Arizona’s Merrill Kelly hopes to emulate St. Louis pitcher Miles Mikolas.
Kelly never got above Triple-A during five seasons in the Tampa Bay organization, went to South Korea and won 48 games over four years with the SK Wyverns.
Mikolas won 31 games in Japan with the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants from 2015-17, then signed a $15.5 million, two-year contract with the Cardinals and went 18-4. He triggered an extra $1 million in pay for this year, and the Cardinals rewarded him with a $68 million, four-year deal covering 2020-23.
.”I definitely paid attention to him a lot last year,” Kelly said. “I was checking the box scores. My goal was obviously to come back, and to see him go to Asia and dominate the way he did, and come back and dominate the way he did … I was definitely rooting him on.”
Kelly helped SK Wyverns win last year’s title under former Kanas City manager Trey Hillman.
“It’s an experience that I can look back on 20 years from now and say I am really glad I spent four years there,” Kelly said. “Before I was contacted, I didn’t even really think of South Korea, other than we learn about the Korean War and more about North Korea.
Arizona general manager Mike Hazen said the team had scouted Kelly in Asia and liked “the mix of pitches, the stuff, strike-throwing ability.”
“He matured,” Hazen said. “It can play a little offensive over there. It is a good challenge for pitchers.”
Kelly was drafted by the Rays out of Arizona State in 2010. Primarily a sinker/changeup pitcher with Tampa Bay, Kelly said he threw four more four-seam fastballs and curveballs in South Korea. He added a cut fastball to better attack left-handed hitters and also saw his velocity rise to the low- to mid-90 mph range.
“The Korean hitters are very good at their hand-eye coordination,” Kelly said. “They are very much in the mentality of ‘if it is in the strike zone, I am going to swing at it, and I am going to swing at it hard.’ And a lot of times they hit it. Just being able to navigate the zone a little bit differently is one of the differences I came back with.”
The departures of Patrick Corbin and Clay Buchholz as free agents created opportunity to join a rotation headed by Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray.
“We’re going to count on him,” Arizona manager Torey Lovullo said. “I encouraged him to embrace those expectations and understand that he’s ready for these types of challenges. I think he is going to have a good year for us.”