Back in February, if you’d been told that the D-backs had dropped five straight games and were 8.5 games out of first place with a week until the trade deadline, the natural thought would be whether the team would trade left-hander Robbie Ray. The 28-year-old is a free agent at season’s end, and demand for starting pitching is always considerable during deadline season.
Jump ahead to August, however, and Ray has unexpectedly struggled through the worst showing of his career. He’s a contributing factor to the D-backs’ season-long struggles and their recent slide. And with nearly as many walks issued (25) as innings pitched (27), he’s not going to drum up much of a competitive market. Granted, his struggles make it extraordinarily difficult for the Diamondbacks to contemplate a qualifying offer this winter — a QO had previously looked likely — so perhaps they’ll still include some cash to help balance out his $9.43MM salary ($3.4MM prorated) and move him for what they can get.
But even without a productive Ray helping to anchor their pitching staff, the Diamondbacks find themselves in possession of one of the game’s more interesting trade assets in the rotation: right-hander Merrill Kelly.
Kelly is a relatively anonymous righty — one with whom many casual fans may not be familiar at all. The 31-year-old was an eighth-round pick of the Rays in 2010 but never earned a call to the big leagues in Tampa Bay. After several solid seasons in their system failed to earn him a promotion, Kelly jumped to the Korea Baseball Organization, where he starred for the SK Wyverns for four years. That showing prompted the D-backs to invest in a small two-year contract that included a pair of club options back in the 2018-19 offseason.
It was viewed as a fairly low-risk deal, but now, as all 30 owners bemoan revenue losses amid the Covid-19 pandemic and as virtually every psuedo-contender’s front office eyes pitching depth, Kelly should be on every team’s radar. Kelly has not only established himself as a solid big leaguer in 37 starts with the D-backs but has done so while playing on a deal that now looks well below-market.
Let’s first look to Kelly’s production. Since his Major League debut early last year, he’s taken the ball every fifth day and given the Diamondbacks 214 2/3 innings of 4.15 ERA ball. He’s been particularly sharp in five starts this year, working 31 1/3 frames with a 2.59 ERA, 8.3 K/9, 1.4 BB/9, 1.44 HR/9 and a 45.6 percent ground-ball rate. Considering his hitter-friendly home park and the league-wide home run surge, Kelly’s career ERA is about six to seven percent better than the league average per both ERA+ and ERA-.
Kelly isn’t an overpowering pitcher by any means, relying on a four-seamer and a sinker that both average about 92 mph. He’s not a huge ground-ball arm, nor does he generate whiffs at a rate that is indicative of the potential for more punchouts with his current arsenal. He’s improved his walk rate, first-pitch strike rate and overall strike percentage in 2020, though, and the improved location could lend some credence to this year’s uptick in production. He’s still unlikely to sustain a sub-3.00 ERA, but fielding-independent metrics generally agree that Kelly is at the very least a league-average starter.
“League-average” admittedly isn’t an especially sexy adjective to attach to a pitcher, but average innings are useful. And Kelly isn’t being paid like an average starter — he’s being paid like a reclamation project. His $3MM salary in 2020 matches that of righty Michael Wacha, who signed with the Mets after a season ruined by shoulder injuries. Most reclamation projects have substantial incentives packages built into their contracts, allowing them to earn more if they return to form. That’s not the case with Kelly.
Kelly is not only earning a $3MM salary in 2020, however; he’s controlled through 2022 via a pair of club options that would pay him a combined $9.5MM. His contract carries a $4.25MM option ($500K buyout) for the 2021 season that is a veritable lock to be exercised, as well as a $5.25MM option (no buyout) for the 2022 campaign. For comparison’s sake, that $9.5MM salary from 2021-22 is all of $500K more than the $9MM base salary the Giants paid to right-hander Kevin Gausman — another reclamation project who is among the likelier pitchers to change hands in the coming week.
None of this is to say that Kelly’s contract is some kind of colossal misstep on his behalf. The track record of starting pitchers with zero MLB experience coming back to North America and thriving after a strong KBO showing is virtually nonexistent. There was a chance that the signing simply wouldn’t work out for the D-backs, and they’d be out the $5.5MM they’d guaranteed to Kelly. Fortunately for them, that’s not how things have turned out. And now, at a time when most front offices know they won’t be provided the same resources they can typically expect from ownership, the affordable terms of that contract could create enough surplus value to make Kelly a sought-after trade piece.
Of course, that surplus value would benefit the D-backs, too. They’re hardly buried in the NL postseason race — a reality that’s true of virtually every team except the Pirates. Looking past the top two teams in each division, there are eight teams within a game and a half of each other for those final two playoff spots. Barring a continuation of their current losing streak, there’s minimal urgency to sell any pieces; GM Mike Hazen said as recently a last week that he plans to try to add pieces in the bullpen and possibly at designated hitter.
Even if the D-backs aren’t sold on their status as contenders in 2020, they surely plan to aim for competitiveness in 2021. The club signed Madison Bumgarner and Kole Calhoun to five- and three-year deals, respectively, this winter. They traded multiple prospects to acquire the final two years of control over Starling Marte. This isn’t a club that’s going to embark on a lengthy, arduous rebuild — even with recent trades of Paul Goldschmidt and Zack Greinke still fresh in everyone’s memory.
That said, those trades and signings also helped to build a deep reservoir of pitching within the organization. Bumgarner, Zac Gallen, Luke Weaver, Corbin Martin, Alex Young, J.B. Bukauskas, Jon Duplantier and others give the club quite a bit of depth even in the event that Kelly is subtracted from the equation. A trade involving him could return a young arm (or arms) with greater team control remaining. It could also return a big league ready bat who might help to address some of the team’s lackluster production at the dish in 2020.
There’s no guarantee that the D-backs will look to move Kelly. The D-backs will likely wait until the final days or even hours leading up to the deadline to make a major move, as the wide range of outcomes this week necessitates that they gather more information. But a rental-averse team with budgetary constraints — descriptions that apply to the majority of buyers — would have plenty of reasons to make a push for Kelly and the stability he provides.