Tweeting a picture of himself sitting shotgun in a JetBlue plane, Yoenis Cespedes arrived in Boston with pomp and circumstance. Joe Kelly, on the other hand, had to check his own Twitter to find out that he had been traded (according to Ken Wantanabe of NESN). The Jon Lester / Cespedes trade understandably overshadowed the deal that sent Kelly and Allen Craig to Boston in exchange for John Lackey. But reactions to the Kelly acquisition have been surprisingly lukewarm, with Kelly pegged as a mediocre, back-of-the-rotation starter. Indeed, the depth chart on the Red Sox website has him listed as the fifth starter.
Kelly deserves a little more love than that. In 15 starts last season, Kelly was 9-3 with a 2.28 ERA. This season, before injuring his hamstring in April, Kelly let up one run in 15 innings. He has a career ERA of 3.25, and four respectable postseason starts under his belt. Kelly doesn’t exactly mow batters down with a strikeout per 9 innings rate of 6.1, but neither did recent Hall of Fame inductee Greg Maddux, who had the same career K/9 ratio. Kelly is only 26, yet to enter the prime of his career. With a 96 mile per hour fastball and “one of the hardest sinkers in the game,” according to the Boston Globe’s Peter Abraham, Kelly has the stuff to be a middle-to-front of the rotation starter.
He was in the back of the rotation on a loaded Cardinals staff that included Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, and Michael Wacha. But when healthy, Joe Kelly is better than a fifth starter on most major league teams, especially the current Red Sox. Many criticisms of Kelly cite his poor performance since returning from a hamstring injury in July, as his ERA has ballooned to 4.37. However, it’s unfair to judge Kelly’s overall effectiveness based on such a small sample size. And while he had three poor July starts, he also pitched one seven inning, one run gem.
With Lester and Lackey gone, there is a Grand Canyon-sized hole at the front of the rotation. Clay Buchholz may have the inside lane by virtue of seniority, but with a few more performances like Sunday night (5 IP, 7 ER, 4 BB), he will be lucky to find himself on the staff in 2015. None of the other starters (Rubby De La Rosa, Brandon Workman, and Allen Webster) have spent a full season in the majors. And yet, they are penciled in above Kelly on the depth chart.
Before Kelly pitches his first game in a new shade of red Wednesday night, I predict that he will become the ace of the overhauled 2014 Sox pitching staff. Granted, it doesn’t take much to be the ace of this young and unproven staff, and Kelly’s time in that position will hopefully be temporary until the return of Jon Lester in the offseason (on Monday, Rick McNair wrote a great piece for BSI regarding Lester’s return). But if he pitches like the Joe Kelly of 2013 and early 2014, he will be not only a far better #1 than Buchholz this year, but also a solid Robin to Lester’s Batman in 2015. With an under-the-radar, fresh start on the Sox, Kelly, not Cespedes, could be the steal of the momentous 2014 Trade Deadline.