Pitcher Levi Kelly, the Kanawha Valley freshman of the year at Nitro in 2015, is headed to training camp with the Arizona Diamondbacks as part of their 60-man roster.
Major League Baseball is set to start its COVID-19 delayed regular season July 23 and players will be reporting to their home parks by Wednesday for a second spring training. which will last about three weeks.
Teams will be allowed a pool of up to 60 players, with 30 on the major-league roster to start the season and the rest available on a taxi squad to serve as replacements due to injuries, health or other factors. The 21-year-old Kelly, who had 22 starts in the Class A Midwest League last season, will likely fall into the latter category as one of the organization’s top pitching prospects. His fastball has been clocked as high as 95-96 mph.
Kelly said the designation wasn’t a total surprise, but welcome nonetheless.
“I thought I had a chance,’’ Kelly said. “I didn’t know for sure, but I definitely thought I had a chance. Once I found out, I was pretty stoked, just because I’ve been throwing hard. With everybody quarantined, it’s kind of hard to get much work on live hitters, so I’m happy to get out here and compete. One of the big things not being able to do back home — I was able to lift and throw, but not able to compete.’’
A 6-foot-4, 205-pound right-hander, Kelly was 5-1 last season with a 2.03 ERA and 132 strikeouts in 1061/3 innings while pitching for the Kane County Cougars in Geneva, Illinois. Prior to that, his only pro experience was four starts in the rookie-level Arizona League in 2018. He hadn’t been assigned to a new level for 2020 when COVID-19 shut down baseball in March, but was expecting either a spot in high Class A or perhaps AA.
Some might look at Kelly’s inclusion to the 60-man roster as merely a setting for the Diamondbacks to keep an eye on the development of one of their top prospects, with not much chance of being promoted to the active roster. But that’s not how Kelly’s looking at it.
“No, that’s their plan,’’ he said, “and maybe it’s the plan overall, but I’m going into it with a mindset of trying to win a spot, no matter how far off in the distance [it might be]. My mindset is not just, ‘I’m here to let them see me.’ My mindset is going in to win a spot, whether it’s this year, next year. I want to set myself in a good position.’’
Kelly, a St. Albans native, was an eighth-round draft pick of the Diamondbacks in 2018 after playing two seasons at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida and one at Bishop Verot in Fort Myers, Florida. He played just one season at Nitro, going 4-3 in 2015 with a 2.53 ERA, striking out 64 and walking 26 in 382/3 innings. He gave a commitment to LSU before throwing his first pitch at Nitro in 2015, but the D-backs lured him away from college with a $350,000 signing bonus.
Dave Sneed, now Nitro’s head coach, served as the team’s pitching coach in 2015 when Kelly was on the squad. Sneed realized even then that Kelly could make it to the big leagues.
“Absolutely,’’ Sneed said. “He had a great arm, and he was a mature kid, even at 15 years old, 16 years old. He knew what he wanted to do, and was willing to work for it. It was a pleasure coaching him. I wished him the best when he did leave because we felt it was a good situation for him to go south [to IMG].
“We became pretty close that year that I did coach him. Sometimes, your best athletes come by that naturally and don’t work at it. He was one of those kids who was a great athlete and worked as hard or harder than anybody. You could tell he was going to do something with the ability he had.’’
Kelly said taking a mature and confident approach to his career, even when he was in high school, has aided his development.
“I think definitely your mindset is what kind of separates you once you get here,’’ he said. “For the most part, everybody’s very talented and a high-level athlete. A few may slip through the cracks, but for the most part everybody’s similar in stuff and athletic ability. But mindset seems to make a bigger impact than some might guess.’’
Diamondbacks General Manager Mike Hazen said the team will likely have 35 players at their home park, Chase Field in Phoenix, for training camp and the other 25 at nearby Salt River Fields, their spring training facility. Once the regular season begins, the D-backs will utilize Salt River Fields for the rest of the players in the 60-man player pool who aren’t on the active roster.
Arizona finds itself one down one starting pitcher when Mike Leake opted out of the 2020 season on Monday. If Kelly ever gets called up to the Diamondbacks’ active roster and gets in a game, he’ll become the first Nitro player to appear in the MLB since J.R. House, a catcher who played in 32 games for three different teams from 2003-08. House played baseball at Nitro as a freshman in 1996.