Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Merrill Kelly’s road to the big leagues has been “different,” which, he said, he needed.
“The journey that I took . . . I needed to figure some stuff out,” Kelly said.
It was trying and circuitous, but the result has Kelly is on the hill for his hometown Major League team.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he said. “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.”
Kelly graduated from Desert Mountain High in 2007. A two-year starter for the 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 to 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 said. “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, N.C.
His travels were 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 Dec. 4, nearly nine years after his professional-baseball journey began, Kelly got the call he had been waiting for. He and the D-backs agreed to 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 said. “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 said.
“As spring has gone on, it has become more and more special. I think at first it didn’t feel like spring,” Kelly said. “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 said. “They couldn’t be happier or prouder of where I am now and where I used to be.”
Kelly can’t help but smirk when asked to compare himself now to the kid who attended Desert Mountain. He admits that he just wanted to throw the ball as hard as he could instead of recognizing game situations.
“I probably wasn’t as focused as I should have been back in those days,” Kelly said, chuckling.
As spring training winds down and Opening Day approaches, Kelly is determined to stay focused on his day-to-day improvement.
The D-backs open with a four-game series against the Dodgers in Los Angeles, followed by a three-game stint against the Padres in San Diego. Their home opener is Friday, April 5, against the defending world-champion Boston Red Sox.
It’s unclear where Kelly will land in the D-backs’ starting rotation, but he is anticipating a day filled with emotion when he finally makes his Major League debut.
“No matter where we are -- San Diego, L.A. or home -- I will probably have a lot of family there,” Kelly said. “My first game, I think, will be more emotional than Opening Day.
“But if it’s against the Red Sox, that would be pretty cool.”
East Valley players in Major League training camps
Merrill Kelly, P, Desert Mountain High; Kevin Cron, INF, Mountain Pointe.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Cody Bellinger, OF, Hamilton.
Los Angeles Angels
Peter Bourjos, OF, Notre Dame Prep.
Zach Davies, P, Mesquite; Tuffy Gosewisch, C, Horizon.
Taylor Scott, P/OF, Notre Dame Prep.
Chicago White Sox
D.J. Peterson, INF/OF, Gilbert.
Jaycob Brugman, OF, Desert Vista High.
Aaron Slegers, P, Notre Dame Prep; Cole Tucker, INF, Mountain Pointe; Jake Barrett, P, Desert Ridge.
New York Yankees
Danny Coulombe, P, Chaparral; Chance Adams, P, Chaparral; Stephen Tarpley, P, Gilbert.
Scott Kingery, INF, Mountain Pointe; Austin Davis, P, Desert Mountain; James Pazos, P, Highland; Dylan Cozens, OF, Chaparral.
Dustin Peterson, OF/3B, Gilbert.
C.J. Cron, INF, Mountain Pointe.