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Digging for the St. Louis Cardinals' next Joe Kellys

Last March, Joe Kelly was a future reliever with middling control.

Mike O'Neill also insists on getting his uniform dirty. Watch yourself, Skip.
Mike O'Neill also insists on getting his uniform dirty. Watch yourself, Skip.

In hindsight I was probably underrating him the entire time, but until the moment he was called up I was sure Joe Kelly was just barely a prospect. At 23, in 2011, he'd carried a strikeout-to-walk ratio just under two between high-A Palm Beach and AA Springfield. He carried a "sinkerballer" label, too, which after enough time with Dave Duncan has begun to trigger a deep sleep in the middle of scouting reports.

Whatever it would have been fair of me to expect, I feel all right with not expecting the 97-mile-an-hour fastball. Kelly is an odd player to forecast for next season; 2012 was his best year by far, and he has the stuff for it, but it's still the year that began with him striking out fewer than six batters per nine innings across 12 AAA starts.

For our purposes, though, what Joe Kelly does next is kind of irrelevant. What Joe Kelly did was offer the Cardinals another 100 innings out of the good Kyle Lohse. He didn't come out of nowhere, but he came out of someplace a half-an-hour from the nearest Wal-Mart on the state route—and he's not likely to go back there, but he could have a hard time finding an apartment here, I guess?

Here are my arbitrary Joe Kelly qualifications:

You can't be counting on him going into the season. He's down the list a ways. In Kelly's case he was blocked both by prospects and Brandon Dickson types, who were going to get the first shot if five or six innings needed filled over a weekend.

This means he can't be Oscar Taveras, but it also means he can't be Joe Kelly, or Trevor Rosenthal.

He can't just meet expectations. The canonical example, for me, is Chris Duncan in 2006. Duncan had a career AAA OPS—over a season-and-a-half—around .820. He was not supposed to be the answer in the outfield, and he was not supposed to hit .293/.363/.589. As with Kelly, though, after you watched him do it for a month it suddenly seemed natural. Not the defense, I mean. But sure, he's a big guy, he can slug .600.

And here's my prime Kelly-hunting criterion: He'll probably emerge from a position where the Cardinals are likely to require depth, even if he's not the first guy you'd expect out of the hopper.

I'm going to pick three, but I'm interested in hearing everybody else's; this'll be a good post to look back on sometime in November, after Tommy Pham hits a game-winning home run off Mariano Rivera in Game 7.

Greg Garcia: I am a shallow man, and I have decided that what frightens me about prospects is when they have one skill, and you can't immediately guess from watching 30 seconds of film what that skill is. Chris Duncan is big, and his one talent is hitting the ball hard—check. Trevor Rosenthal gets a lot of strikeouts, and here is video of him hitting 101 on a radar gun. Check.

Greg Garcia doesn't swing a lot, apparently, and his skill involves not-swinging at the right moments. He's average-sized, not especially fast, and probably not really a shortstop. His BB% last year was 16 percent. He was also left-handed, and hit a career-high 10 home runs at AA Springfield, which is a warning sign.

But he's got some nice Davenport translations, and here in October all that's blocking him is Daniel Descalso and the need to start significantly hotter than Kolten Wong. Anyway, Garcia contributing ahead of Wong on the infield is like Shelby Miller being the last man into the Cardinals' bullpen last year, so I'm going with this.

Keith Butler: It's hard, right at this moment, to imagine the Cardinals needing another young right-handed reliever at any point in 2013, but Keith Butler will probably replace Victor Marte as the non-prospect closer in residence at Memphis this year.

He also has an easily defined role, which can be helpful in situations like this one: He's a ROOGY, with—according to Jim Callis—a high-80s fastball and a swoopy curveball. The question in a situation like this, besides the obvious one about his ability: Is he obviously-enough a right-handed specialist that Mike Matheny won't let him get burned by Ryan Howard?

Here he is striking out Mike Trout:

It's close. Not quite sidearm, but a low-enough arm angle, in a bullpen filled with hard-enough throwers, that he might find himself used ideally as a pretend Luke Gregerson for a while. (Bonus: Here he is conducting an awkward interview with The Batavian. His favorite book is The Heroin Diaries by Nikki Sixx.)

Mike O'Neill: Okay, I'm copping out. This one isn't a guess for who'll make an MLB impact so much as a guess for who might put up a crazy half-season in Springfield. O'Neill's a heretofore punchless left-hander—a good thing to be on your way to Hammons Field—who hit .342 over 478 plate appearances in Palm Beach last year on a BAbip of .360 and walked 70 times against 24 strikeouts. It was the season I was secretly hoping James Ramsey would have, only with even less power.

He's also a 25-year-old, 5'9 outfielder. But if you don't think he has a chance in the majors, keep in mind that his secret is to stay consistent and keep grinding.