Last night, Major League Baseball cycled through the first round, the free agent compensation picks, and the competitive balance picks from its amateur draft. Of course, this is where teams are most likely to get value out, what with picking the best available players and all. But as we enter into the later rounds today and tomorrow, don't forget the importance of some of these lower picks. Consider, for instance, the lesson of Jerry Dybzinski.
It all starts in 1977...
Jerry Dybzinski was a 21 year old in college out of Cleveland State University when he was selected in the 15th round by the Cleveland Indians in 1977. Signing quickly, he debuted at low-A ball, in Batavia, where he posted a low batting average, but good patience. He moved quickly up the ladder, and by 1980 he broke camp with the Indians out of Spring Training. In three years in Cleveland, he hit .238/.296/.288 (a 62 OPS+) while playing mostly shortstop, and was worth about a half of a win according to FanGraphs.
Just before the start of the season in 1983, he was dealt to the White Sox for Pat Tabler. Tabler immediately stepped in as a utility man and was one of the Indians' most productive hitters for the next five years (and famously hit .489 with the bases loaded for his career), and was an all star in 1987. In June of 1988, Tabler was sent to the Royals for Bud Black, currently the manager of the San Diego Padres.
Black was awful in 1988, but bounced back to have good seasons in 1989 and 1990, when the Blue Jays came calling. It was September, and the Jays were just one game back of the Boston Red Sox for the AL East lead. We'll let SB Nation's own Bluebird Banter tell the rest of this part of the story:
"The Jays had enough rest days to only need two 5th starters after the September 16, so Black was placed first in the bullpen, making one relief appearance, before making those two starts. He was really acquired so that the Jays didn't have to face him and for some insurance in case Jimmy Key, who was nursing a tender hamstring at the time, did not get better."
In exchange, the Indians got three pitchers, Moose Gauzo, Steve Cummings, and a young pitcher named Alex Sanchez.
A near miss with greatness
Sanchez would never appear in the Majors again, but no one knew that when, that offseason, the Indians sent him back to the Blue Jays for Willie Blair. Blair threw 36 bad innings for Cleveland in 1991, and was then packaged with Eddie Taubensee to the Houston Astros for a couple of young guys, David Rohde and Kenny Friggin' Lofton. Lofton would immediately become one of the best leadoff men in baseball history and a borderline hall of famer.
But after four seasons in Cleveland, the Indians shipped him and Alan Embree to the Atlanta Braves for Marquis Grissom and David Justice in one of the biggest blockbuster deals of the mid-nineties. Lofton turned back around and signed with the Indians again in 1998, where he played with Justice until 2000, when the slugger was sent to the New York Yankees in one of the best trade deadline pickups in baseball history.
Justice netted the Indians three players, Ricky Ledee, Zach Day, and longtime Indian pitcher Jake Westbrook. Westbrook struggled for a couple years before breaking through in 2003 and making the AL All Star team in 2004. He pitched for the Indians until 2010, winning 69 games against 69 losses and posting a 4.29 ERA that was good for a 101 ERA+.
Here's where it gets weird
That year, the Cardinals needed some rotation help, and swung a three-team deal to acquire Westbrook and send outfielder Ryan Ludwick to the Padres. In return, the Padres sent the Indians a 24 year old former 4th round pick who was pitching well at double-A. That 24 year old right handed starter was Corey Kluber, who won the American League Cy Young Award in 2014 and who has a 2.23 FIP, with 105 strikeouts and only 14 walks in 84.2 innings in 2015.
Next month, Jerry Dybzinski turns 60 years old. In six years and 468 major league games, he hit .234/.293/.290 (a 61 OPS+) and was worth about a win above replacement, according to FanGraphs. Meanwhile, Corey Kluber is tied for the Major League lead in WAR. Don't ever think for a second that the rest of these picks don't matter, because without Jerry Dybzinski 1977, the Indians might not have Corey Kluber in 2015. Even the lowest pick can turn into the best pitcher in the American League someday.