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New D-back, former ASU pitcher Kelly hoping to break into majors

(AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Despite growing up only a few minutes from Salt River Fields, playing his college baseball at Arizona State and owning a house in north Scottsdale, it hasn’t sunk in for Merrill Kelly that he’s an Arizona Diamondback.

Four years playing professional baseball in South Korea — 6,000 miles from Arizona — and a sudden return to the states in what will likely culminate in the 30-year-old’s MLB debut has him trying to distinguish fantasy and reality.

There’s a very real role for Kelly on the D-backs, though, as a starter in the back end on their rotation.

It’s a team need following the departure of Clay Buchholz in the offseason and with Taijuan Walker still recovering from Tommy John surgery.

“Everyone has their own path and I wanted my path to lead here and we’re almost there,” Kelly said on Friday. “I just have to get through spring and hopefully do what it is they brought me in to do.”

Productivity-wise, the D-backs would be thrilled to see Kelly match the numbers of fellow 30-year-old Miles Mikolas, the St. Louis starter who went 18-4 with a 2.83 ERA in 2018 after spending the three previous seasons in Japan.

“Having a lot of pitching experience around is awesome,” fellow D-backs starter Zack Godley said of Kelly. “I’m excited to be able to see what he’s able to do and I’m hoping he can have the success Mikolas had coming over.”

Kelly just wants to compete and earn a role with the D-backs.

He wasn’t planning on spending four years in Korea.

Kelly was hoping for no more than two so he could not be under control of his former MLB club, the Tampa Bay Rays, anymore but “you can’t really write your own plan in this business,” according to Kelly.

A strong 2018 season with the SK Wyverns, in which he posted a 16-7 record with a 3.60 ERA in 190 innings, grabbed the attention of the D-backs and other MLB teams.

Kelly said the D-backs sent their first offer to him at 7:30 a.m. on Dec. 1 — the day he became a free agent — and the two sides agreed to terms the following week.

Kelly and the D-backs agreed to a 2-year, $5.5 million deal on Dec. 4.

“It sounds cliche, but [making it to the MLB] is what we think about since we were five years old,” Kelly said. “Korea was a good opportunity and you have to be open to a lot of different avenues in this industry.”

Kelly will have to make some adjustments in Spring Training — the size of the ball and the height of the mound are different in Korea, for example — but a strong few weeks should land him on the D-backs opening day roster and in the starting rotation.

He’s already looking ahead to when his potential MLB debut could be, either on the road against the Dodgers or Padres in the first week of the season.

In any case, he expects about 20 or 30 family and friends to be in attendance when he finally makes his MLB debut a reality.

“I’m just competitive,” Kelly said. “I like to attack and I’m not shy. I will compete and compete my [expletive] off for this team.”

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