Transaction of Today…January 9, 1996 – The Atlanta Braves traded Mike Kelly to the Cincinnati Reds for a player to be named later and Chad Fox. The Cincinnati Reds sent Ray King (June 11, 1996) to the Atlanta Braves to complete the trade.
The year 1991 was the sixth straight season the Atlanta Braves had a draft pick in the top six selections. The previous five only gave the Braves one true cornerstone in Chipper Jones. Steve Avery and Kent Mercker would both have their moments, but Derek Lilliquist and Tyler Houston were busts. And with the success the franchise would experience in 1991 and beyond, they wouldn’t get another Top 10 selection until 2009.
After the Yankees chose Brien Taylor with the first overall pick, the Braves were on the clock. I can’t tell you who was on the Big Board for the Braves at the time, but the first dozen picks were full of college guys who maxed out as complimentary players like Joey Hamilton, Shawn Estes, and Doug Glanville. The top prep position pick was Dmitri Young, who would hit .292 in the majors. It wasn’t until pick #13 (Manny Ramirez) that we started to see some guys who went on to play major roles for their teams like Cliff Floyd, Shawn Green, and Aaron Sele.
The Braves rarely took college players. Lilliquist had stopped a streak of five consecutive high school players selected with a first-round pick. Just as rare was the opportunity to select someone with Mike Kelly’s pedigree. Previously a 24th rounder coming out of high school, Kelly was Baseball America‘s Player of the Year as a sophomore and hit .373 with 15 home runs as a junior before he was selected. He later would be named the 1991 Golden Spikes Award winner. His coach at Arizona State, Jeff Pentland, said that Kelly was “even better than (Reggie) Jackson and (Barry) Bonds at this stage.” Both Jackson and Bonds starred at Arizona State.
With David Justice and Ron Gant already on the team, Kelly seemed like a perfect addition. Signed less than two months later, he joined Durham to finish the year, bypassing rookie and low-A ball. He smacked six homers in 35 games for the Bulls. His success was short-lived, however, as he would struggle over the next two years as he climbed from Double-A to Triple-A. He hit for power and stole bases, but struggled to consistently hit the ball and get on base.
Atlanta kept promoting him, though. In 1994, he was one of three players vying for the time in the wake of Gant’s motorbike accident and Chipper Jones’ preseason ACL injury. However, it quickly became clear than Ryan Klesko was going to take over after hitting six homers in April. Tony Tarasco was also hitting well and with Dave Gallagher also in the mix, Kelly had to stand out to keep his job. He wasn’t able to do that, though, and was hitting .185 with four doubles and no walks through his first 15 games before getting shipped to Richmond in early May.
Kelly would get two more call-ups before the Strike halted the season and did well enough to raise his triple slash to .273/.300/.506 with 10 doubles and 2 HR. His strong finish set him up to reclaim a roster spot heading in 1995. The Braves still had Justice and Klesko. They also added Marquis Grissom and Dwight Smith. But that still left plenty of at-bats for Kelly as Klesko’s caddy. He again underwhelmed as he put up a triple-slash of .190/.258/.314 over 97 games. The Braves’ disillusion with him helped convince them to acquire Luis Polonia and Mike Devereaux for the stretch run. Kelly would not play in October as the Braves rambled to their only World Title in Atlanta.
Kelly’s struggles in 1995 were the final straw for the Braves. Anxious to add pitching depth, they shipped Kelly to the Reds 21 years ago today in exchange for Chad Fox and a player to be named later. Kelly only played 19 games in the majors the following year but hit .293 with 6 HR off the bench in ’97. The expansion Devil Rays became quite enamored with Kelly and traded Dmitri Young, who they had just drafted from the Reds, to get Kelly. Kelly received his largest share of playing time of his career in ’98 while playing with former mentor, McGriff. However, he struggled to the tune of .240/.295/.401. After just two games with the Rockies the next year, his major league career was over.
Meanwhile, Chad Fox would eventually have a solid smoke-and-mirrors season for the Braves in ’97. A failed starter, the Braves moved him to the pen and reaped the benefits. Oh, he struck out a good amount of hitters, but he also yielded his fair share of long balls (1.3 per nine) and walks (5.3 per nine). John Schuerholz maximized him, though, and traded him for Gerald Williams after the ’97 season. In a way, they turned Fox into a guy who represented the low-end of what they expected out of Mike Kelly when they picked him.
The player to be named later became Ray King six months after the trade. King spent a year-and-half in the system before being moved in a low-profile deal to the Cubs. He would later be re-acquired by the Braves for the 2003 season for John Foster and Wes Helms. Remembered more for his weight than his results, King was solid as a LOOGY for the Braves that season before being attached to the Adam Wainwright/J.D. Drew trade after the season.
Drew’s only year in Atlanta, 2004, would be Kelly’s final year in baseball. 34 years-old, Kelly had been out of baseball for a couple of years before making a comeback in 2003. He hit well for Omaha, Kansas City’s Triple-A team, and spent the next year with the Yankees’ top farm team in Columbus. He was decent at the plate but still didn’t impress enough to get playing time in the majors over Bubba Crosby and a 37-year-old Kenny Lofton.
Mike Kelly’s trade to the Reds twenty-one years ago is a reminder of how drafts are a lot harder than we think. Kelly was as sure as sure things come. Scouts thought he had all the tools and would be the next Arizona State outfielder to become an All-Star. But scouts can be wrong and in this case, they simply were.