The Dodgers played the Clayton Kershaw card at exactly the right time. Their wondrous pitching prospect makes his major league debut today. If he is less than overwhelming, they can simply say Kershaw was holding down a spot for Jason Schmidt and send him to the bullpen or back to the minors after three starts, with the butterflies and hype out of the way.

If Kershaw lives up to his promise, or even close to it, he can make 20 starts -- skipping three turns -- and average six innings to finish the regular season at 163 innings, within the Dodgers’ target range.

Kershaw is 20 years and 67 days old. The only pitchers since the turn of the century to make a major league debut at a younger age, according to STATS LLC: Felix Hernandez of the Mariners, at 19, and Edwin Jackson of the Dodgers, who beat Randy Johnson on his 20th birthday.

It’s Koufax, er, Kershaw


Rising stars

The draft is next week, and pay attention. The days of the top picks maturing over a few anonymous years in the minor leagues are long gone. When Kershaw makes his first pitch today, eight of the top 11 picks from the 2006 draft will be playing in the majors.

Those players: Luke Hochevar (Royals, No. 1); Greg Reynolds (Rockies, 2); Evan Longoria (Rays, 3); Brandon Morrow (Mariners, 5); Andrew Miller (Tigers, 6, since traded to Marlins); Kershaw (7); Tim Lincecum (Giants, 10); Max Scherzer (Diamondbacks, 11). The Yankees got Joba Chamberlain at No. 42. All but Kershaw played college baseball.

Sinking ship


The Seattle Mariners already have tried juggling the players, so firing Manager John McLaren might be the last thing they can try to save a season gone horribly wrong. They have three former major league managers on the coaching staff, but maybe bullpen coach Norm Charlton, who once admitted to throwing at Mike Scioscia, would be the guy most likely to light a fire under the Mariners.

Seattle got hammered last week, losing consecutive games by the scores of 12-8, 9-4, 9-2, 13-2 and 12-6. Ichiro Suzuki’s take, as told to Seattle reporters: “Playing on this team and seeing what is happening around me, I feel that something is beginning to fall apart. But, if I was not in this situation, and I was objectively watching what just happened this week, I would probably be drinking a lot of beers and booing.”

Loose lip

You might give New York Mets Manager Willie Randolph credit if he were trying to deflect attention from his slumping players by wondering aloud why, if he and Joe Torre have a similar dugout demeanor, he is criticized as distant while Torre is praised as calm.


“Is it racial?” Randolph told the Bergen (N.J.) Record. “Huh? It smells a little bit.”

But he backed down in the ensuing firestorm, apologizing and claiming the remark was off the record. Under Randolph, the Mets coughed up a seven-game lead with 17 to play last September, and they’re under .500 now, with Johan Santana. Nothing like a manager putting himself on the firing line.

Weight watchers

Jose Guillen and Andruw Jones each signed $36-million contracts as free agents. Guillen has heated up after a slow start with the Royals, telling reporters in Kansas City that he showed up for spring training 25 pounds overweight and had to get himself in shape, then his bat.


“This is all my fault,” Guillen said.

He added: “As a player, this is your job, and you’ve got to make sure you stay in good shape. Because when you come out of shape and you’re trying to get in shape for the season, you’re always going to have a hard time.”

Just saying, Andruw.

-- Bill Shaikin