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Red Sox vs. Royals: Is Joe Kelly growing, or breaking?

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Joe Kelly has been struggling to find direction in 2014, and has only a few starts left to change the story.

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Sox will take a second shot at sewing up a series win over the Kansas City Royals Sunday afternoon as they send Joe Kelly to the mound against Jason Vargas.

Today's Lineups

BOSTON RED SOX KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Mookie Betts - 2B Alcides Escobar - SS
Xander Bogaerts - SS Norichika Aoki - DH
David Ortiz - DH Lorenzo Cain - RF
Yoenis Cespedes - LF Alex Gordon - LF
Allen Craig - 1B Salvador Perez - C
Daniel Nava - RF Eric Hosmer - 1B
Will Middlebrooks - 3B Omar Infante - 2B
David Ross - C Mike Moustakas - 3B
Jackie Bradley - CF Jarrod Dyson - CF
Joe Kelly - RHP Jason Vargas - LHP

We don't tend to include Joe Kelly with the other young arms trying to make the rotation despite the fact that, at 26 years of age, he's not that much older than the various hopefuls. The difference isn't hard to see: Kelly not only has more than 300 innings of major league experience under his belt now, but has also thrown 28 postseason innings, making four starts for the Cardinals last year. These are not typical lines on the resume for a pitcher battling with the likes of Brandon Workman, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, and Anthony Ranaudo.

Still, for all of his success, his performance in 2014 has been unimpressive, leading many to point to his middling peripherals and call this the inevitable result, and Kelly's true talent level. Perhaps so. He throws an at times nasty fastball, and has a curve and change that have each had their time in the sun, but he's generally struggled to put all his offerings together into one perplexing package, leaving him more of a Minnesota ground ball type than anything else.

The Red Sox would like for him to be more. They don't need him to be, necessarily--there is value in what Joe Kelly is even this year--but at his age, with his tools, there should be the possibility for more. We saw some of that against Baltimore, with his fastball dancing through the zone and leaving the Orioles off-balance. We also saw what's holding him back, with three walks, two hit batsmen, and inconsistent secondary offerings. Kelly is an odd case in that he almost seems to be getting worse at the same time he's getting better. The question is whether these are the pains of growth, or of a pitcher struggling to find his old success and slipping even further from it as a result. He's only got a few starts left to establish a trend in what has seemed a largely directionless season.