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Dodgers' 1968 Draft haul remains gold standard

MLB.com @TracyRingolsby

Major League Baseball opened its 53rd Draft on Monday, with the first round being televised -- a far cry from the early years, when newspapers did not even print the Draft results. At one point, baseball didn't even make its Draft picks public.

And while the technique of evaluations has evolved to a much more sophisticated process that includes psychological testing and versions of analytics in addition to the eye of the baseball scout, one thing hasn't changed in nearly 50 years.

Major League Baseball opened its 53rd Draft on Monday, with the first round being televised -- a far cry from the early years, when newspapers did not even print the Draft results. At one point, baseball didn't even make its Draft picks public.

And while the technique of evaluations has evolved to a much more sophisticated process that includes psychological testing and versions of analytics in addition to the eye of the baseball scout, one thing hasn't changed in nearly 50 years.

No team has come close to the talent haul of the 1968 Dodgers, a team that was still impacted by the philosophy of Branch Rickey and was known for being creative in its approach to scouting and development.

Out of what was then the regular and secondary phases of the now defunct January Draft, and the regular and secondary phases of a June Draft that in recent years has been streamlined to 40 rounds and one phase, 15 players selected by the Dodgers made it to the big leagues, 11 of whom signed with the Dodgers.

And these weren't guys who got a cup of coffee and moved on.

Along with the likes of outfielders Bobby Valentine, Bill Bucker and Tom Paciorek, catcher Joe Ferguson and pitchers Doyle Alexander, Sandy Vance and Geoff Zahn, the Dodgers put together an infield that is beyond comparison in Major League history.

They selected eventual first baseman Steve Garvey with the first pick of what was the June Secondary Phase, and third baseman Ron Cey with the third selection in that phase. Second baseman Davey Lopes was signed as a second-round pick in January that year.

Those three combined with shortstop Billy Russell, a ninth-round pick in June 1966, to play 8-plus seasons together, setting a new Major League record that had been held by the famed Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance infield of the Chicago Cubs.

Big deal? Well, the Dodgers had only one losing season during the record-setting run, were a combined 268 games over .500, won four National League pennants, and claimed a World Series championship in 1981. The four of them combined in the eight full seasons they started together for 21 All-Star Game selections -- Garvey, eight; Cey, six; Lopes, four; and Russell, three.

"It's a record that can't be broken," Garvey has said on numerous occasions since. "You can't keep one guy for eight years with the way the game has changed, much less four. As a whole, we were greater than individual parts."

And so was the Dodgers franchise back in that time period.

Fred Nelson, an 18th-round Draft choice out of Arizona State in that 1968 Draft, never did get to the big leagues. He was undersized and after three years gave up the dream of playing the game to get into coaching. He has spent nearly 50 years in the games as an instructor, scout and farm director, drawing on his experiences with the Dodgers as a reference point over the years.

Nelson said the key was the Dodgers' scouting and player-development departments shared the same goal and focus: finding and developing players.

"They not only recognized talent, but saw how to make it better," said Nelson. "That infield that played together so long? Ron Cey was the only guy who played the position at the professional level that he played when he was drafted. Garvey was a third baseman [at Michigan State]. Russell and Lopes were outfielders. And it wasn't by accident."

The Dodgers had more farm teams -- nine -- than other organizations, and they weren't afraid to journey into uncharted territory, an attitude that many of the decision-makers with the organization in the 1960s learned from Rickey.

"Later on, I asked Red Adams [a longtime Dodgers scout and coach] what their philosophy was," said Nelson. "Even though they were in Los Angeles, they did not have an overabundance of California players. Their feeling was kids from Southern California or Texas or Florida played in the best facilities with the best coaching and the best players, and they wanted the guy with talent who was a raw talent that could be developed."

It is a philosophy that is hard to argue with.

As the late Bill Schweppe, a longtime Dodgers executive, said in his ranking of that 1968 Draft: "I view that Draft as a nine-plus, reserving a 10 for somebody who might come along and do a better job, but that won't be easy."

Forty-nine years later, nobody has come close.

Tracy Ringolsby is a national columnist for MLB.com.