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June 10, 2009

Cardinals go the high school route in draft

MLB DRAFT: Donavan Tate goes No. 3 | Wheeler taken with the sixth pick

ST. LOUIS Righthander Shelby Miller, from the Texas deer-hunting outpost of Brownwood, is the first high school pitcher to be taken in the opening round of the free-agent draft by the Cardinals since 1991 when Brian Barber was chosen out of an Orlando, Fla., high school.

Barber, one of three Cardinals first-round picks that year, was plagued by persistent arm troubles and didn't have much of a big-league career. He went a combined 5-8 with a 6.77 earned-run average for the Cardinals and Kansas City from 1995-98.

But Jeff Luhnow, vice president of scouting and player development for the Cardinals, offered up the physical comparison of the strapping, 6-foot-4, 207-pound Miller to a much more prominent righthander, who also came out of a Texas high school.

"He looks like what maybe Nolan Ryan must have looked like back in his day," Luhnow said Tuesday night at Busch Stadium.

And Miller, speaking to reporters on a conference call, didn't back off at all on comparing himself to Hall of Famer Ryan, or another Texas product, righthander Josh Beckett of Boston.

"Hopefully, one day I'm going to have the Hall of Fame talent and exposure that Nolan Ryan has today," Miller said. "I'm respectful of Nolan Ryan and Josh Beckett. They're awesome pitchers and I see myself playing for the Cardinals and being just as good as them."

Luhnow called the 18-year-old Miller, 10-2 with a 1.90 ERA and 153 strikeouts in 77 innings, "the absolute best player available."

Citing Miller's "electric" fastball that normally is around 92 to 93 mph and a "12 to 6" curveball, Luhnow said, "He's got a ways to go before he makes it to the big leagues, but he does look like a big-league pitcher already and has the stuff that should play up here. To be honest, this is the guy I really wanted."

The Cardinals' second-round pick was a catcher and pitcher, Robert Stock of USC, and the third-rounder was righthander Joe Kelly, a closer from California-Riverside.

Both might be considered stretches in that Stock, when catching, hit only .226 and Kelly's ERA was 5.65. But Luhnow said he saw high potential in both, especially with Stock, who bypassed his last year of high school in California to join USC as a 17-year-old freshman.

"We feel like it's worth giving him a chance to succeed (as a catcher) first," Luhnow said. "We know he can catch. We feel like he's got a chance to hit down the road. If we feel hitting is going to be a challenge to him, then he'll come to spring training as a pitcher.

"I felt like this was a year we could take some younger kids and some higher risks and ... let our system and our own people do what they do best, which is to take raw material that has a really high upside and turn it into a finished product."

Miller, who allowed only 36 walks and 38 hits in his 77 innings, said his forte in high school "obviously is my overpowering fastball. But my strength definitely is my mind-set on the mound. I try to get into batters' heads."

Luhnow called Miller's changeup "definitely a work in progress," although Miller said his arm angle "was perfect for a ridiculously nice changeup. I throw a decent one right now. Working with St. Louis ... working with the right guys ... it's going to develop even more. It's going to be an out pitch for me when I get to the big leagues."

Ralph Garr Jr., son of the former Atlanta outfielder, was the lead scout in the observance of Miller and was a liaison with his family, who live some 85 miles from Abilene, Texas. That required some dirt-road travel, Luhnow said. "Brownwood is nice place, but I've got bigger things waiting for me in St. Louis," Miller said.

Luhnow suggested the Cardinals might break from "slot" and be prepared to offer more money than some players chosen ahead of Miller at No. 19. Miller has made a collegiate commitment to Texas A&M, but Luhnow said, "Hopefully, he will learn at Johnson City and Quad Cities (in the Cardinals' system) and not College Station (Texas)."

Luhnow allowed that it might take until August to get Miller signed. The deadline is Aug. 17 before players then would go back into the draft for next year.

"It's no slam dunk that we're going to sign him quickly or sign him at all," Luhnow said. "High school pitchers who have good options to go elsewhere are, by definition, tough signs."

But with his advisers apparently out of the room at the time, Miller said finances weren't that important.

"Money doesn't have anything to do with it right now," Miller said. "My future ahead of me is professional baseball. Nothing against A&M. College ... I just don't see in my future right now.

"Definitely, I'm going to sign a contract with the St. Louis Cardinals. Ultimately, my goal is to play with the St. Louis Cardinals as soon as I possibly can."

Luhnow said the Cardinals could be patient with Miller that he wasn't somebody they had to rush to the majors in a couple of years. "Being a high school player, Shelby's going to need some years to develop in our system," Luhnow said.

Again, Miller had a different perception.

"I see myself playing for the Cardinals in about two to three years playing in the big leagues," he said. "I'm going to get there as quick as I can and make a name for myself."

The top pick in the three-day draft, which continues with rounds four through 30 today, was 6-foot-5 San Diego State righthander Stephen Strasburg, chosen by Washington.

University of Missouri star Kyle Gibson, who was targeted for the upper half of the first round, went to Minnesota at No. 22. Luhnow made reference to the fact that Gibson had suffered a recent stress fracture in his arm and, after checking the matter out with doctors, "we made the decision (not to take him) on the information we had."

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