New York sports fans generally regard baseball’s amateur draft the same way they look at NASCAR, or college football, or Republican primaries: as curiosities, shrugged off by the masses and...
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New York sports fans generally regard baseball’s amateur draft the same way they look at NASCAR, or college football, or Republican primaries: as curiosities, shrugged off by the masses and embraced by the diehards.
The Mets’ selection of Vanderbilt right-hander Kumar Rocker with the 10th pick this year violated that norm and transcended the niche following to become a darn big story. It grew exponentially when the Mets, concerned by what they saw in the 21-year-old’s physical examination, decided to not make Rocker an offer at all and consequently received the 11th selection in next year’s draft as compensation.
The sequence of events didn’t merely enrage the Mets’ fan base. It dominated industry talk, with people on both sides of the aisle, team and player representation, trying to make heads or tails of what went down.
Let’s try to do the same, question-and-answer style.
Q: OK, how badly did the Mets screw this up? Should they have been more wary of Rocker?
A: Look, the talk of Rocker’s diminished velocity during his redshirt sophomore season at Vandy was so prominent that Tommy Tanous, the Mets’ vice president of amateur and international scouting, answered a question about it during a Zoom news conference following the draft’s second day.
“We were aware of the velocity decrease in the middle of the year,” Tanous said. “I would say almost all Division I pitchers had a velocity decrease because this is the first time they had been extended [after the COVID-shortened 2020]. It’s just he’s such a highly visible pick and pitcher who was consistently throwing between 96 and 100 [mph], and when he does throw 92, 94, it’s looked at. He was used quite a bit early in the season and his pitch counts were reasonable, but they were high. I think he had a little bit of a lull in the middle of the season. We saw it pick up at the end of the year.
“We were well aware of it, and in some ways, hopefully this was the reason we were lucky enough to land him.”
Undoubtedly, that awareness factored into Rocker, ranked sixth by MLB.com, falling to the Mets with the 10th-overall pick. That didn’t serve as the only factor, however. Rocker’s ask (he and the Mets agreed to a $6 million draft-day signing bonus pending the physical) also played a role, as did the history of his adviser, Scott Boras, being a tough negotiator. If any team obtained a smoking gun that Rocker, who pitched regularly the past three seasons, suffered from real medical problems in his pitching arm, as opposed to simply hearing scuttlebutt, I failed to learn that through my reporting this past week.
If you can justify the Mets’ popping of Rocker as a reasonable risk mitigated by the safety net of next year’s extra pick, the rest of the industry showed little sympathy for the team’s plight because of how it wound up leaving $1.3 million unspent (and unable to be utilized in any other way) as a result of its other picks signing for below their slot values. The Mets did explore taking some high-end high-schoolers late, yet none of their targets appeared willing to cancel their college commitments for anything in the $1.3 million neighborhood. The Angels found such a commodity, 12th-round pick Mason Albright, a high-school lefty, who agreed to a $1.25 million signing bonus. We’ll keep an eye on him.
Q: How big a hit is this to the Mets’ farm system?
A: It’s significant because their cupboard is pretty bare because they have traded away several top guys since late 2018. You saw that at this year’s trade deadline, when the Mets, unwilling to deal their top pieces (Francisco Alvarez, Bret Baty and Ronny Mauricio), fell short in their efforts to land another starting pitcher because clubs didn’t like their depth. And they dealt outfielder Pete Crow-Armstrong, their top draft pick of 2020, to the Cubs for pending free agent Javier Baez. Without Rocker, the heat turns on the Mets to find a jewel or three from the draft picks they did sign.
Q: What exactly is wrong with Rocker?
A: The Mets expressed concern initially and primarily about Rocker’s right elbow, according to multiple sources. Ultimately, the Mets didn’t like what they saw beyond just the elbow, which is why they didn’t think even Tommy John surgery would alleviate their worries.
Rocker and Boras, of course, insist that nothing is wrong with him, and they possess the rather impressive Exhibit A of the pitcher’s body of work at college. That is why the entire baseball world, no one more than the Mets, will be watching Rocker very closely.
Q: Why is Rocker turning professional rather than returning to Vanderbilt?
A: “We have found that elite talents like Kumar are best served by a dedicated professional conditioning regime to fully prepare for the next professional step,” Boras wrote in a text message. “This also allows him to receive offers from all professional leagues so he can make an informed decision.”
The obvious precedent here is pitcher Luke Hochevar, another Boras advisee, who failed to come to terms with the Dodgers after getting picked 40th overall in 2005, pitched four games for the independent Fort Worth Cats in 2006 and then went first overall, to the Royals, in the 2006 draft. Don’t be surprised if Rocker pitches a few games for a domestic independent team early next year in preparation for the 2022 draft.
Q: What about precedents for guys who failed their physicals?
A: The most recent is left-hander Brady Aiken, drafted first overall by Houston in 2014. The Astros lowered their offer from $6.5 million to $5 million after not loving what they saw in Aiken’s pitching elbow. Aiken passed and, after undergoing Tommy John surgery, went 17th overall to the Indians in the 2015 draft. He never regained his pre-surgery excellence and is now out of baseball.
In 2010, the Diamondbacks picked right-hander Barret Loux sixth overall. He failed his physical, an action evoking so much anger — Arizona changed general managers between the draft to the signing deadline, sparking speculation that the new bosses simply weren’t as gaga over Loux as were the old bosses — that commissioner Bud Selig allowed the pitcher to become a free agent.
Q: Might that happen now with Rocker?
A: No, because Major League Baseball has since created a program by which the top 50 pitchers (ranked by an MLB scouting service) are protected from being shut out … if they submit to a pre-draft MRI exam, an action that mandates the drafting team to offer its pick at least 40 percent of the assigned slot figure (which was $4.74 million for Rocker). Rocker, like many invited to the initiative, didn’t participate in this voluntary program.
Q: So what’s the final takeaway?
A: If nothing else, the Mets’ action was bold. They could have signed Rocker, and had he succumbed to their fears, there would’ve been more disappointment than outrage. Pitchers get hurt, after all. When something this high-profile goes so wrong, though, it opens up more trails to follow: 1) Rocker’s health; 2) The fates of players picked shortly after Rocker; 3) Late, cheap picks in this year’s draft; and 4) That 11th pick next year.
Oh, and rookie owner Steve Cohen, after his first draft hit a major snag, probably shouldn’t have tweeted, “Education time” when defending himself. It’s clear that, when it comes to baseball, he could use just as much education as the rest of us.
This story originally appeared on: NyPost - Author:Ken Davidoff