One of the first things that stands out about Carson Kelly is maturity.
For a 17-year-old closing in on his first professional at-bat, that could be one of his most important weapons.
Kelly, who played high school baseball at Portland (Ore.) Westview, signed with Oregon University prior to Major League Baseball’s first-year player draft. And when the first round ended earlier this month without his name being called, the third baseman/pitcher pretty much set his mind on joining the Ducks’ program.
That put him in the same boat Science Hill’s Daniel Norris was in last year. Norris had signed with Clemson and didn’t get picked in the first round.
And just like Norris, things took a pay-for-play turn for the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Kelly, whose talents will be on display tonight as Johnson City opens defense of its Appalachian League championship at Cardinal Park against Greeneville at 7 o’clock.
Kelly was picked in the second round (No. 86 overall) by St. Louis and offered a lot of money to sign. The Cardinals reportedly gave him 1.6 million reasons to cancel his obligation to Oregon. But Kelly didn’t make the choice on his own.
“I’m very fortunate to have a big family,” Kelly said Monday. “And I’m a big family guy. This was a family decision, not an individual decision. It was a long process, but I’m very blessed to have this opportunity.”
There are no guarantees in baseball, especially for players as young as Kelly. But his talent, humility and commitment to work suggest the stay in Johnson City might not be an extended one.
Cardinals’ manager Oliver Marmol said he sees some promising things about Kelly’s approach to the game.
“It’s the kind of thing where he might not have to spend too much time at the rookie-league level,” said Marmol. “He’s only 17 years old, but when you talk about actions on the field he’s well-advanced. He has soft hands and his feet work well. And when the ball comes off his bat, you wouldn’t think it was hit by a 17-year-old.
“And you can tell he has a good head on his shoulders. He has the right frame of mind to develop as a player. He understands what all he needs to do.”
Kelly will begin his career as a third baseman, but was also projected to have professional ability as a pitcher with a fastball in the low 90s. He said he’s fine with the Cardinals’ decision to put him in the lineup.
“I’m comfortable playing every day,” said Kelly. “I feel like I’m ready. I know this game has a lot of ups and downs. And I know you’ve got to put a lot of hard work into it.
“I’ve decided to take the next step in my workouts, and I’m eating right. I have a plan every day. This is a profession now. There’s something you’ve always got to be working on. There are always little nits and bits. I need to be prepared and relaxed.”
Kelly said he started to realize he had a shot at professional ball when he was 15 years old. He made it through a cut from 40 players to 20, and was selected for the 16-and-under national team. The squad played games in Mexico.
“It was nervewracking,” said Kelly. “We were in a different country and people were booing us. But we were representing our country.”
Kelly shouldn’t have to worry about boos in Johnson City. It’s not hard to imagine him quickly becoming a fan favorite. And he should have at least one big fan in the stands as his dad is expected to be around for the first two series of the season.
Looking ahead, if Kelly rises up through the Cardinals’ organization he said he has family or friends of family at every stop along the way.
“I’m very excited,” said Kelly. “Ever since I’ve been here, I’ve had a blast.
“Getting to the big leagues is always a dream. But right now you set it aside, try to develop, and just get better every day. Hard work always pays off.”
Those words are like music to Marmol’s ears.
“His overall game is something that needs to be worked on daily,” said Marmol. “ But for his age, he’s really advanced.”