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MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Kershaw latest proof of value found in Draft

No. 7 pick in 2006 fell to Dodgers despite high school perfecto weeks earlier

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MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

 

There are two kinds of people in the American sports world. There are us smart guys and then there are the others, the ones who still refuse to grasp how baseball's First-Year Player Draft is one of the most important events on the calendar.

You've got to think a little bit about baseball's appropriation of talent. You are not just hit over the head for months with things you already know -- like how Jadeveon Clowney is a specimen and how Johnny Manziel has the personality of Joe Namath but without the glaring set of tools.

One Chicago-based sports guy said on television this month that the First-Year Player Draft is "a waste of time" because -- if I followed his attempt at logic -- so many first-round picks fail to become difference makers and some don't even reach the Major Leagues at all.

There's truth to the last part, but from my perspective, that only points out how important the whole process is to the strength of franchises.

Yes, you can sign teenagers from Latin America or free agents who have become known commodities in the Major Leagues, Cuba or Japan. But if you want a lasting relationship with a star player, the kind that can turn around your franchise, you draft and develop him.

It's what the Giants did with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner. It's what the Tigers did with Justin Verlander, and what the Pirates did with Andrew McCutchen.

And while the first thing many people think of about the Dodgers is the team's record payroll of $229 million, it's worth pausing a moment to consider that the Draft is where they found Clayton Kershaw (and, for that matter, Matt Kemp).

Scouting director Logan White and his group of area scouts and cross-checkers, including Gary Nickels and Gib Bodet, hit the jackpot sorting through the inventory available to them in 2006. It was their decisions -- and those of a half-dozen other teams -- that put Kershaw in a Dodgers uniform on Wednesday night, when he was one Hanley Ramirez throwing error away from perfection.

Kershaw was a relatively late bloomer as a prospect, growing into his body while at Highland Park High School, just north of downtown Dallas. His standing had paled when compared to classmate Matt Stafford, the quarterback who would be the first overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft after attending the University of Georgia. Kershaw had worked as a No. 3 starter on his summer team before his senior year, with velocity and a curveball that didn't quite match those of Jordan Walden and Shawn Tolleson.

But Kershaw was something special his senior year. White had the good fortune to be in the stands on May 19, 2006, when Kershaw struck out all 15 batters he faced in a postseason perfect game shortened by the mercy rule. It was love at first sight for White, but the stands were packed that day, and White worried that Kershaw would be off the board when the Dodgers picked a couple of weeks later.

Kershaw himself has said that he thought he was going to be taken by the Tigers, who had the sixth pick, one in front of the Dodgers. But the Royals -- big spenders in the Draft in the years when slot values were recommended, not enforced -- decided to take former University of Tennessee right-hander Luke Hochevar with the first overall pick (the Dodgers had been unable to sign the Scott Boras client after drafting him with the 40th overall pick in 2005), and there was a run on college pitchers.

North Carolina's Andrew Miller entered the spring viewed as the best bet among the college pitchers. Yet Stanford's Greg Reynolds, Houston's Brad Lincoln and Cal-Berkeley's Brandon Morrow joined Long Beach State third baseman Evan Longoria in being the first five players selected. The Tigers loved Kershaw but instead took Miller, whom they would later use to swing a trade for Miguel Cabrera.

White will never forget what happened in the last few days before the Draft.

In a three-day period, White and the scouting directors for many other teams watched Lincoln face Wichita State in the NCAA regionals and Kershaw pitch against McKinney North High School in the quarterfinal round of the Texas 4A playoffs.

Lincoln, who had added to his buzz by mowing down East Carolina in his previous start, worked 6 2/3 tough innings, walking five and throwing 129 pitches, to beat a Wichita State team that had Conor Gillaspie in the middle of the batting order. Kershaw was not nearly as sharp against McKinney North as he had been against Northwest High in that shortened perfect game.

White told MLB.com's Ken Gurnick last year that Kershaw "threw really poor," with no command of his curveball, but records show he helped Highland Park win the game, 13-1. Had Lincoln given up more than two runs, or had Kershaw possessed the curveball he showed two weeks earlier, White believes the top of the Draft would have gone differently.

Maybe the Pirates would have passed on Lincoln to take Miller or Morrow. Unless the Mariners then took Lincoln over Miller (if he had still been available), Kershaw would have been left for the Tigers, who had shown heavy interest in him.

Vin Scully might never have called a Kershaw no-hitter nor even muttered the immortal words when he saw Kershaw put away Sean Casey in Spring Training 2008 as a non-roster player.

"Ohhhh, what a curveball!" Scully said in a broadcast from Vero Beach, Fla. "Holy mackerel! He just broke off Public Enemy No. 1."

That threat to the welfare of hitters everywhere remains just as severe. Just ask the Rockies.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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