How Red Sox’ Zack Kelly went from undrafted out of college to cusp of big leagues

Zack Kelly may be on the verge of the major leagues, but he has never considered himself a highly-touted prospect.

Undrafted out of Division II Newberry College (Newberry, S.C.), Kelly signed with the Oakland Athletics for just $500 in 2017. His first assignment as a pro was in the rookie-level Arizona League.

“The A’s, they provided us with apartments in Arizona for the AZL, and [rent] was $300 a month,” Kelly recently recalled. “And so, the day we got our signing bonuses was also the first day we had to pay rent. So, I got my check and after taxes it was $323. I walk out of the building and I see on the big whiteboard: ‘RENT IS DUE TOMORROW: $300.’ So, I had to go cash my check, put away $300 for rent, then I had $23. And I kid you not, I took it to Applebee’s and I got a 2 for $20 for myself. So, I essentially signed for a plane ticket and an Applebee’s 2 for $20.”

From the beginning, Kelly’s journey through the minors has been riddled with hurdles, and he was still presented with challenges even after graduating from rookie ball.

After reaching the Double-A level with the Angels organization in 2019, Kelly tore the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his throwing elbow the following spring.

While he was ultimately able to avoid Tommy John surgery, the timing of Kelly’s injury was still far from ideal. Around the same time he was rehabbing, the COVID-19 pandemic was ravaging the United States. Citing financial losses caused by the pandemic, MLB teams began releasing minor-league players en masse.

Kelly was one of those casualties, as he was officially released by the Angels on May 29 — shortly after he told the team he was going to require some form of surgery in order to pitch pain-free moving forward.

“Getting surgery at my age was not something I thought was beneficial to me,” Kelly said. “Towards the end of May, when I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to get back to 100% without pain, I told them. And I was talking about bad timing, because I got released right after that. But I understood. Everybody had to make cuts for the most part. At that time, I thought I was going to have to get full-blown Tommy John surgery, … which wouldn’t have benefited them.

“So, I don’t blame them,” he added. “But, luckily for me, I didn’t have to get the full-blown elbow reconstruction and I was able to play this year. I was able to sign with Boston and be in a really good organization that I like and think has a bright future. It paid off.”

Kelly signed his first minor-league contract with the Red Sox last December. The right-handed reliever began the 2021 minor-league season at Double-A Portland, but earned his first promotion to Triple-A Worcester in late July. Between the two levels, he posted an impressive 2.18 ERA over 36 appearances spanning 45 1/3 innings of work.

Shortly before the conclusion of the Triple-A season, Kelly expressed interest in remaining with the Red Sox on another minor-league pact for the 2022 campaign. It did not take long for the two sides to reach an agreement.

“Probably two or three days after the season ended, we were already in talks, which is a little bit sooner than I thought it was going to be,” recalled Kelly. “A lot of it was done through my agent. Eventually, we came to an agreement. It was a no-brainer. So, I’m happy to be back.”

One thing in particular that Kelly enjoyed about his first year in the Red Sox organization was the way the team’s coaches communicate with one another — even at different minor-league levels. Take Sea Dogs pitching coach Lance Carter and WooSox pitching coach Paul Abbott, for instance.

“I like this organization because the coaches talk,” Kelly explained. “From the stuff me and Lance were working on in Portland, the day I got to Worcester with [Abbott], he brought that up and we were able to keep the same thing going. The other places I’ve been at, going from level to level, that hasn’t happened. It seems to be like that from the top down. Just talking to different people, kind of picking other guys’ brains, that was something that I was really happy to see. It makes the promotion that much easier.”

While still under contract for the 2022 season, Kelly’s status with the Red Sox is technically up in the air. Last month, Boston had the opportunity to add the 26-year-old to their 40-man roster but elected not to.

That decision has left Kelly eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, which usually takes place during the last day of the Winter Meetings but has since been postponed indefinitely due to Major League Baseball’s work stoppage.

“I thought I might have a chance to get added, but ultimately I didn’t, which I’m fine with,” said Kelly. “I trust Chaim [Bloom]. He’s proven himself over and over throughout the years and he knows what his plan is for this off-season.”

Assuming the major-league phase of the Rule 5 Draft takes place sometime between now and the start of the 2022 season, Kelly says he is not sure what to expect, but is eager to contribute at the big-league level if that’s a possibility.

“I think regardless of what happens, the preparation doesn’t change as far as what I’m doing,” he said. “But, obviously, the goal is to be in the big-leagues. And to come up and help a big-league club, I would be all over that opportunity. But, I think whatever happens is a win-win situation for me. If I were to get selected, I would hopefully stay in the big-leagues all year. If not, I’m in a really good place with Boston where I’m completely happy being.”

In the interim, Kelly — who turns 27 in March — does have a major-league invite to Red Sox spring training to look forward to next year. If he remains with Boston through the winter, it will mark his first time attending a big-league camp.

“My goals are the same as they have been,” said Kelly. “It’s to make quality pitches, continue to pitch to my philosophies, ultimately make it to the big leagues, help the team win, and hopefully win a World Series.”

(Picture of Zack Kelly: Katie Morrison/MassLive)

Author: Brendan Campbell

Blogging about the Boston Red Sox since April '17. Also support Tottenham Hotspur.

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