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Boston Red Sox reliever Joe Kelly pitches against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 3 of the World Series. (AP Photo)

The path forward hasn't been easy for former Cardinals reliever Joe Kelly.

The Cardinals traded him to the Red Sox in 2014 as part of the miraculous deal that dumped Allen Craig's dead money in Boston and landed valuable starting pitcher John Lackey.

First the Red Sox used Kelly as a starter, then they switched him to the bullpen. He bounced between the Red Sox and the minors in 2015 and 2016, spending 17 games with Triple-A Pawtucket in 2016 -- after a shoulder strain suffered in April forced him into a rehabilitation stint and some tune-up work.

He was just OK in heavy usage during the 2018 regular season, finishing 4-2 with two saves and a 4.39 earned-run average. But he pitched lights out in postseason play, striking out 13 batters and walking nobody in his 11 1/3 innings for the World Champions.

So Kelly, 29, has emerged as a hot commodity in the free-agent marketplace. He still has big arm and teams are starved for relievers given the MLB-wide emphasis on bullpens.

Kelly has generally struggled to command that lively stuff, but that beats getting by with mediocre stuff.

The MLB Trade Rumors site suggested Kelly could fetch $27 million over three years. And ESPN's Buster Olney believes the bidding could go even higher.

He wrote:

By the end of the World Series, his exuberant dances off the mound reflected a confidence that erupted after the Red Sox staff worked with him to pare down his repertoire. Boston pitching coach Dana LeVangie and Brian Bannister, the team's pitching assistant, talked with Kelly late in the year about simplifying his options. With the postseason looming, the staff wanted Kelly and other Red Sox relievers to work with good tempo through more streamlined options, in a time of season when there is so much concern about sign-stealing. Kelly ditched his slider and relied on his curveball, and crushed October with three plus pitches -- his fastball, changeup and yes, the curve. The right-hander faced 44 batters in the postseason and allowed just eight hits and one earned run, without issuing a single walk.

Kelly is an exceptional athlete, one of the hardest-throwing relievers in the game and a spin-rate master. "When he gets hot, he's as good as anybody," said one evaluator, "because of his premium stuff."

In early discussions with Kelly's representatives, the Levinson brothers, some teams have mentioned the idea of signing Kelly to be a closer; other teams have discussed setup roles. No matter what his role is, ultimately, he figures to be paid well. If Kelly had been left off the postseason roster, he probably still would have been in line for a two-year deal in the $16 million-$18 million range because of his wide range of pitching tools. But his October dominance rounded out his free-agent résumé, and now he figures to be among the highest-paid relievers not named Craig Kimbrel.

THE BASKETBALL DIARIES

Here is what folks are writing about college basketball:

Shaker Samman, The Ringer: "For months, college hoops fans have been bombarded with mixtapes and columns and magazine spreads highlighting Duke’s star-studded recruiting class. The hype machine was working at maximum power, pumping up the vaunted freshman trio of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, and Cam Reddish. Injuries prevented fans from seeing the team at full strength during a preseason jaunt through Canada. That changed at the Champions Classic on Tuesday, when the full might of Duke’s menacing attack was on full display, and college basketball gained a clearer picture of its new reality: There is Duke, and then there is everyone else. Duke trounced Kentucky, 118–84, in a game that seemed over not long after the opening tip. The word on Duke coming into this season was that, while supremely talented on the wing, streaky shooting could down its championship ambitions. The Blue Devils did not take long to dispel that notion. Reddish, the best shooter of Duke’s freshman class, knocked down two deep balls in the first four minutes, while point guard Tre Jones and Williamson each added one of their own early in the first half. As a team, the Blue Devils finished the game shooting 54.4 percent from the field, knocking down 46.2 percent beyond the arc."

Jeremy Woo, SI.com:  "The beatdown might just end up a footnote, as season openers often do, or maybe something of an oddity . . . Game One, no matter the combatants, tends to be more a directional lodestar for a team’s course than a statement of fate. It was frighteningly easy to consider that for the Blue Devils, Tuesday night could reasonably be read both ways. While it’s not clear how Duke didn’t open the season ranked as the top team in the country, one could accept it on the grounds that people have a hard time quantifying things they’ve never seen before. It won’t last. While deploying three freshmen who transcend the traditional spectrum of positionality, likely ticketed for the first three selections in the NBA draft, the brutality of Duke’s brushstrokes told the story better than the scoreboard. There’s not another team in the country capable of stretching a 37-point lead against Kentucky, nobody with the personnel to play a style so free-flowing and relentless, and definitely not in a way that somehow looked and felt sustainable. The Blue Devils did it in a manner that felt like a death knell for the rest of college basketball."

Gary Parrish, CBSSports.com: "Understand, (John) Calipari has been a head coach for 30 seasons now. He once had a 10-win UMass team that lost 11 times by double-digits. He once had a 16-loss Memphis team that was so dysfunctional players fist-fought in the locker room. He coached the Nets for crying out loud. And yet nobody -- not Rick Pitino's great Kentucky teams, not even Michael Jordan's Bulls -- had ever beaten one of his teams as badly as Duke beat his team in this season-opener. And UK was ranked second! In the entire country!

Jeff Borzello, ESPN.com: "In the preseason, Calipari consistently praised his team -- a stark change from the tempering of expectations we've seen him in the past. He seemed legitimately excited about his newcomers, as well as the potential leap the returnees were set to make. But we just didn't see that on Tuesday. It's only one game, of course, but the success Kentucky had in the Bahamas in August seems like a long, long time ago. Calipari tried everything on Tuesday. Two-point guard lineups, three-big men lineups, small lineups, jumbo lineups. None of it worked. And Kentucky struggled defensively regardless. When they went small, Quade Green or Ashton Hagans was overmatched against a bigger wing. When they went big, Reid Travis or EJ Montgomery got beat off the dribble. Against most teams, it might not matter. But against other elite teams, it will be a factor."

Pat Forde, Yahoo! Sports: "Bill Self rolled out the No. 1 team in America on Tuesday night to start the college basketball season. The Kansas Jayhawks looked looked the part — controlling the game throughout against Michigan State, dominating for stretches, then hanging on through an uneven finish to start the season 1-0. It could be a season in the sun for Kansas. It also is likely to be a season accompanied by a persistent cloud that could overshadow everything. Yahoo Sports reported Tuesday night that federal investigators who have been prosecuting corruption within college basketball have given the go-ahead to NCAA enforcement to begin pursuing rules violations cases. It is unclear exactly what information the NCAA can use from the feds’ investigations in the first of three felony trials, which concluded last month with three guilty verdicts. It also is unclear what the NCAA will do with the information at its disposal. But this much is clear: The NCAA is now on the case. And it stands to reason that Kansas would be at or near the top of the NCAA investigative to-do list."

MEGAPHONE

"Timmy is not a guy you want to put restraints on. If he sees a block, he's going to work that much harder to go overcome whatever somebody places on him. I believe in him."

New Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, hyping 31-year-old prospect Tim Tebow.


Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.