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Baseball

The Rangers Broke the MLB Draft

Texas and Kumar Rocker became the story of the weekend. Will it have a happy ending?
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As the least predictable MLB draft in years drew closer, one possible course of action with the Rangers’ third overall pick was more dispiriting than the others.

No one claimed to know what would happen if the expected two top selections—high schoolers Jackson Holliday, son of seven-time MLB All-Star Matt Holliday, and Druw Jones, son of 10-time Gold Glover and former Ranger Andruw Jones—were spoken for by the time the Rangers got to make their selection. But with 48 hours to go, at least three prominent MLB analysts pegged Texas to select Georgia Tech catcher Kevin Parada. There wouldn’t have been anything terribly wrong with that; Parada was somewhere in the upper crust of available prospects and wound up going 11th. But compared to other mooted options like Florida high school outfielder Elijah Green and Georgia high school infielder Termarr Johnson, Parada represented the safe choice. The boring one.

So if nothing else, give the Rangers credit for not being boring.

If you’re familiar with Kumar Rocker, you’re well aware of how a major league team could get very giddy about someone pitching for the Tri-City ValleyCats (real team) of the Frontier League (real league). For the uninitiated, let’s start with the following picture:

On the left is Jack Leiter, the crown jewel of the Rangers’ farm system after Texas made him the second overall pick in last year’s draft (to widespread industry approval). On the right is Rocker. Together, the two formed a legendary top of the rotation at Vanderbilt, a pair of potential MLB aces plying their trade under the same collegiate roof. And 18 months ago, Rocker was universally considered to be the better of the two: bigger, stronger, nastier—the sort of would-be savior who inspired headlines among ball writers of bottom-feeding teams like “Rancid For Rocker.”  

Then came their junior seasons, when their draft stocks beamed in opposite directions. As Leiter’s surged, Rocker’s sunk, his high-90s velocity dipping to the 93- to 94-mph range. The surefire top overall pick went 10th to the Mets, a disappointing yet acceptable outcome … until that is, New York rescinded its $6 million contract offer after getting spooked by Rocker’s medicals. So off to independent baseball Rocker went but only after undergoing shoulder surgery, which is Not What You Want when you’re trying to convince squeamish MLB clubs to draft you the following year, within spitting distance of that original top-10 selection.

Lo and behold, Rocker pulled it off despite being ranked as the 54th overall prospect by ESPN (several other outlets, including The Athletic, MLB.com, and CBS had him pegged between the mid-20s through early 30s). Even more stunning was how little it took to do so: 20 innings, which apparently were enough to confirm his fastball again touched 98 and his slider had recovered its trademark bite.

Given all that, you can understand the rather, erm, animated reaction to Texas’ decision to go off board and take Rocker where they did:

In his post-draft media availability, Rangers amateur scouting director Kip Fagg described the Rocker he saw with Tri-City as “probably a better version of Kumar right now than it was in college,” which is a good jumping-off point for the story the Rangers could be telling themselves about this pick. Texas is only one year removed from their choice of the two Vandy aces—“[I] probably had them 1-2 on [my] personal list,” Fagg claimed—and here is their chance to have both. A historically pitching-starved organization now possesses two of the highest-regarded young starters to turn pro in the past decade, along with a passel of other minor-league arms like Owen White, Cole Winn, and Ricky Vanasco. Simply put, a lot would have to go badly for at least one or two of them not to hit.

Even better, Rocker, like Leiter before him, is among the more pro-ready players in the draft pool, which is no small consideration for a club that sunk half a billion in a pair of middle infielders who are 28 (Corey Seager) and 31 years old (Marcus Semien). Had Texas opted for Green, the most physically gifted player in this and many other draft classes, they’d probably wait for years to see him approach his full potential—years the team doesn’t have, given that general manager Chris Young expects to contend next season.

In effect, then, the gambit feels like the Rangers believe they can have it both ways. If this breaks right, Rocker is both a now pick and a later one: a polished arm who figures to soar through the system quickly and, in time, perhaps land atop Texas’ rotation. Add in his agreeing to a below-slot deal—thereby allowing the Rangers to pay more for premium talent that may have slipped later on (Texas doesn’t have a pick in the second or third rounds)—and, in theory, the Rangers took the one player with whom no compromises needed to be made.  

Presuming, of course, that Rocker doesn’t get hurt again.

And that his stuff is back for the long haul instead of a pint-sized sample.

And that his remodeled arm slot remains mechanically sound.

And that he doesn’t lose his feel for pitching in time, that he is mentally tough enough to endure when hitters inevitably adjust to him, and the many, many other considerations inherent to all pitching prospects, let alone damaged ones like this. Rocker is the riskiest move Texas could have made, and risk is not something the team has handled well in recent years.

So, yes, the Rangers broke the draft, as one media member declared to Fagg and Young in media availability. If Rocker flames out, the front office may have broken their own job security, too (StrongSide’s Jamey Newberg will have more on that tomorrow). It’s not safe, and it’s certainly not boring. And if you believe in Kumar Rocker’s story as much as the Rangers do, perhaps it’s not wrong, either.

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Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…

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