Shoehorned into the pro football playoffs and the middle of the hockey and basketball seasons, baseball's winter free-agent draft attracts about as much attention as another injury to Bill Walton. Not only is the draft overshadowed, it often is understocked, since most amateurs become eligible for selection in June when the major leagues do their important picking. But the draft held last week was different, not for any immediate commotion it caused, but for the excitement No. 1 choice Steve Kemp seems capable of generating in seasons to come.
Kemp, a 21-year-old outfielder and left-handed batter who was selected by the Tigers, has been called a stronger hitter than American League MVP and Rookie of the Year Fred Lynn by Rod Dedeaux, a man who ought to know. Dedeaux has trained numerous major-leaguers-to-be during his 33-year tenure as Southern Cal's coach, and two of his most recent stars were Lynn and Kemp. "Steve is one of the best power hitters we've had," says Dedeaux. "He and Freddie have quite a bit in common. Both showed signs while they were still playing at USC of being outstanding big-league batters. At this stage, Steve is more of a pure hitter. He has great power in his arms and wrists. Unlike Freddie, who is a rhythmic hitter with a quiet bat and short stride, Steve has an unorthodox style, but so did Stan Musial and Roberto Clemente."
At the plate the Texas-born Kemp settles into a low stance, wiggles his bat a lot and takes a long stride and a big cut at the ball. During USC's 57-game schedule last spring, Kemp, a 5'11", 185-pound junior, used his violent swing to line base hits to all fields—and beyond. His .435 average shattered a 22-year-old school record by 31 points and surpassed Lynn's best season at Southern Cal by .109. Kemp's 90 hits included 13 home runs, eight triples and 17 doubles, compared to Lynn's bests of 14, seven and 13. Kemp's total of 67 runs batted in was 21 more than Lynn's highest.
Lynn was a senior in 1973 when Kemp appeared in three USC varsity games and had a homer, double and single in his five at bats. As a sophomore Kemp averaged .351 in 61 games as a designated batter. He hit five home runs, three triples and 14 doubles that season.
Given that kind of batting record against the stiffest college competition, it was no wonder that the professional scouts descended on Kemp when he decided to drop out of USC last fall to become eligible for the winter draft. (College players must be graduated or out of school for a semester before they can be selected by a major league team.) Scouts are by nature terse and cautious in assessing a player's future, but when they discuss Kemp, they offer what for them are raves. David Ritterpusch of the Orioles gives Kemp the scout's highest accolade: "We think he will be a starter on a major league team. We're very positive on him. Our reports indicate he's a surprisingly good hitter against lefthanded pitching."
While connecting with fastballs has never been a problem for Kemp, he has difficulty making connections in the outfield. "With his dashing style and ability to hit the long ball, Steve causes excitement whenever he steps into the batter's box," says Dedeaux. "And until last year he also caused excitement whenever a fly ball was hit in his direction." Says Royals' Scout Art Lilly, "He's not a gazelle type like Lynn. His fielding is not overly impressive."
The other question mark about Kemp's game is the strength of his throwing arm. "He has a leftfielder's arm," says Lilly. "It's not strong enough for center or right." First base, often a haven for players with big bats and suspect arms, may turn out to be Kemp's best position in the majors.
Kemp attributes the slow development of his arm to the unorthodox throwing motion he previously used. "I would whip the ball with my elbow bent and couldn't get the right carry or rotation on it," he says. He figures that on a scale of eight, the grading system often used by major league teams, his arm now would rate as a five.
All the close scrutiny and ceaseless interviewing by scouts the past six months have kept Kemp on his toes, on the telephone and on the run near his Arcadia, Calif. home. "The scouts were kind of scary," he says. "They were always around watching to see what I could and couldn't do. They never talked about how much money they were going to offer, but always wanted to know how much I would ask to sign."
After giving him eye tests for depth and color perception, two Cincinnati scouts drove Kemp to his former high school and timed him in the 40- and 60-yard dashes. "I asked whether I could do it again, but they said I did all right the first time," says Kemp, who stole seven bases last year, second best on the USC squad.