04/04/11 3:41 PM ET
Dodgers' first-round pick set to begin career
By Ken Gurnick / MLB.com
So here's a little insight into the level head of Zach Lee, the right-handed pitcher the Dodgers broke the bank for last summer with a franchise-record $5.25 million.
"Buy a new car? No point," Lee said during Spring Training. "I have a car, an '05 Chevy Malibu, that works perfectly fine. Buy a new car, it goes down in value $10,000 the minute you buy it. I have no need for a new car."
With the backdrop of ownership uncertainty, the Dodgers' part of the signing is still a head-scratcher. With a full ride to LSU as one of the most coveted quarterback recruits in the nation, Lee was considered unsignable by the 27 MLB clubs that passed until the Dodgers took him near the end of the first round.
Skeptics suggested the Dodgers made the pick with the intention of not signing Lee and getting a compensation choice the following season. Then the club held no negotiations until the final day, only to reach agreement literally a minute before the deadline.
The baseball world was stunned. Lee didn't see it coming either, having already begun summer two-a-day drills with the Tigers as an incoming freshman quarterback.
"Yeah, I was surprised," Lee said of the outcome. "I didn't have any conversation with them until the final day. The whole time I kept my mind open and it came down to the last minute. Leaving behind football was by far the toughest decision of my life. I knew this decision would drastically impact my life for the next five-plus years."
Contract details haven't been revealed, but it's for five years and back-loaded to assure Lee doesn't take the bonus and run.
An Internet April's Fool joke last week claimed Lee had already bolted back to LSU for football, but he earlier said he has no intention of that, although he left the door open a crack for a return to football if his current career doesn't pan out.
"It's still there a little bit, but it's not affecting me," he said of his other sport. "If anything, if baseball doesn't work out, it's always something I can fall back on if need be. But I'm not focused on that right now. I'm here and want to see how far I can go."
Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw now top the Dodgers' rotation, but they remember being in Lee's baseball spikes, if not his football cleats. Both were high school pitching stars taken by the Dodgers in the first round. Billingsley also had been a quarterback until a ruptured spleen turned him exclusively to baseball. Both signed for seven-figure bonuses (Kershaw $2.3 million, Billingsley $1.375 million) and they know what it takes to deal with the expectations of being a can't-miss prospect.
Kershaw said no amount of signing bonus can add fast to a fastball or curve to a curveball.
"What I realized my first year is that I just had to be myself," said Kershaw. "It took awhile. I went to the Gulf Coast League and tried to throw the ball through a wall and prove to everybody I was worthy. It's natural that with the money come high expectations. I just reminded myself how I pitched in high school. That's what got me there. Somebody saw something in you, so why try to change?"
Billingsley said he was so singularly focused on reaching the Major Leagues that he wasn't really aware of the expectations of others.
"I never really thought about it," he said. "I remember more the tough lifestyle, the travel, the long bus rides. I was fortunate having some money, because they don't pay a lot in the Minor Leagues. Really, the only thing I thought about back then was to get to the big leagues and stay healthy."
Lee signed too late in the summer to play Rookie ball for the Dodgers, which both Billingsley and Kershaw were able to do after signing quickly. Coaches who first worked with Lee at Instructional League say he has the raw tools to be special, with a mid-90s fastball and a sharp curve. The intangibles -- work ethic and leadership --- they say are "off the charts."
"I think over the years my work ethic helped me get to the point where I'm at," Lee said. "That comes from my parents, they work really hard to provide for us. We weren't poor, but we weren't high class either. Middle class, paycheck to paycheck. The money now gives us a little bit of security. I'm kind of frugal with my money. I took care of my family to make sure they're set and live happy."
An exceptional student at his Texas high school (26th in his senior class of 404) who still plans on earning his college degree, Lee said he's essentially a "self-taught" pitcher.
"My dad sells electronics components for Sanyo, my mom is a receptionist at my old high school. Neither had any connection to baseball," he said. "They aren't huge fans of baseball, they're more football fans. I played T-ball when I was young. They put me into sports more to get me out of the house."
He said Greg Maddux was one of his favorite pitchers for his repertoire and ability to locate his pitches, but "I never had anybody I tried to copy. I never had a private pitching coach. Basically, I'm self taught. I'll say Felipe Suarez, my pitching coach with the Team USA Juniors, helped me a lot. But mechanics, I taught myself."
He said he was a better baseball player than football player because "baseball is more individual and you can control your own situation a little more in high school. Football being more of a team sport, you develop more on the collegiate level."
He chose not to and admits he experienced some withdrawal last fall.
"I wouldn't say I regret leaving football," he said. "During the football season, I missed it a little bit and that's to be expected. I watched LSU on television and went to one game after instruct. Everybody on the football side was great about it. They understood the opportunity; everyone said they would do the same thing. It was tough during the season because I was so used to playing football. That was an adjustment, not having football."
The adjustment continues later this week, when Lee is likely to make his professional debut at Class A Great Lakes.
"I just feel I'm one of the guys," he said. "I think everybody was surprised when I signed. But after they get to know me, they've treated me like one of the guys. I'm just here trying to make a team and make myself a better player. There's always joking, giving me a hard time because of the contract. You have to lighten the mood and I expected that going in that I'd be the butt of jokes, but it's all been in fun."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.