Stock rises for high school hurler duo
Kershaw likely to be top-10 pick; Willems could be first-rounder
Clayton Kershaw had a solid resume heading into his senior year at Highland Park High School and was considered by many to be one of the best prep pitchers in the country. The hard-throwing southpaw, however, has had a season as big as his home state of Texas, pushing him up everyone's draft board, where he will more than likely end up as a top-10 selection.
Florida flamethrower Colten Willems has had an equally monstrous season, dominating at John Carroll High on the state's Gold Coast. A long and lean prospect, Willems has benefited from working with former Major Leaguer David West, who serves as his team's pitching coach. While he isn't expected to go as high as Kershaw, there are some clubs who think Willems will be selected by the end of the first round, making this duo a pair to watch when the names start getting called on Tuesday.
Despite missing three weeks with a strained oblique muscle, Kershaw was 12-0 with a 0.61 ERA through his first dozen decisions. And though he's committed to Texas A&M, the Aggies will have to settle for watching him play pro ball because there's little chance he'll be going to college. His mid-90s fastball and a dominating curve have served him so well -- he's set the school record for victories -- that he's averaging nearly 2.5 strikeouts per inning.
"He's arguably the best high school pitcher in the draft," said one Major League scouting director. "He's a power lefty with a big strong arm. He can get it up to 96; he's got a real explosive arm and a power breaking ball. I don't think there are any issues with him at all. He's going to go off the board early.
"He had a minor injury earlier in the season, but he's come back, really competed and gotten better as the spring went on. I don't have any negatives on him whatsoever."
Highland coach Lew Kennedy said that Kershaw's power on the mound was the best that he's ever seen, that his fastball is simply an overpowering strikeout pitch. He recalled how as a freshman, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Kershaw was "almost dumpy". But his body has matured and changed in the three years since, and now he sports what should someday be a Major League frame.
"He's come a long way since his freshman year," Kennedy said. "And he does a good job with everything. He knows there are a lot of distractions now, but he's pitched well and stayed focused."
Willems, who has committed to the University of Florida, has also remained focused on the task at hand, ignoring all the draft scuttlebutt while concentrating on staying in shape. He's been throwing bullpen sessions with West and running as he awaits his fate. He also had an ERA that hovered around 0.50 for much of the season while averaging two strikeouts per inning.
Though he doesn't have as high a profile as Kershaw, Willems has made dramatic strides since his junior season. He was named as the most valuable player in last summer's Cape Cod Classic and has impressed scouts and West with his demeanor. He has a fastball that occasionally creeps into the high 90s and has been honing what West calls "a power slider."
"I think he has the potential and the makeup and the upside to be a very special player," said West, a fourth-round pick by the Mets in 1983 who went on to have a 10-year big-league career. "I've known the kid since he was 14, and I've watched him mature. You can see a steadiness in his eyes and his demeanor on the mound; he has the experience of being under control.
"There's a real fire that burns in him. He's a competitor. Colten has talent. He is blessed. And he's been very grounded through this whole process. And he's going to be very appreciative [of where he's drafted] throughout the whole process."
One scouting director told MiLB.com, though, that he didn't anticipate Willems going until the second or third round, though there are some mock drafts and projections that have him going late in the first round or during the supplemental round. The aforementioned director pointed to the lack of development in Willems' breaking ball as an issue that could keep him from going in the first round.
"He's a little raw with his overall pitchability, but he has a great arm," the scouting director said. "He's more of a projection guy, not with his fastball, but with his secondary stuff and control. I think they'll come, but he's further away than Kershaw."
Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.