The Los Angeles Dodgers are pretty lucky to have Clayton Kershaw. Los Angeles’ ace is in route to not just the Hall of Fame, but becoming one of the best pitchers in MLB history. Kershaw is the current favorite for a fourth Cy Young, and the 28-year old is a strong contender for his second MVP. Since entering the league in 2008, Kershaw’s ERA has lowered every season.
Kershaw is the youngest pitcher to have won three Cy Young Awards. Only four players have won four or more of the award. Only three pitchers have won multiple MVPs. He is getting closer to uncharted waters.
The Texas native has been the true definition of an ace. His 2.37 career ERA is better than Sandy Koufax’s 2.76 and ranks No. 24 all-time. Kershaw ranks fourth in ERA among all pitchers with at least 1,000 innings since 1915, according to Ace of MLB Stats on Twitter.
Through 21 starts in 2016, that statistic is 1.69. Kershaw was 12-4 in the 2016 season. He is the difference between a winning and losing franchise.
And yet, he went seventh overall in the 2006 draft. Dodgers senior advisor Ned Colletti joined MLB on TuneIn recently to discuss the decision to draft Kershaw over other stars like Max Scherzer.
Considered the top high school arm in the class, Kershaw was still the sixth pitcher selected. He was a late-blooming star with a developing curveball, but the Dodgers showed particular interest and kept it close to the vest.
Scout Calvin Jones said executives evaluating Kershaw before the draft called him “the best high school arm we’ve ever seen.”
Perhaps those scouts were right, but the brain trusts of six franchises went another direction.
A decade later, what became of those organizations and players?
1. Kansas City: Luke Hochevar, pitcher
The Royals are the defending world champs and back-to-back American League winners, but it hasn’t been all sunshine for Kansas City.
Los Angeles selected Hochevar in the 39th round of the 2002 MLB draft, but he chose to attend the University of Tennessee instead. The Dodgers drafted him again in the 40th round of the 2005 draft, but a day after agreeing to a signing bonus, Hochevar had a change of heart and never signed. He would end up in blue, however, after being taken No. 1 overall by the Royals the following year.
Little did the Dodgers know their failure to sign him in 2005 may given their franchise its best player.
Kansas City was in a state of flux. The franchise needed immediate help, and the seasoned Hochevar was a logical choice. He’s still with the champions today, but a 5.02 ERA is an accurate display of his career. Hochevar was moved to the bullpen in 2013 after struggling as a starter. He found success in the role, but missed 2014 due to injury.
Had the Royals opted for Kershaw, a Kershaw-Greinke duo would’ve been built in Missouri rather than California. Greinke was with Kansas City through 2011, and assuming Kershaw reached the MLB in 2008, the Royals would’ve added him to a rotation recently bolstered by 2007 free agent acquisition Gil Meche, who had two serviceable years before tailing off.
Kansas City would have lost Kershaw in time, but he could have accelerated a lengthy rebuild. While Hochevar’s last three seasons (2.87 ERA out of the bullpen) have been an asset to the organization, he is replaceable; Kershaw is not.
2. Colorado Rockies: Greg Reynolds, pitcher
It’s fair to ask who Grey Reynolds even is. That isn’t a good sign for a high first round selection.
After emerging as a top prospect at Stanford, Colorado pegged Reynolds a second overall pick. He debuted in 2008 but never made a lasting impact. Reynolds later battled injuries and bounced between different levels of the minors.
The Rockies traded him to Texas in 2012, where he was ineffective. Reynolds pitched for the Louisville Bats in 2013 before Cincinnati promoted him. After a cup of coffee in the bigs, he was designated for assignment. Reynolds played a season for the Saitama Seibu Lions and experienced a short stint with the Padres in 2016.
It goes without saying: Reynolds was a bust, and seeing Kershaw in their division has to sting the Rockies. The team has been wildly inconsistent (especially on the pitching end) through the years, and despite Coors Field’s unfriendly track record on pitchers, Kershaw might have been the missing piece. The team didn’t have any pitching standouts in 2006, but Kershaw eventually headlining a team offensively supported by Matt Holliday, Todd Helton and others could have been vicious.
