By Zach Alvira
Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Merrill Kelly’s road to the big leagues has been “different,” which, he says, he needed.
“I needed to figure some stuff out,” Kelly says.
It was trying and circuitous, but the result has the Scottsdale native on the hill for his hometown Major League team.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” says Kelly, won his first start against the San Diego Padres on April 1. “Back then, I would have said that I wish I would have done something different, but standing here right now, I wouldn’t change it.
“Except maybe get better grades.”
A 2007 Scottsdale Desert Mountain High School graduate, Kelly was a two-years starter for varsity. Kelly led the Wolves to a 26-7 record as a junior and 25-9 as their ace his senior season.
The Baltimore Orioles drafted him in the 37th round of the 2007 MLB Draft. Kelly did not sign.
Instead, he went to Yavapai College in Prescott for two seasons before he was presented with another opportunity to go pro. Despite a compelling offer from the Cleveland Indians, who chose him in the 22nd round in 2009, he transferred to Arizona State.
“The draft out of Yavapai, I seriously considered taking,” Kelly says. “The offer was really good, and the Indians seemed like they were excited to have me in the organization, but the opportunity to play at ASU, a big-time school like that and one that is right down the road, kind of overrode that decision.”
Kelly went 10-3 with a 4.23 ERA in his only season for the Sun Devils, 2010. They went 52-10 and were the top seed in the College World Series. However, they were eliminated by eventual champion South Carolina.
Kelly then signed with the Tampa Bay Rays after he was drafted for the third time, in the eighth round in 2010. He spent three seasons advancing in the Rays’ Minor League system and eventually earned an invite to Tampa Bay’s big-league, spring-training camp in 2014. He did not make the opening-day roster and was optioned to Triple-A Durham, North Carolina.
Travels only beginning
In 2015, Kelly’s baseball career took him more than 7,500 miles, to Incheon, South Korea, where he signed with the SK Wyverns of the Korean Baseball Organization. In four seasons, Kelly went 48-32 with a 3.86 ERA.
Last December 1, nearly nine years after his professional baseball journey began, Kelly got the call he had been waiting for. He received a contract offer—the same day as his wedding. On December 3, he inked a two-year contract worth $5.5 million, which includes club options in 2021 and 2022.
“I was excited. With the deal we came to. It was way more than I expected to get coming back,” Kelly says. “We had some idea that there was interest, but I had no idea the excitement was that high.”
Kelly became just the fifth Diamondbacks player to play high school and college baseball in Arizona before landing on their roster. That reality still hasn’t completely set in, he says.
“As spring has gone on, it has become more and more special. I think at first it didn’t feel like spring,” Kelly says. “I’ve had spring in Florida every year, and even with the Korean team half of our spring was in Florida.
“It felt more like an extended off season, where I was just coming in here to get my work in. Every day I wake up in my own bed and my wife is there and I can go on with my normal routine. It’s been pretty cool.”
Kelly’s homecoming was great news for his family, too. His mother, Cheryl, moved to Seattle a few years ago, but is close enough to see him pitch now. His father, Tom, still lives in Scottsdale. His older brother, Reid, resides in Chandler.
“They were excited they don’t have to take a 15-hour plane ride to come see me pitch. They can just drive down the street,” Kelly says. “They couldn’t be happier or prouder of where I am now and where I used to be.”