There is no doubt that the major league arrival of top prospect Shelby Miller was more anticipated than the comparable debut of Joe Kelly. Yet the latter not only reached St. Louis first, he made an unexpected and major contribution to the present – the success of the 2012 St. Louis Cardinals. Miller’s relatively brief introduction was all about the future.
The Cardinals had selected Kelly in the third round of the 2009 First-Year Draft, two rounds after Miller. The right-hander was an All-American closer at Cal-Riverside. As with all their top pitching prospects, the Cardinals made Kelly a starter in the minors.
Like so many others who pitched for the 2012 Memphis Redbirds, Kelly suffered from a lack of run support. At the time of his promotion, Kelly had just two wins in 12 starts despite having a 2.86 ERA, which was second-best in the entire Pacific Coast League. Still, Kelly proved his readiness by having worked seven or more innings in each of his last three outings for the Redbirds, allowing only one run each time.
On June 10, just one day after his 24th birthday, the right-hander made his MLB debut, starting for Garcia. Kelly went five innings against Cleveland, allowing one run, but taking a no-decision.
On August 15, with 12 major league starts under his belt with a 3.41 ERA, Kelly was moved to the pen. Bringing matters full circle, Garcia was ready to come off the disabled list. Kelly had won two of his three August starts, but was not given much run support overall, picking up just three wins in those 12 outings.
Kelly’s best game was on June 10 at Busch Stadium, when he tossed six innings of two-hit ball at the Marlins. Only one run scored, which was unearned. Kelly took a no-decision in an eventual 5-4 Miami win.
On August 29, just two weeks after Kelly left the rotation, the struggles of Lynn led to Kelly being given four more starts. He went 1-1 with two more no-decisions before Lynn reclaimed his spot. Kelly shifted back to the pen following his September 14 start in Los Angeles.
To close the regular season, Kelly tossed seven frames of late-inning relief across six appearances. He allowed just two runs, both earned.
In the playoffs, he continued to pitch out of the bullpen. When Garcia went down again, Lynn stepped in this time. Pitching in seven of the Cardinals 13 post-season games, Kelly allowed two runs, both earned, in 7 2/3 innings. He did not have a post-season decision.
While it takes an entire roster to drive a playoff season, the contributions of Kelly may have been one of the most unheralded success stories of the 2012 Cardinals.