In the hierarchy of the Tampa Bay Rays prospects, Merrill Kelly was not highly regarded heading into the season. Being overshadowed by prospects such as Taylor Guerrieri and Chris Archer is one thing, but Kelly was not even on a lot of top 30 prospect lists heading into the season. It was understandable – while Kelly had put together a solid won-loss record over the previous two seasons, he struck out just over six batters per nine innings and seemed as though he may be someone that could end up as a fifth starter or long reliever at best.
This season began much the same way, with Kelly starting for the Montgomery Biscuits and putting up essentially the same results he had over the previous two seasons. Although his won-loss record and ERA were worse and his strikeout rate had decreased, he was allowing fewer baserunners than he had since his debut with Hudson Valley. That improvement was enough to get Kelly a promotion to Durham.
At that point, Kelly went from a potential spot starter/long relief candidate to someone that may now be on the prospect radar. After joining the Bulls, Kelly went 8-4 with a 3.19 ERA, his lowest since his time with the Renegades. Even more impressively, Kelly has increased his strikeout rate. In 84.2 innings in Durham, he has struck out 70 batters, for a rate of 7.4 strikeouts per nine innings.
With the plethora of pitching that the Rays have at the major league level, and with prospects such as Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery and Alex Colome, Kelly still is likely to be fighting an uphill battle to make an impact on the Rays in the future. However, Kelly’s improved performance for Durham, as well as his increased strikeout rate, may have vaulted him into a potentially attractive piece for another squad. While he may not be enough on his own to fetch a player that could make an impact upon the Rays, Kelly may be a solid piece in such a trade.
Merrill Kelly has certainly put together an impressive stretch for the Bulls. Even if he is unable to crack the Rays pitching staff, he may end up as a solid chip as the Rays look to strengthen their roster. It says a lot that the Rays are sending him to the Arizona Fall League, and wheher his future lies with the Rays or another team, his sudden emergence could make an impact on the Rays’ future.