Merrill Kelly, maybe the oldest rookie in baseball, takes a unique path from Korea to MLB

Merrill Kelly signed a two-year contract worth a guaranteed $5.5 million with the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday. (Getty Images)
Merrill Kelly signed a two-year contract worth a guaranteed $5.5 million with the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday. (Getty Images)

Merrill Kelly left the United States because he feared he never would get to play Major League Baseball. Now, he’s ready to be the oldest rookie in the game – and one of the best stories, too.

The 30-year-old Kelly, who has spent the last four years pitching in Korea, signed a two-year contract worth a guaranteed $5.5 million with the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday, sources familiar with the deal told Yahoo Sports. Arizona later confirmed the signing, which will pay the right-hander $2 million this season, $3 million in 2020 and includes a $4.25 million team option for the 2021 season with a $500,000 buyout and a buyout-free $5.25 million club option for 2022.

Kelly’s ascent to the major leagues, and likely into the Diamondbacks’ rotation, is unprecedented. Never before has a player with zero major league experience played in Korea and returned directly to MLB. In 2016, reliever Tony Barnette came back from Japan to make his big-league debut at 32 with the Texas Rangers. And Eric Thames – who, like Kelly, is represented by Sosnick, Cobbe & Karon – parlayed an MVP season in Korea into another shot in the major leagues with a guaranteed three years and $15 million in Milwaukee.

Often players who find their major league prospects stunted or even nonexistent will turn to jobs in Asia, where they can experience success and riches that go well beyond what the best Triple-A players can earn. Journeyman Dennis Sarfate became the most dominant closer in Japan and received a three-year extension worth more than $18 million, adding to the well over $10 million he already had made. Two of Sosnick, Cobbe & Karon’s other clients, Randy Messenger and Kris Johnson, each signed $10 million deals, a hefty haul in Nippon Professional Baseball. Kelly was well on his way to that.

An eighth-round pick out of Arizona State in 2010, Kelly was stagnating in the Tampa Bay Rays’ organization after 2014, his fourth full season. He had thrown well, posting a 2.76 ERA, but SK Wyverns, a perennial power in the KBO, was willing to offer Kelly the opportunity the Rays couldn’t.

While his numbers in Korea look pedestrian – a career 3.86 ERA, including 4.13 in 2018 – they come in a cartoonishly inflated offensive environment. Scouts left Kelly’s starts impressed with his variety of pitches and particularly his ability to throw deep into games, with 729 2/3 innings over the last four seasons.

Once he won a championship with SK Wyverns and their manager, former Royals skipper Trey Hillman, Kelly wanted to see what the major league market would bear. The answer was: plenty. The World Series champion Boston Red Sox were interested. So were the up-and-coming San Diego Padres. Kelly’s desire to return to his hometown – he was born and raised in the Phoenix area – and Arizona’s willingness to guarantee a second year sealed the homecoming.

In the world of relief pitchers who make well over $5 million a year, Kelly could prove a solid bargain – perhaps not on the level of Miles Mikolas, who returned from Japan last year to dominate for the St. Louis Cardinals, but a back-of-the-rotation type that every team covets. And that’s fine with him. Every pitch Merrill Kelly throws in the big leagues, after all, he’s making history.

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