3. Tampa Bay Rays: Evan Longoria, third baseman
This is the only non-pitcher to go before Kershaw. It is also the only slightly justifiable choice.
No, Longoria hasn’t been a Kershaw-level performer, but he has been vital to the Rays. A franchise plagued by change and financial restraints found an individual willing to take a discount and accept the role as its franchise player. Longoria has been a rock for the organization and gave it a jolt in the arm during a 2008 World Series run, the same year he won Rookie of the Year.
In retrospect, Kershaw goes before any other player – no question. Tampa Bay is a team of lesser regrets. Longoria has represented the franchise as well as it could have hoped. The best years of Rays baseball came with him leading the charge. Adding Kershaw to a rotation with James Shields and later David Price sounds tantalizing, but unless Kershaw took a discount, he likely would have bolted from Tampa Bay. Longoria remains the Rays’ core player.
4. Pittsburgh Pirates: Brad Lincoln, pitcher
Like the Royals, the Pirates were desperate for relevancy. Unfortunately for them, it blew up in their face.
Brad Lincoln showed out at the University of Houston. The Pirates saw a player ready to contribute soon, so they selected him the fourth overall pick. Lincoln didn’t appear in the majors until 2010 because of injuries, and unfortunately, those seemingly doomed his career. In the same season he debuted, he was sent back to Triple-A.
Lincoln never grew into a full-time role and was dealt to Toronto in 2012. He spent time between the majors and minors before being sent to the Phillies.
Carrying a 9-11 record with a 4.74 ERA, Lincoln is a massive disappointment as a top five pick. Injuries clearly played a part in that, but like Kansas City, Kershaw could’ve moved a slow rebuild along. Zach Duke was the only above average starter for the franchise during that time, and Kershaw would’ve been the cornerstone the Pirates lacked until Andrew McCutchen arrived.
5. Seattle Mariners: Brandon Morrow, pitcher
Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez headlining a staff? What could’ve been.
Brandon Morrow, a Northern California kid, made a name for himself at Cal-Berkeley. As was the case for most teams on this list, Seattle wanted a quick impact.
Morrow failed to establish himself as a centerpiece on the next great Mariners squad, so Seattle traded him to the Blue Jays. Toronto altered his delivery and gave him a consistent role in the rotation. Morrow battled injuries, but became an effective starter when healthy. He had a 17-strikeout showing and a near no-hitter early in his Toronto career. He grew into a notable strikeout pitcher and firm No. 2 on the staff. Injuries derailed him as time went on, and he joined San Diego in 2014. From there, Morrow again frequented the disabled list and lost all effectiveness.
Morrow was a bust for the Mariners. He found his place in Canada, but was never close to being a reliable ace. Had the Mariners chosen to be patient with Kershaw, they would have had the greatest 1-2 punch in recent memory.
6. Detroit Tigers: Andrew Miller, pitcher
The most interesting case here is the Detroit Tigers. Andrew Miller is one of the best relievers in baseball. He’s been with the Tigers, Marlins, Red Sox, Orioles, Yankees and Indians. He won American League Reliever of the Year in 2015.
A fast ascension to the majors put Miller in the thick of a pennant chase with the Tigers. But the real story is what happened in 2007. He also helped lead the Cleveland Indians to an appearance in the 2016 World Series.
Miller was the headliner of the trade that brought Miguel Cabrera to Detroit. Could Kershaw have been part of that package instead? If the Tigers took and kept Kershaw, does Cabrera move elsewhere and shift the balance of the entire league?
Ask the Tigers now, and they’re happy to have taken Miller because it resulted in Cabrera. Linear thinking says Kershaw would’ve anchored the team with Justin Verlander. But no one knows how a Cabrera-less Tigers team looks over these years.
In the end, each one of these teams should have taken Kershaw. Tampa Bay can somewhat justify its choice, while Detroit can argue the final result. As we debate draft grades and rankings this time of year, remember that Reynolds and Lincoln were taken before not only Kershaw, but Tim Lincecum and Max Scherzer early in round one. As is the case with most facets of life, finding a franchise player takes a favorable break or two.
As for the Dodgers? They’re pretty lucky to have Kershaw.