Making it all the way to the majors is a journey most players will never complete, but some have to travel difficult roads just to get to the minor leagues. They slog away in a town off the beaten path for little or no money playing independent ball with the hope that a scout gets eyes on them.
That’s the case for many in the Frontier League, which is actually becoming a place where major league clubs can pick up a player or two a year to fill spots throughout their organizations. It’s the perfect league to unearth gems to possibly polish up. About half of the teams are located in Illinois, making it easy for the Cubs to scout, and they have signed several players from the league in recent years.
Ryan Lawlor and Garrett Kelly, both pitchers, were two such players this year. Kelly’s story in particular is one of perseverance, hard work, and dedication, not to mention the help of some people by his side helping him to accomplish his dream.
Over the last six weeks, Kelly has been a dominant setup man for class-A South Bend. He last gave up an earned run on June 15 and has held his opponents scoreless in 11 of his 14 appearances. Over a total of 23.1 innings, he has posted a 1.40 ERA with 26 strikeouts and 14 walks.
Kelly is impressive on the mound and is gaining more confidence with each outing. Armed with a 95 mph fastball as his main weapon, he is working every day to develop his changeup and a slider, the latter of which he tends to use more frequently.
Originally a catcher when he began his college career at Wake Forest, Kelly only pitched as a reliever his junior and senior years. He went undrafted and signed with the Twins in 2016, posting a 3.67 ERA in 18 games (27 IP) as a reliever in the Gulf Coast League.
After losing a spot with the Twins and failing to catch on with another big league organization, Kelly joined the Schaumburg Boomers for the 2017 season. There he was a teammate of former Cubs prospect Rock Shoulders, which is only important because…Rock Shoulders. Kelly appeared in 35 games, striking out 56 and walking 25 en route to a 1.77 ERA.
His arm is still both fresh and live, both of which are things the Cubs have gambled on in recent years. At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds with a stocky upper half, he’s able to generate that mid-90’s heater without many durability concerns.
He’s still a long way from making the big leagues, but he’s actually a lot closer to Chicago now than he was playing in the western suburbs. I caught with Kelly recently to ask him about his time in the Frontier League, his journey to South Bend, and his development in the Cubs’ system.
“It was actually kind of a crossroads for me,” Kelly said of his decision to join the Boomers. “I wasn’t entirely sure if I was going to continue to play. My goal was always to play professional baseball and I wasn’t entirely aware of all the avenues there were.
“But my pitching coach from the Twins really urged me to go find an indy ball team. Of all people, my girlfriend was the one who me pushed me to go play indy ball. I had a buddy who I knew in high school who was drafted by the White Sox and things didn’t work out for him and he ended up playing in the Frontier League. So I kinda spoke with him and he said that I absolutely should look into that league.
“So, I just sent out a blast email to all the GMs in the league. I gave them a little bio of myself, what I felt my strengths and weaknesses were, and asking if they had a spot. After talking with a couple different organizations, I decided Schaumburg would probably be my best fit. It worked out well from there.”
At Schaumburg, Kelly worked on putting up numbers from a velocity standpoint. He wanted to get his name out there with the numbers on the radar gun while working on an offspeed pitch. The Cubs began to take notice and started to reach out last year.
“I was actually contacted through my agent,” Kelly explained. “I actually didn’t have an agent coming out of college. I picked up an agent, Thomas Godfrey, who kept putting feelers out. I think the Cubs eventually came to a couple of the games in Schaumburg and there was a bit of a communication the latter half of the season.
“I was invited the end of spring training for a workout. About a week later, I got a call saying, ‘Hey, would you be interested in signing with us?’ I got on a train as quick as I could.”
The biggest adjustment Kelly has had to make at South Bend is in getting ahead of hitters. It was more about flashing when he was with Schaumburg, but South Bend is a little different. He’s thrown away his knuckle curve and is focusing on getting ahead in counts with his fastball. He’s using technology like slow motion video and high-speed cameras to help perfect his release point.
He’s still just 23 with a relatively fresh arm but not a lot of pitching experience. However, his catching background gives him a unique perspective on how to work a count and set hitters up. His dedication to baseball and hard work is inspiring and I loved how he complimented those who kept pushing him to follow his dream.
Kelly is one of the more unheralded prospects in the system, but he could really be one to watch if he’s able to develop those secondary pitches. I’ll continue to monitor his progress and I hope to capture some more photos or video of him.
What’s more, there’s still a lot of meat left on the bone here for another article about how the Cubs are using tech to help players develop even at low-A South Bend.