Merrill Kelly has flown under the radar as a prospect, but he has actually been a solid performer, as he has posted a 3.57 ERA in his minor league career. He finally put himself on the radar last year after posting a 3.19 ERA, 7.4 K/9, and 3.6 BB/9 last season at Triple-A Durham, but despite the breakout year he may not have a spot in the Triple-A rotation in 2014. The Rays already have top prospects Nate Karns, Matt Andriese, Enny Romero, and Mike Montgomery, as well as recently re-signed veteran Erik Bedard, projected to pitch in the Triple-A rotation. Alex Colome could also find himself in the picture when his 50-game suspension is up, and recently named 5th starter Jake Odorizzi might find himself back in Durham once Jeremy Hellickson is ready to return from injury. So where could Kelly fit in this year?
Option 1: Kelly is sent back to Double-A
This would not be ideal, but it might be the best way for Kelly to rack up innings. Kelly doesn’t need to throw against Double-A competition, but after his solid performance at Triple-A last year, getting him innings might be more important than him proving himself against Triple-A hitters for the second time. Also, the Rays are going to have Kelly working to fix his flaws regardless of what level he is at, so there might not be a huge difference between Double-A and Triple-A if he is going to be ironing out the same issues. Converting him to relief is an option, but the Rays have always shown that they will give pitchers every chance to start before converting them to relief. Starting is so much more valuable than relieving, and the Rays already have a plethora of quality relievers in the system, so having Kelly relieve would be a waste of his abilities. Therefore, Kelly could remain a starter, and the best way to do this would be to send him back to Double-A.
Option 2: Kelly is put in the Triple-A bullpen
This option would give Kelly the chance to face Triple-A competition, but in this role he is not going to be throwing as many innings as the Rays would like. An argument could be made that this move could only be temporary and Kelly could be ready to slot into the rotation when an injury occurs. However, Odorizzi is probably just in the major league rotation on a fill-in basis until Hellickson returns from injury in mid-May, and Colome will be back in the rotation after his suspension if he isn’t moved to the bullpen. This would get Kelly stuck in the bullpen for the long-run, and would hurt his arm strength in a year that he needs to continue to build it up. If the Rays want him to face better competition this would likely be the best option, but it would come at the expense of valuable innings for Kelly.
Option 3: Make room for Kelly in the Triple-A rotation
This is the least likely of the three options, but it can’t be completely counted out of the equation. The first way that the Rays could do this is to send Montgomery to the bullpen. Many people thought this move was inevitable in the first place, but after a strong Arizona Fall League, Montgomery might get another chance to start. As stated earlier, starting is so much more valuable than relieving, and Montgomery has a higher ceiling than Kelly, so even though this is possible, it isn’t likely. The second way would be to have a 6-man rotation in Triple-A. However, pitchers generally hate pitching in 6-man rotations, and it would take away crucial innings from other starters. Most of the Triple-A rotation is in key years for their development, so why take away innings from them to give to a lesser prospect in Kelly? Also with Colome and/or Odorizzi will likely be back in the rotation after the season’s first two months, there wouldn’t be room for Kelly down the road. Pitching in the Triple-A rotation would be best for Kelly, but it isn’t the most practical option.
In the end, the best choice is for the Rays to send Merrill Kelly back to Double-A. Yes it costs him some competition, but he can throw all the innings that he would need. The Rays are going to know what areas he needs to improve in regardless of if he throws in Triple-A or Double-A, so he can work on fixing his issues at either level. Eventually he will find himself back in Triple-A, even if that is not until 2015. The Rays are going to want to have Kelly remain a starter, and the best way to ensure that happens is to send him back to Double-A this season.