By Todd Johnson
Some players do not have the easiest roads to even get to the minor leagues. Some slog away in a town off the beaten path for little of no money playing independent ball just hoping to be seen by a scout. In recent years, the Frontier League has become a place where major league clubs can pick up a player or two a year to fill out a bullpen, outfield, or roster. About half of the teams are located in Illinois making it easy for the Cubs to scout. It’s the perfect league to find another gem to possibly polish up. The Cubs have signed several players from the league in recent years.
This year, the Cubs inked two pitchers, Ryan Lawlor and Garrett Kelly. For Kelly, though, his story is one of perseverance, hard work, and dedication along with some people on his side helping him to try and accomplish his dream.
Over the last six weeks, Kelly has been a dominant setup man for class A South Bend. In 11 games, he has a 1.83 ERA over 19.2 innings. He’s struck out 21 while walking 12. In 9 of his outings, he’s held the opposition scoreless.
Kelly is impressive on the mound and is gaining more confidence with each outing. He last gave up a run over a month ago. Armed with a 95 mph fastball as his main weapon, Kelly is working everyday on developing his secondaries – right now that is a changeup and a slider, which he tends to use more frequently.
In college, Kelly only pitched for Wake Forest as a reliever his junior and senior years and went undrafted. He was originally a catcher for the Deacons. After college, he signed as a non-drafted free agent with the Twins in 2016 and pitched in the Gulf Coast League. He had a 3.67 ERA in 18 games as a reliever.
The fact that his arm is still pretty fresh is a trend the Cubs have gambled on in recent years. He’s built pretty well at 6’1” and 210 pounds and is pretty stocky in his upper half (Hence, why he can throw 95).
I sat down with Garrett to discuss his journey to South Bend and his development in the Cubs’ system.
How did your independent league career begin? Once you were done with the Twins, how did you get hooked up with the Schaumburg Boomers?
“It was actually kind of a crossroads for me. 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 that 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 velo point. He wanted to get his name out there while working on an off-speed pitch. Last year, the Cubs began contacting Kelly. He explained the process:
“I was actually contacted through my agent. 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 their 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 adjustments Garrett has had to make at South Bend is to get ahead of hitters. While at Schaumburg, it was more about flashing, 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 (slow motion cameras and video) 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 Garrett complimented those who kept pushing him to follow his dream.
Tonight, Kelly is scheduled to pitch in relief for South Bend against the Quad Cities River Bandits, I am excited to go see him pitch. Hopefully, I can get some video as there’s still a lot of meat left on the bone from his interview for another article about how the Cubs are using tech to help players develop. I am excited to see the life he gets on his fastball and the action of his slider. It should be a good time!