MOUNT CARMEL -- When Monday's Major League Baseball Draft commences many aspiring young athletes will have what was once a childhood dream at last turn into a reality, taking one step closer to their ultimate goal of reaching the Major Leagues.
But among those hopefuls there's going to be a major wild card, one who's been deemed the most tantalizing and intriguing prospect in the draft by several scouts. That prospect, freshman southpaw Antoine Kelly Jr.
The Chicago native and Wabash Valley College freshman boasts incredible intangibles that you just can't teach, such as his length (6'6) and dazzling, flamethrowing arm.
When his name is called it won't be the first time he's received such an honor. Kelly was selected by the San Diego Padres in the 13th round out of Maine East High School, but turned down the offer the Padres had extended. Kelly didn't go on record to state what the Padres offered but said he knew he could improve considerably in a year's time -- that bet on himself surely panned out.
"I just felt like at the time, I chose not to sign because I knew how much better I could get within a year," Kelly said. "I feel like this year's been more mentally preparing than physically, last year I just felt I wasn't ready at all. Coming here's helped me mature and become a better player and person."
The decision to turn down guaranteed money and a professional baseball contract isn't an easy decision for anyone, nonetheless for a 17-year-old young man. WVC head baseball coach Rob Fournier had been courting Kelly and his family since early on in his high school baseball days despite knowing the likelihood that Kelly would get his name called out of high school. The two sides built a strong connection and Fournier echoed Kelly's sentiment, citing his potential to improve his stock upon his 13th round selection.
"Obviously he was our number one recruit out of high school that we thought hey, we have to have this guy," Fournier said. "We did our due diligence recruiting him and spent a lot of time with him and his family about what we could do for him and how important he'd be for us. That was the first thing, we built a good relationship. With Antoine, I think he realizes he came here and has a chance to make life changing money for him and his family. But at the same time realizes he needs to get better, get more mature, work on the mental game, work on all the little things that'll help him be prepared for pro ball."
From Kelly's perspective, he viewed this year as more of a bridge year than anything, catching up more on the mental side of baseball, maturing as a young man and becoming a student of the game.
"My mental game I have to work on, not getting too shook about stuff, pitching wise probably my command but like I feel like that'll come as my pitches do. That's probably the biggest thing, mental and probably my command. Once I get that down I think I'll be pretty decent."
He ultimately opted for Wabash Valley College as the place for his bridge year, citing Fournier's pro track record as a major reason behind his decision. Fournier has helped send four former Warriors to the major leagues, as well as 13 additional alumni in the minors.
"I knew just from what [coach Fournier] said that it was a fit to get better," Kelly spoke of Fournier. "He really gets kids to the next level, pro ball and colleges. It's just a good place to move forward and get your mental game ready. You kind of have to get better if you want to leave."
OFF THE DIAMOND
Though many kids grow up playing a variety of sports, Kelly did not. He grew up solely as a baseball kid. He didn't try another sport until he was set to give basketball a shot his freshman year of high school. He laughingly recalled not even showing up to the tryouts.
"I've tried other sports, I literally suck at everything else," Kelly joked. "I tried basketball my freshman year, I didn't even tryout, I didn't want to waste my time. I suck at everything [else]. Everything didn't work with [basketball], I can't shoot, I can't block."
Admittedly so, Kelly's a quiet young man. As you talk to him, he starts to open up more and Fournier knows whatever team selects him, they'll have to earn his trust and vice versa. Similarly to how Fournier and the Warriors staff did with he and his family.
Interestingly enough, his favorite baseball team is the Milwuakee Brewers despite his Chicago roots -- though that will change accordingly with whoever selects him. Just like every other young man around his age, Kelly enjoys video games every now and then, but he doesn't do much outside of that when he's away from the diamond, he primarily focuses on bettering his craft and working out.
He doesn't idolize any athlete or baseball player in particular, but does admire Pittsburgh Pirates starter Chris Archer, citing Archer's social media presence as a major reason why. Aside from video games he enjoys collecting shoes, with Jordan's, particularly the Jordan 4s, being his favorite.
HIS TIME IN WABASH VALLEY
Coming from a city the size of Chicago, Mount Carmel can be quite a culture shock. Kelly's had to make a considerable adjustment with the nearly six-hour trip south. He'll be the first to admit, he's not used to the city difference quite yet in his first year (and likely his last) at Wabash Valley. One positive that comes with such a vast change, there's not many distractions in Mount Carmel.
He and many of his teammates have shared a similar mindset and have dedicated themselves fully to bettering their game and the team's been wildly successful as a result. The Warriors reigned as No. 1 in the country for eight of the 11 regular season polls and were defeating opponents with ease. Their win streak reached as high as 49 games with their combination of lethal hitting and a trio of dazzling starting arms, Kelly, sophomore righty Ryan O'Connell and freshman lefty Cameron Tullar paving the way.
That season came to a screeching halt in the Northern District Championship game against No. 9 ranked Iowa Western, who defeated the Warriors 10-5 in the championship game to advance to the NJCAA Division I World Series in Grand Junction, Colo. -- but it doesn't take away from any success the team or the individuals had in a historic season.
Throughout the season Kelly's garnered the attention of MLB scouts, General Managers and representatives from every organization, who all flocked to Mount Carmel to spectate the 6'6 lefty sensation. One game in particular it appeared as if the attention had finally gotten to Kelly.
It was April 11, the Warriors were set to face Great Rivers Athletic Conference foe Rend Lake and Kelly was penciled in to take the mound. With word of Kelly's appearance, more than 50 MLB scouts and five GM's from organizations made the trip to Wabash Valley to watch him perform. Kelly recalls the pressure at last getting to him that game, as he walked six batters in just two innings of work -- but to his credit, he hasn't allowed it really get to him in any of other outings.
