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The Mets failed to sign Kumar Rocker, does that make the Royals’ draft look better?

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Which risk are you willing to take on?

2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Baseball Championship Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Sunday was the deadline to sign 2021 draft picks, and the Mets failed to come to terms with their first-round pick, Vanderbilt pitcher Kumar Rocker. The Mets had taken him with the tenth pick and had generally agreed to terms on a $6 million bonus, well over the $4.74 million slot value, but negotiations hit a snag after his physical.

What happened with Rocker exactly is not entirely clear, but what has been reported is that Rocker’s advisor, Scott Boras, has a policy of not submitting his players to the league’s pre-draft MRI program. He claims that Rocker did have an independent MRI on his shoulder and elbow that found “no significant change” from an MRI done in 2018 and that Rocker “requires no medical attention.” According to Andy Martino of SNY, “doctors who examined Rocker before the draft saw no need for surgery of any kind”, but the Mets failed to make an offer at all after his physical.

Rocker was considered one of the top talents in this year’s draft before the season began, but his performance this year did raise some concerns when he showed some fluctuation in velocity. He still had an exemplary year with the Commodores, striking out 179 hitters in 122 innings with a 2.73 ERA, and aside from a poor performance in the championship game against Mississippi State, he finished strong.

The Royals had a chance to select the Golden Spikes Award semifinalist, but passed with the #7 pick, instead taking Connecticut prep pitcher Frank Mozzicato, drawing ire from some fans. Mozzicato was the #41-ranked draft prospect according to Baseball America, and the Royals reached a deal for a $3.55 million, well below the $5.43 million slot value, so they could draft pitcher Ben Kudrna out of Blue Valley Southwest High School in the second round for a $3 million bonus, well over the $1.73 million slot value. They also used some of their bonus pool to sign Park Hill High School catcher Carter Jensen to a $1.1 million bonus, well over the $793,000 slot value in the third round.

The strategy seemed fairly clear - go with higher upside, albeit higher risk high school pitchers, but spread the risk out among three players, rather than putting all the eggs in one basket. Knowing how often prospects fail, it seems unlikely that all three draftees will reach the big leagues, but even if one or two bust, the Royals could still net a good player out of the draft class.

I don’t think it’s the strategy I would have taken, but it’s a defensible strategy. Selecting Rocker would have required the Royals to basically torpedo one of their second-round picks by going for a college senior who was willing to sign a bonus well under slot value to accommodate Rocker’s high bonus demand. So the Royals basically traded Rocker plus some college senior in exchange for Mozzicato, Kudrna, and Jensen.

They also traded risks. The Royals traded the injury risk to Rocker in exchange for the risk of drafting high school pitchers, generally the riskiest group to select. But while Rocker is an injury risk, really any pitcher is an injury risk. The question is how much risk you are willing to take on. Teams have tried in vain to mitigate the risk, but there often doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to why pitchers get hurt.

There is also the point that it’s not an either/or - the Royals could have mitigated their risk entirely by going with a position player. There were consensus top ten players they passed on such as high school shortstops Kahlil Watson and Brady House, and college outfielder Sal Frelick.

The fact the Mets didn’t even make an offer is a red flag as to Rocker’s health, but they have also been a puzzling franchise at times, and it is also a bit of a red flag as to how they handle draft picks. They selected Rocker knowing his bonus demand, intentionally took a player in a subsequent round to sign for well under slot to make room for Rocker’s bonus, then failed to even make an offer, without any kind of backup plan (say, another difficult sign later in the draft to use the bonus money on if Rocker fell through). That seems to be some kind of draft negligence.

I am a huge Kumar Rocker fan and I think there is little teams can do to avoid pitcher injuries, but I also haven’t seen Rocker’s physical and I’m not going to act like I knew as much about the Royals’ draft picks as they do. Perhaps the Royals made the right choice to avoid all this drama with Rocker’s arm. But while they avoided Rocker’s injury risk, they didn’t exactly avoid risk entirely. Both Mets and Royals fans will be watching what happens to Rocker’s career now - he won’t be returning to Vanderbilt, according to reports - and wondering “what if.”

Poll

Knowing what you know now, what would you have done with the Royals’ draft?

This poll is closed

  • 41%
    Select Mozzicato/Kudrna/Jensen
    (411 votes)
  • 7%
    Select Kumar Rocker
    (71 votes)
  • 51%
    Select someone else
    (506 votes)
988 votes total Vote Now