McClellan turned down a scholarship to play baseball for the University of Missouri to sign with his hometown Cardinals after the team took him in the 25th round of the 2002 amateur draft. Another late round find from that draft, Brad Thompson, is on the verge of breaking into the Cardinals' opening day rotation.
Kyle McClellan made his professional debut where many high school pitchers in the organization make their debut, Johnson City. For the 2002 Cardinals, McClellan pitched 12 innings, posting an 11.25 ERA. The right-hander struggled with his command, notching eight strikeouts compared to seven walks.
A return to the Appalachian League was in store for the 2003 season, and the results were much better. In his second go-round at JC, McClellan improved with an increase in innings, logging 67.2 innings with an ERA of 3.99. He improved his command as well, striking out 44 compared to 16 walks. The Cardinals used him exclusively as a starter in his 12 appearances.
With the 2004 season, McClellan received his first taste of full-season ball. He also got to be closer to home, appearing for Peoria of the Midwest League. Making 24 starts covering 128 innings, McClellan posted a 5.34 ERA with 84 strikeouts compared to 34 bases on balls.
As was the case in the Appalachian League, McClellan repeated the Midwest League in 2005. He would not return to Peoria, as the Cardinals' new affiliate was located in the Quad Cities. McClellan did not see as big of an improvement as he did in his repeat at Johnson City. In 17 games, including eight starts, the then 21-year-old posted a 4.83 ERA with 36 strikeouts compared to 26 walks. But, there was a reason for his struggles.
While fellow 2002 draft pick Brad Thompson made his big league debut in 2005, McClellan was about to experience one of the biggest obstacles for a young pitcher. After experiencing elbow discomfort, he would later have Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery.
The 2006 season saw McClellan rehabbing for most of the season. He made a return to Johnson City for a rehab assignment but only appeared in three games. The 22-year-old would not pitch again that season, as he required another surgery on his right elbow.
After suffering through two discouraging seasons and the two elbow surgeries, the outlook for McClellan seemed somewhat grim. The organization decided to move him to the bullpen to relieve some of the stress on his elbow. They decided to challenge McClellan after extended spring training, as he made his 2007 debut at his highest level to date, Class-A Advanced Palm Beach.
McClellan made his Florida State League debut and hasn't looked back. In 29 innings, McClellan posted a 1.24 ERA while striking out 24 compared to four walks. He was quickly promoted to Springfield, where he pitched 30.2 innings while striking out 30 with only six walks. In the 59.2 innings he logged in 2007, McClellan allowed only two home runs.
The 23-year-old was rewarded for his fantastic year with a trip to the Arizona Fall League. In seven outings, he posted an ERA of 4.91. He had two appearances during which he gave up two runs in each; he was not scored upon in his other five outings allowing only three total hits. In seven innings of work, McClellan logged nine strikeouts. His trip to Arizona was cut short due to a personal commitment; he got married.
His 2007 will definitely be a year he won't soon forget.
The Cardinals rewarded McClellan once again as he was named to the team's 40-man roster before the 2007 Winter Meetings. Also, McClellan was rated as the Cardinal's number 31 prospect here at The Birdhouse, while Baseball America rated him as the organization's Number 19 prospect.
With his inclusion on the 40-man roster came an invitation to Major League spring training. McClellan caught the eye of Cardinals' pitching coach Dave Duncan who immediately changed his throwing routine to that of a starter. McClellan continued to impress the Cardinals' brass with his work in big league camp. In six appearances, including one start, McClellan has logged a 1.64 ERA and eight strikeouts over 11 innings of work. His ERA leads all Cardinals who have pitched at least nine innings this spring.
The Cardinals are now less than a week from Opening Day 2008 and the news today is that barring any unforeseen actions, McClellan (as a reliever) will join fellow draftee Thompson on the big league pitching staff. His 25-minute trip from Hazelwood West High School to Busch Stadium has covered thousands of miles but he should soon realize his childhood dream and pitch for his hometown team.
Dustin Mattison can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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