"It finally hit him," Fournier recalled. "He had a tough outing that day and I think we talk about all the time, you can't go forward without failure. That's something we take a lot of pride in. He hit rock bottom, the nerves got to him, looking at all of those guys staring at him, it finally hit him and he realized hey, if I'm going to make it, this is something that I'm going to have to get used to. It's something he just has to get through, embrace it and have fun with it. It's easier said than done but if you don't embrace it, it's going to be tough to get through it, but he's been through the worst."
The awing spectators is something he'll simply have to grow used to in professional baseball, where he'll likely throw in front of thousands of fans when called upon.
"At times it is a little overwhelming but it's just something I have to get used to, everybody's got to get used to," Kelly said. "I'd say right now it doesn't really bother me, but that one specific game there was just so many. It's not too bad now, you can't let it get to you."
Not only has he dazzled scouts with the eye test, his numbers have been incredible as well, posting a 1.88 ERA (best of the three Warrior starters), an undefeated 9-0 mark, while fanning a team-best 112 batters in just 52 2-3 innings of work (2.13 Ks per inning).
As overwhelmingly impressive as his numbers have been, they do reveal a cause for concern, his control. Kelly allowed a team-worst 31 walks this season, allowing more walks than he did hits (21) on the season. His final game as a Warrior this year he tossed three innings and ran into a similar situation against the potent Iowa Western hitters, allowing three free passes and four earned runs, though just two hits and eight strikeouts. His control remains an area he'll look to continue to improve upon as his career continues.
HIS ARSENAL AND THE DRAFT
If he can seize control of his command, Kelly's arsenal can be incredibly tough to best. His repertoire includes his fastball that clocks in the high 90s, complemented by his slider and a changeup. His two off-speed pitches are still a work in progress, but he's slowly gaining confidence in using them as a putaway pitch, particularly his slider, which can be lethal when used effectively.
"With him, he relies on [his fastball] quite a bit and that's good," Fournier said. "That's a confidence thing that he loves to challenge hitters, but at the same time he realizes he needs to develop his off speed stuff, which he has, he just doesn't use it enough. At times we call it 'babying the off speed stuff' instead of being aggressive and throwing it. That's what he needs to work on, just the overall game, holding runners, pitch ability part, all of those things that will come down the road."
"I've been working on [my changeup] since the fall," Kelly said. "That's all, I think my most comfortable pitch would definitely be my fastball, but the one I'd go to if that's not working would be my slider. Changeup is here and there, sometimes it's a little too fast. It's just a lot of stuff to work on with those pitches, it's not perfect, they'll show flashes of being there."
His lengthy windup and leg kick allow Kelly to present a tough challenge to batters, who have a very limited reaction time against the lefty.
Though he's certainly a very unique prospect, Kelly does share similarities to one player in particular, Cincinnati Reds reliever Amir Garrett. Both are 6'6 southpaws, have fastballs that clock in the mid-high 90s and have a dominant slider, when on.
He offers a glimpse of similarities with Boston Red Sox lefty, five-time all-star and former Cy Young Award winner David Price -- a ceiling that could salivate a general manager enough to select him prior to another having the opportunity. Similarly to Garrett, Price has the 6'5, 6'6 lefty frame that Kelly has, but is more advanced (as a 33-year-old should be) with some of his off-speed pitches. A similar development could come in time with Kelly as well, as well as a potential velocity hike as he continues to progress, become more confident and grow into his frame.
Though he's struggled some in his career, Garrett has enjoyed a tremendous breakout season in the Reds pen, boasting a 1.96 ERA thus far this season. Kelly could project similarly to Garrett, with some struggles paving the way to an eventual breakout campaign once he's adjusted to the higher level of hitting and found his footing.
According to Fournier, scouts peg Kelly anywhere from a first round selection to the third round, a considerable improvement over last year's 13th round selection.
Entering Monday, Kelly's not too stressed about any projections out there as to his potential or his draft stock, citing a variety of outcomes can occur and there's no reason to get wound up about something that may potentially not happen.
"Honestly I don't even think about it. Anything can happen. It's cool, but anything can happen, there's no point in stressing about it. I see a lot of things on Twitter and stuff that pop up and it's just like, ok, cool. You can project all you want, but it doesn't matter until it actually happens. I just don't think about it."
When the draft does begin at last, one franchise will have the opportunity to select an exceptional young man and a pitcher who's improving by the day. He's likely to have a similar approach to last year's draft, evaluating if he feels he can improve upon where he was selected and seeing if the contract he's offered is what he feels he deserves. To whichever franchise does draft him though, you'll be getting someone entirely focused on the game of baseball and giving his all to the team, coupled with immense potential.
"You're getting a genuine, honest, humble, softspoken kid that cares but is going to earn your trust and you have to earn that trust from him," Fournier spoke of Kelly. "He's very quiet, he's to himself, he's family-oriented, trust is a big thing with him."
"[They'll] be getting someone who wants to get better, is really hard on themselves, definitely has areas to improve but wants to reach his fullest potential," Kelly said. "Just a hard worker."
The MLB Draft will begin on Monday (June 3) at 6 p.m. live on MLB Network and MLB.com, day one will have teams make their first and second round selections, followed by Tuesday (June 4) when they'll televise rounds three through 10, and lastly rounds 11-40 on Wednesday (June 5). Kelly likely won't be the only Warrior selected in the three-day event so be sure to tune in.