kelly

Joe Kelly, a California native, played his college ball at University of California in Riverside. He converted from a high school outfielder to a relief pitcher in college. Kelly was the closer for the UCR Highlanders and set a university record with 24 saves. Because of his dominant relief pitching, Kelly was named as an All-American. The Cardinals took Kelly in the third round of the 2009 draft and converted him to a starting pitcher. The idea behind the conversion was to allow Kelly to work on his secondary stuff.

He started his career at low A to mixed results. He showed pretty good strikeout potential, but pitched to a 4.75 ERA in 30 innings. In 2010 the Cardinals started the starting pitching experiment at Quad Cities. He originally was used as a swingman to get some innings, but took to the role well enough that he started to see more starts than relief appearances. He improved his ERA slightly, but showed some control issues. In 2011, the team promoted him to high A where he started to be used exclusively as a starter. It was at this level that he really started to impress. He still flashed some control issues, but learned to pitch to contact more and focus on the strikeout less. This improved his ERA by two full runs. Late in the season, he was promoted to AA, where his ERA jumped to 5.01, but his other peripheral numbers improved. The team responded to the perceived improvement by promoting Kelly to Memphis to start 202. He continued to show a decline in strikeout totals, but a vast improvement in his walk rate. His focus on grounders helped to bring his ERA down, as his stuff isn’t really strikeout material.

Kelly got the call to join the major league rotation to fill in for the injured Jaime Garcia. He looked solid through his first handful of starts as he pitched quality starts but didn’t get much in the way of run support. Kelly continues to get spot starts and work out of the bullpen and has seen good results. His strikeout rate is sitting right in between his AA and AAA numbers and his walk rate has staryed mostly down.

Kelly’s repertoire profiles more as a reliever than a starter. He throws a 94 mph fastball, an 81 mph slider, an 80 mph slider, and an 84 mph changeup. His secondary pitches are not great, and it shows in his reliance on his fastball. Kelly throws the heater almost 70% of the time, so he risks overexposure as a starter. I don’t see him as an elite back end of the bullpen pitcher, and his upside as a starter is probably an average number four at very best. I think his best role is similar to the Brad Thompson role of mop-up duty and occasional spot start.

As far as next season, I think Kelly stays flat on the prospect rankings. I definitely don’t see him jumping into the top 10, but would be surprised to see him drop out of the top 15. Kelly is only 24, so there is still a bit of upside to his skillset. I don’t think he is a lock to make the 2013 Cardinals, as the fifth spot in the rotation will create a battle between him, Shelby Miller, and Lance Lynn. I don’t see Kelly winning out over the other two, but is a better bullpen option than Miller so would win a slot if Lance Lynn is named the fifth starter.

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