- David Ching, SEC reporter
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ATHENS, Ga. -- David Perno could field one heck of a starting lineup with the signees his Georgia baseball program lost to the MLB first-year player draft since he joined the Bulldogs' coaching staff in 1997.
Perno figures to lose another highly touted signee tonight, as outfielder Byron Buxton (Baxley, Ga./Appling County) will be one of the draft's top overall picks -- and a multimillion-dollar payday will be difficult to turn down.
Buxton will be in good company should he opt to chase professional riches over a no-guarantees college career. He would become the 14th Georgia signee since 1997 to instead sign a pro deal after being picked in the top three rounds -- and many of his predecessors in that department developed into MLB stars after turning pro.
Here is a rundown of the top 10 players from the last two decades who reached the big leagues after turning pro as an early draft pick instead of accepting a UGA scholarship offer:
The following UGA baseball signees since 1997 -- when coach David Perno joined the Bulldogs' coaching staff -- turned pro after being picked in the first three rounds of the MLB first-year player draft instead of accepting a scholarship at Georgia.
1. John Rocker, P, 1993 draft, 18th round, Braves
Rocker garnered a reputation as a nutjob following his well-publicized racist and homophobic rantings to a Sports Illustrated writer, but the left-handed closer was a bona fide star because of his on-field performance for a brief period.
Rocker saved 38 games for an Atlanta club that reached the 1999 World Series and pitched 20 2/3 scoreless innings in the postseason in a six-year career that included stints with the Braves, Indians, Rangers and Devil Rays.
2. Scott Rolen, 3B, 1993, second round, Phillies
Rolen actually signed with Georgia to play basketball, but the Bulldogs certainly would have used the seven-time All-Star as a two-sport athlete. Rolen might be the most accomplished professional baseball player on this list, having earned more than $100 million and eight Gold Gloves in a 17-year big-league career.
Rolen was named as the National League's Rookie of the Year in 1997 as a Philadelphia Phillie, but enjoyed his best season -- 2004, when he finished fourth in the NL MVP voting after batting .314 with 34 home runs and 124 RBIs -- and won his only World Series ring (2006) as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals.
3. George Lombard, OF, 1994, second round, Braves
Like Rolen, Lombard did not sign with Georgia to play baseball, although he could have easily been a two-sport player. Lombard was a big-time running back prospect at the Lovett School in Atlanta, but instead chose to sign with the Atlanta Braves when they selected him in the second round of the 1994 draft.
Lombard reached the majors with Atlanta in 1998 and also made stops in Detroit, Tampa Bay and Washington in a six-year big-league career in which he batted .220 in 144 games.
4. Jake Westbrook, P, 1996, first round, Rockies
A star at nearby Madison County High School in Danielsville, Ga., Westbrook signed to become a fourth-generation UGA letterman. But first-round money from Colorado proved too difficult to turn down, and Westbrook has become a serviceable starting pitcher in the majors.
Westbrook's career season was an All-Star 2004 campaign, when he went 14-9 with a 3.38 ERA and tossed five complete games, but his career highlight might have come last season. Westbrook was the winning pitcher in St. Louis' extra-inning comeback win against Texas in Game 6 of the World Series which allowed the Cardinals to stay alive and win the championship in Game 7.
5. Jayson Werth, C, 1997, first round, Orioles
That's right, Werth signed with Georgia as a catcher -- a position he played in the minor leagues before eventually shifting to the outfield position that better suits his 6-foot-5 frame.
Werth got off to a slow start in the majors with Toronto and the Los Angeles Dodgers, but became a star in Philadelphia. Big seasons with the Phillies in 2009 and 2010 -- when he batted a combined .282 with 63 home runs, 184 RBIs and 33 stolen bases -- helped Werth land a seven-year, $126-million deal with the Washington Nationals before the 2011 season.
6. Brandon Phillips, 2B, 1999, second round, Expos
Phillips was the first of two brothers who bailed on scholarships to UGA when they were picked high in the MLB draft. Little brother P.J. signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim when they selected him in the second round of the 2005 draft.
Brandon is the Phillips brother who has accounted for most of their professional good fortune, emerging as one of the top second basemen in baseball. He hit 30 home runs and stole 32 bases in 2007 and followed that with consecutive 20-20 seasons. The two-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner is playing for the Cincinnati Reds on a 10-year, $98-million contract that runs through 2017.
7. Macay McBride, P, 2001 first round, Braves
The left-handed pitcher dominated as a starter in high school with a low-90s fastball and began his pro career in that role before shifting to the bullpen.
McBride debuted with Atlanta in 2005 and enjoyed a successful 2006 season, going 4-1 with a 3.65 ERA in 71 games. But the Braves traded him to Detroit the following season and an elbow injury eventually derailed his career.
8. Chris Nelson, P/SS, 2004, first round, Rockies
Nelson played almost exclusively as a designated hitter (and batted .552) as a senior at Stone Mountain (Ga.) Redan High School because Tommy John surgery after his junior season prevented him from pitching that season after ranking as one of the nation's top pitching prospects the year before.
The Colorado Rockies picked Nelson ninth overall and he worked his way to the majors by June 2010. Nelson has split his time between the big leagues and Triple-A during the last two seasons, although he batted .250 and scored 20 runs in 63 games last season in the majors.
9. Ben Revere, OF, 2007, first round, Twins
Revere is the most recent UGA baseball signee to reach the majors -- a feat he accomplished in relatively quick fashion, debuting before the end of the 2010 season. Of course, the speed of his progression through the minors shouldn't come as an enormous surprise given that Revere stole 160 bases and batted .326 in 403 minor league games.
Revere played nearly the entire 2011 season in Minnesota and stole 34 bases in 117 games while regularly making the highlight reels with spectacular catches in center field. He has not claimed an everyday spot in the lineup yet, but the 24-year-old Revere appears to be a star in the making with the Twins.
10. Xavier Avery, OF, 2008, second round, Orioles
Mark Richt's football coaching staff knew it was a strong possibility that Avery would never show up at Georgia when he signed with the Bulldogs in 2008. Sure enough, instead of fulfilling his potential at running back or safety, Avery is chasing fly balls as an Orioles outfielder.
Avery quickly advanced through Baltimore's farm system and made his MLB debut on May 13. The speedy outfielder stole 125 bases in 483 minor league games before the Orioles added him to the big-league roster last month.
The MLB draft has taken a bite out of Georgia's baseball recruiting during the past couple of decades, as quite a few Bulldogs signees have decided to go pro instead.