Although Casey Kelly never got around to memorizing “Rocky Top,” he did tune in this fall when the University of Tennessee took the gridiron.
“But I don’t miss waking up at 6:30 for weights and two-a-days,” Kelly said. “I don’t miss that part of football at all.”
Good thing. The erstwhile Volunteer quarterback (and shortstop) recruit will have enough on his plate this spring.
Kelly, the Red Sox’ No. 1 pick (30th overall) in last year’s draft out of Sarasota High, will have the unusual task of pitching and playing shortstop this year, likely starting at Single-A Greenville. He is expected to throw approximately 100 innings as a starter and then move to the field.
The 19-year-old right-hander, whose arsenal includes a low- to mid-90s fastball, a 12-6 curve, and a change, has acknowledged he prefers the every-day position to the once-every-five-days option of the starting rotation. But conversations with the team before he signed in July convinced him he would have ample opportunity at either position.
“We sat down and talked for a length of time, because they thought I’d be a little better as a pitcher, but they didn’t want to cut out the position player,” he said. “So we bounced some ideas back and forth, and this year’s going to be kind of a see which one works out better. And at the end of the season we’ll see which one projects better.”
For the Sox, it could be a win-win opportunity.
“I think it’s something that has a delicate balance. … we’re not going to run away from our opinion and evaluation of him when we saw him as an amateur,” said Mike Hazen, Sox director of player development.
“We ultimately feel like this is going to be settled out on the field, and that the decision will be made one way for us. If Casey ends up being a middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, that’s a great thing. If Casey ends up being an every-day shortstop that plays on our team as the every-day shortstop … then that’s a good thing as well.”
Whether the dual role will affect Kelly’s overall development remains to be seen.
“Certainly there’s concern,” said Hazen. “What we’ve asked is when you’re pitching, focus on the pitching and then let everything else take care of itself after that. When you’re hitting, hit. ... And we feel like if he’s able to do that — and it’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be asking a lot of Casey — but if he’s able to do that, then we’ll minimize some of those difficulties.”
Last season, strictly as a position player or designated hitter, Kelly hit .173 in 27 games for the Gulf Coast rookie team before joining Single-A Lowell, where he hit .344 in nine games. He picked up his first hit, a double to left, in his fifth game, against the Reds’ Gulf Coast entry — managed by his father, Pat, a former catcher in the Angels, Braves, Blue Jays, and White Sox systems.
It’s fairly common for a player to be drafted at one position and developed at another. Even the simultaneous-development approach, though unusual, is not unprecedented. The Sox had a similar situation when they drafted Frank Rodriguez out of high school with their top pick in the 1990 draft.
“Usually when you draft a player and he’s a two-way guy, you have a good idea of which way you want to go. [But] we really had a split with which to go with Frankie throughout the organization,” said Ed Kenney, who was vice president of player development at the time.
The Sox and Rodriguez elected to start the player’s career as a shortstop, and Rodriguez chose pitching after his first season.
The philosophy was that Rodriguez — like Kelly now — was young enough that there wasn’t great concern about delaying his development, Kenney said.
“A guy with that kind of arm is still going to have that kind of an arm, and it’s a fresh arm a year, two years later,” Kenney said, “that he could then make an easier transition to the mound than being on the mound for two years and then going back to trying to play every day and hit and all.”
Kelly is listed at 6-foot-3, 194 pounds, and he thinks he may have added to his frame this off-season.
“Every time I see people, they’re like, ‘Wow, you’ve gotten taller,’” he said.
The Red Sox hope to see a lot more growth from the young shortstop/pitcher.
Maureen Mullen covers the Red Sox for OT and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org