The Pirates have been busy in Australia over the past few years, having as many as five players from the country in their system at one time last year. Until recently though, there wasn’t a high-profile signing from Australia. That was until they signed 16-year-old shortstop Sam Kennelly this year to a $225,000 bonus. He comes from a strong baseball family — three of his brothers are already playing minor league ball. On top of all that, Kennelly is currently playing in the Australian Baseball League with the Perth Heat, having teammates as much as 15 years older than him, many of whom have major league experience.
So far in the ABL season, Kennelly has started five games at third base, while coming off the bench another three times. He is 3-for-19 on the young season, with three singles, an RBI and one error.
Being just 16-years-old and playing in the ABL against older competition has been an incredible learning experience for the young shortstop.
“Playing against bigger, stronger players has set a high standard for me and I’m ready to face the challenge,” Kennelly said of his time in the league. “Being around the clubhouse with current and past professional players makes me aim to be as good as them.”
Part of the reason he can make the jump to this league at such a young age is because he is surrounded by his older brothers on a daily basis. All three of them know what it’s like to be in organized pro ball and they are his teammates with the Perth Heat. He gives them credit for helping him get to where he is.
“Learning from my older brothers and more experienced players has made me a better player,” Kennelly said. “The ABL has some former and current Big Leaguers and playing and being around them pushes me harder to have the experience they have had in the big show.”
For now, he knows what he has to do to get ready for next year, but he also looks forward to the next step.
“At the moment, with [Perth], I’m getting as much baseball in as I can, trying to get bigger and stronger so I really feel ready to play with the Pirates. Getting all my work in and learning everyday,” the infielder said.
He was signed as a shortstop, but has been playing third base as well. That’s not the only positions he’s been playing. He can play anywhere on the infield, but currently spends most of his time on the left side. He’s also pitched in the past. A few teams wanted him as a pitcher, but Kennelly didn’t want to give up the bat.
Kennelly is a hard worker and takes pride in being an all-out player and playing the game the right way.
“I take pride in all aspects in the game and believe both defense and offense are my strengths,” Kennelly said. “I like to try and make all my plays look and feel routine. I love throwing the ball as hard as I can to first base and making all the big league plays. I like hitting the ball as hard as I can every at-bat and making every at-bat count.”
He finished that thought up, with what you love to hear from someone his age. “I don’t like to leave a baseball game clean. I’m always there to play hard and finishing dirty and playing at 110 percent.”
That next step for Kennelly after the season, will be his first trip to the states, where he will participate in the upcoming portion of Minor League Spring Training.
“I haven’t been over to Bradenton yet, but have seen many photos and heard so many good things about it,” Kennelly said. “Knowing a handful of people that work for or with the Pirates, they have definitely put a good vibe towards the ball club and I really can’ t wait to get over there.”
Kennelly mentions that he has a “good vibe” towards the Pirates, and he credits that to the Pirates’ scout that signed him, Tony Harris. Kennelly was in Queensland, Australia at the Major League Baseball Australian Academy Program prior to being signed, with a few teams besides the Pirates looking at him. It was there that Harris convinced him to sign.
“The way he talked about the Pittsburgh Pirates and what opportunities there were, I knew I was gonna have a great time with the team,” the infielder said. “It was an exciting time for myself and the family. I know now I made the right decision and couldn’t be happier.”
Tony Harris may have signed Kennelly, but in two weeks Harris will get to face his newest signing, when Perth visits Adelaide. Harris is the Adelaide manager, so while Pirates fans won’t get to see him until Spring Training, Kennelly will likely get a chance to take on some of his future teammates. If things go as planned, he will get to face ABL All-Star Zac Fuesser in one start and possibly Rinku Singh in relief, as well as fellow Australians, Jackson Lodge and Wilson Lee.
You can sense the youthful enthusiasm with Kennelly, but he knows it will be a tough road to the majors.
“Right now I’m really excited to head over to Bradenton and pursue my dreams with the Pittsburgh Pirates,” he said.
John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.
When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.
All four of the Kennelly’s play pro baseball. That’s pretty incredible. I can’t think of any other family with 4 brothers playing pro baseball.
He’s good sized for a young teen and one of his brothers (the AA catcher with the Phillies) throws in the mid/high 90’s. Let’s hope Sam has similar arm strength.
Not trying to create pressure for he youngster but how do you think he compares to a 16 y/o Cal Ripken?
I couldn’t even begin to make that comparison. I will say this about him, his bonus is well above anything the Pirates have paid for an Australian player. It’s actually well above what they paid for the previous five combined.
For him to be called the best of his brothers is a strong praise. The two older ones played in AA this year, with the oldest making it to AAA for 17 games. The 3rd brother(Josh) held his own as an 18-year-old in the Arizona Rookie League this year.
The one thing he has in common with Ripken, which I think helps a lot, is a strong baseball upbringing. Always being around baseball and having three brothers there to tell you what goes into making it, can only help.
The arm strength is good from what I have read. He has pitched in the past, so that is a good sign.
16 years old playing at an “AA” equivalent? That’s great!
It is very impressive. There is a wide range of talent in the league but it would probably average AA. He has teammates who were or are in the majors, Luke Hughes and two former Pirates pitchers, Anthony Claggett and Virgil Vasquez.
His closest teammate in age is 18 months younger, and that player was sent to the ABL’s version of the minors after barely playing.
John….Is he projected to STAY at SS?
Part of the reason I did this interview is because there isn’t much out there on him. So while I can’t say that he will stick at shortstop, I do know that he has been called the best at this stage among the four Kennelly brothers. Other snippets about him have mentioned his hard work and understanding of the game.
I wouldn’t take him playing 3B in the ABL as a sign he isn’t a shortstop, it is an amazing jump just to be in that league, where the overall competition could be considered AA quality at least.
His current manager in an article from a month ago, said that he is strong defensively and that is what impressed him enough to put him on the roster at such a young age. Quoting the article about his defense during their version of Spring Training “he has the movements of a lot of the professional guys right now”
John…thx….gonna keep an eye on him!!
Thank you Lee. After I first talked to him, he wrote me about the Pirates signing Russell Martin and some other moves, so he is even following the team daily in Australia.
He really is a great kid, I love that quote about leaving the playing field with a dirty uniform each day and giving it 110%. He’s obviously far away but he is definitely a good kid to keep an eye on