Red Sox fans have heard plenty about the talents of Casey Kelly in the last year or so, and this spring has been no different. Stories already abound about the maturity and poise the 20-year-old has shown in his first major-league camp.
Fans almost certainly are wondering when they'll see Kelly make his debut at Fenway Park. With the much-ballyhooed prospect probably destined to start at Double-A Portland this spring, a September call-up this season and a major-league job sometime in 2011 doesn't seem beyond the realm of possibility. Even the experts at Baseball America and SoxProspects.com have him ticketed for a mid-2011 arrival in the major leagues.
"A future frontline starter, he's ticketed for Double-A and may not need more than another year in the minors," BA's Jim Callis wrote.
Is that a fair expectation? Just for fun, let's look at the paths traveled by the five best young pitchers in the American League, the type of pitchers the Red Sox would be giddy to compare Kelly one day to:
Zack Greinke (debut at age 20)
Single-A: 16 starts
Double-A: 26 starts
Triple-A: 6 starts
Total: 48 starts, 281 innings
This includes an extra stint in the minor leagues after he'd made more than 50 major-league starts thanks to a social anxiety disorder that cost him most of the 2006 season.
Felix Hernandez (debut at age 19)
Single-A: 24 starts
Double-A: 10 starts
Triple-A: 14 starts
Total: 48 starts, 306 1/3 innings
Jon Lester (debut at age 22)
Single-A: 44 starts
Double-A: 27 starts
Triple-A: 25 starts
Total: 96 starts, 482 innings
This includes, of course, an extra season spent working his way back from cancer treatments, a season that included stops at all three levels.
CC Sabathia (debut at age 20)
Single-A: 26 starts
Double-A: 17 starts
Triple-A: 0 starts
Total: 43 starts, 214 2/3 innings
Justin Verlander (debut at age 22)
Single-A: 13 starts
Double-A: 7 starts
Triple-A: 0 starts
Total: 20 starts, 118 2/3 innings
That does not include the three season Verlander pitched in college, making 46 starts and throwing 335 2/3 innings for Old Dominion. Those three seasons skew his numbers a little bit. Had Kelly gone to Tennessee and pitched there, he'd have come out three years from now in position to move much more quickly through the minor leagues -- but it also would be three years from now.
The other four pitchers all made at least 40 minor-league starts and compiled somewhere between 200 and 400 innings in their initial ascent to the major leagues.
Here's what Kelly has under his belt:
Casey Kelly (just turned 20)
Single-A: 17 starts, 95 innings pitched
Total: 17 starts, 95 innings pitched
Because of Kelly's indecision at the onset of his professional career, he's a little bit behind where Greinke and Lester -- both, like Kelly, drafted out of high school -- were at the same age. Greinke made five starts the same year he was drafted and 23 starts the year after that. Lester made one start the same year he was drafted and 21 starts the season after that.
Kelly, of course, played shortstop the same year he was drafted and only spent half of last season pitching rather than playing in the field.
Kelly will start this season at Double-A Portland with an eye on making between 20 and 25 starts and compiling somewhere around 125 innings pitched. He might -- might -- get a call-up in September to expose him to the major leagues, but he also might have hit his innings limit by then and find himself shut down for the season.
(It wouldn't be the first time a top pitching prospect has been shut down to preserve his health.)
He then likely would start the 2011 season at Triple-A Pawtucket and make another 15 or 20 starts, minimum, before the Red Sox started to consider him for a role on the major-league roster. Even then, he'd have to crack a rotation that still will include Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka and maybe even Josh Beckett, depending on how things shake out.
It's going to be tough to be patient with Kelly. Being patient, though, is going to be the best way to get the best out of him.