The Mariners have needs. That much is clear. As the M's have pushed themselves into the heart of the wild card race, the question is no longer whether or not they will be buyers as the summer progresses—but who exactly they'll be targeting.
Though as parity reigns among baseball's middle-tier, and the time true sellers reveal themselves is delayed longer than ever before, Mariners fans grow impatient, looking at options for improvement available now—players already in the system. And a player fans keep coming back to, one who's developed a cult following around these parts, is Ty Kelly.
Currently in Triple-A with Tacoma, Kelly was acquired at the trade deadline last year from Baltimore for Eric Thames, who was designated for assignment. Since then, Kelly's done nothing but perform. Over the past calendar year, stretching slightly into his time in the Orioles' system, he's posted a .291/.426/.431 line. Of players with at least 250 plate appearances, his OPS over that span ranks sixth in the Mariners' entire minor league system.
As the time comes for the organization to decide what they have in a player who's long been more of a non-prospect—or at least thinking about doing so—one question looms: can what he's doing in Tacoma translate to the major league level? Will his unique offensive skill-set, one heavily dependent on plate discipline, translate when facing the best pitchers in the world?
He seems to think so.
"I have confidence no matter what level it’s at," said Kelly in speaking with Lookout Landing this past weekend before a game in Tacoma. "I always have confidence wherever I go that I’m going to do well, that’s the only way you can hit."
And hit Kelly has. Though he's developed a reputation as a player who goes up there looking to take a walk—deservedly so with a 17.4 percent walk rate while swinging at less than 35 percent of pitches he sees—Kelly will punish pitches when given the opportunity as his slugging percentage sits at .449 through Wednesday, on the back of 10 home runs and 14 doubles.
The 25-year-old Kelly credits two things for the growing pop in his game: his physical development, and his polished approach. It's an approach that keeps him from falling into scenarios that favor the pitcher.
"It all starts with a situation, and that can be your first at-bat of the game. You’ve never seen the guy and you want to see some pitches, and see what kind of off-speed pitches he has," said Kelly. "There’s nothing worse than going into an at-bat, swinging at the first pitch and then your next at-bat you go up there and all you see there are two fastballs on the outside corner that you don't swing at—and then throws his strikeout pitch and you have no idea what it looks like. You end up flailing at a slider in the dirt."
But as skippers often do, Tacoma Rainiers manager Roy Howell does see how this patient approach can—at times —have a downside.
"It can be a positive, but it could be a negative because because fastballs are fastballs," said Howell. "Ty, he lies in the weeds a little bit. He might take fastballs here and there but he’s really starting to step up as far as, I get a fastball with guys in scoring position, I’m going to swing the bat."
A recent four-game stretch—all Rainiers wins—that saw him pick up 7 RBIs speaks to the growth in this area.
That approach though, it could play very well at the next level.
Baseball, as we've all been told, is a game of adjustments. Kelly prides himself on his ability to make adjustments to what's being thrown at him day-to-day, series-to-series and year-to-year throughout his minor league career—one that's seen him face a lot of the same pitchers as he and they progress through the ranks together. But as Howell points out, this cat-and-mouse game goes to a different level in the show.
"The difference between here and there is familiarity," said Howell. "Everybody knows everybody and everybody studies everybody. The thing is, you’ve never seen some of these pitchers."
"Ty’s the type of guy that knows his strike zone and once he sees a pitcher, he logs them up pretty good. He knows what’s going on with them and then becomes, which it should at a higher level, about execution."
Kelly also acknowledge things are different at the next level.
"I know that, at the big league level, there’s so much film and teams are constantly making adjustments and they see it right away, it’s kind of exciting for me," he said. "I’d like to say that I’m going to adjust just as quickly but I don’t know. It’s exciting to hopefully get that chance."
Whether or not Kelly gets that chance may not depend on offense at all. A switch-hitter with a .846 OPS against lefties and .844 OPS against righties here in 2014, Kelly's shown what he can do at the plate. But with franchise cornerstones at shortstop, third and second, he's a man without a primary position at the major league level.
But could the Mariners be trying something new? After not playing a game there all year, Kelly has played in the outfield eight times in the past two weeks. Whether that's evidence of the Mariners grooming him for a future opportunity, or a similar roster crunch in Tacoma—Nick Franklin, Chris Taylor and Gabriel Noriega all currently reside there—is up for debate, but this is a thing that's happening.
And Kelly is adjusting as he goes, even though he has played in the outfield in 78 games over the course of his minor league career.
"You know, you gotta keep it simple and just try to make the routine plays, and every once in a while go track one down," said Kelly. "I’m still trying to figure out what exactly works for me, hopefully keep getting better jumps and not looking like an infielder playing the outfield."
Not looking like an infielder is a simple well-phrased goal, but Howell explains it could help him a little bit.
"Well he knows as an infielder—outfielder, get the ball in your throwing hand and hit me, hit the cutoff man," Howell said. "Get the ball in your throwing hand, hit the cutoff man and no one’s going to yell at you."
Still, the versaility Kelly has is invaluable at the next level, something Howell said "does a lot" for a manager.
"We have a ball club with more than one guy who can do that, and that makes you very valuable at this level, it makes you even more valuable at the big league level," he said. "A manager can put you in the ballgame late, he can start you, he can do things and know that you’re not going to compromise his defense and you have enough ability offensively to put the ball in play, hit it hard someplace and not be what we call an easy out."
An easy out, Kelly is not. It all goes back to the approach.
"I’ve always said, and I’ve always told other people, that once you figure out who you are as a player then you’re going to start to be able to have success."
Ty Kelly has figured out who he is as a player.
It's hard not to wonder if it's time for the Mariners to do the same.