Kumar Rocker? Projected late first-round pick Kumar Rocker? Really?

The Texas Rangers could have played it safe on Sunday. They could have stuck to the script, passed out some victory cigars, and crowed to the press about how they’d just taken another step toward contending in the AL West. They would have been telling the truth too, or at least as much of the truth as could be expected in one of the most uncertain undertakings in pro sports: the Major League Baseball draft.

Instead, the Rangers did something that stunned an entire sport. Something that may define the careers of a whole bunch of front office executives and possibly the next decade of baseball in Arlington.

With the third overall pick, with loads of seemingly can’t-miss talent on the board, the Rangers stunned an entire sport by picking former Vanderbilt right-handed pitcher Kumar Rocker.

Give Rangers general manager Chris Young and his staff credit for being willing to put their necks on the line. They knew there were safer, more conventional picks. They knew they were taking a gamble that could reverberate through the organization for years. And they knew that if Rocker’s career doesn’t pan out, critics will accuse them of overthinking what should have been an easy decision to the point of making a colossal mistake.

Most of the time, MLB franchises won’t dare take a risk on a long-shot pick until, at the earliest, the end of the first round. The tail end of the draft, around the seventh or eighth round, is when scouts stand up and tell their bosses, “Here’s a guy that’s overlooked.”

That’s not what top-three picks are for. Those are supposed to go to sure-shot talents: Manny Machado in 2010, Eric Hosmer in 2008, Evan Longoria in 2006. All three went number three in their respective draft classes. And even at the top of the draft, teams miss on a majority of players. In the ten drafts from 2001 through 2010, Machado, Hosmer, and Longoria are the exceptions among those drafted third overall. Don’t even ask what happened to the careers of the other seven

Anyway, the Rangers used their number three pick to do something bold and—they hope—brilliant. They trusted their own judgment that Rocker’s upside and his potential were worth the risk.

The concerns with Rocker don’t center on his pitching ability. The 2019 College World Series MVP has all the tools expected of a top pick, but he was expected to go later in Sunday’s draft because of a fear around the league that his body might not hold up to the demands of a major league career. In fact, Rocker already was a coveted pick in last year’s draft, when the New York Mets selected him tenth overall, then declined to offer him a contract after his physical exam revealed some issue that scared off the franchise

In the year since, Rocker underwent shoulder surgery and also looked healthy while pitching in independent league baseball. The Rangers say they looked long and hard at the physical risk and decided that Rocker’s upside was simply too promising to pass up. Most mock drafts had Rocker going late in the first round or early in the second.

If the Rangers are right, they could have a special player. Rocker cuts an imposing figure on the mound: six-foot-five and 245 pounds, with a fastball that recently touched 99 miles per hour and is consistently in the 95–97 range. He has a passable breaking ball, and at age 22, he could join a big league rotation sometime next season.

No other prospect on the Rangers’ 2022 draft board is projected to be ready to play in the majors that quickly. That’s important for a franchise that has one of the best minor league systems in the sport and splurged on free agents last off-season to the tune of nearly $600 million. Despite mediocre results and a 41–49 record so far this season, the team is positioning itself to contend over the next few years, with six players in its farm system ranked in MLB Pipeline’s top one hundred prospects. Throw Rocker into that mix, and the franchise could be in position to make a dramatic turnaround.

One year ago, before the 2021 draft, several teams had a pair of Vanderbilt right-handers, Jack Leiter and Rocker, near the top of their draft boards. The Rangers chose Leiter with the second overall pick then, and now their future could have the former Vanderbilt aces anchoring the team’s rotation for years to come. 

But before anyone starts planning a victory parade, remember that this decision, like every choice made in the draft, is still just an educated guess. A friend of mine, a retired scout who worked for two MLB teams during his long career, described the uncertainty in his profession: “I’m supposed to look at a guy at seventeen or eighteen years old and know what he’s going to be at twenty-two or twenty-three.

“The truth is, people change physically, emotionally, every other way,” he went on. “I still get blamed because one of the kids I signed at eighteen had a drinking problem at twenty-three. Was I supposed to hold his hand during four years in the minor leagues? It’s a crazy business.”

But if the Rangers’ gamble on Rocker’s health pays off, they might end up with the steal of this draft. His résumé, beginning with helping Vanderbilt to the 2019 national championship, is as impressive as it gets. And his nineteen-strikeout, 131-pitch no-hitter against Duke in the Super Regionals of that year’s College World Series convinced plenty of professional scouts that he was on the fast track to the big leagues.

“I’ve known him since he was a young kid in high school and through his Vandy years, obviously last year especially,” Rangers amateur scouting director Kip Fagg told reporters Sunday. “He’s just an elite competitor, a guy that lays it all on the line every time he goes out there with plus-plus stuff. There’s not many guys that come around like this . . . as physically gifted and competitive and driven as he is. It’s hard to find a bad thing about Kumar. We felt very comfortable with the stuff. It’s actually probably a better version of Kumar right now than it was in college.”

Leiter pitched an inning in the MLB Futures Game last weekend at Dodger Stadium and will return to Double-A Frisco. Rocker, having already agreed to a $5.2 million signing bonus, could join his buddy there by the end of the season.

If both pitchers open the 2023 season in Double A, it would be realistic to see both make appearances on the Rangers’ roster by the end of the year. With two more top one hundred prospects, Cole Winn and Owen White, projected to pitch in the big leagues in 2023, and third baseman Josh Jung (the eighth overall pick in 2019) on track to arrive in Arlington next summer as well, Rangers fans finally have reasons to be excited.

The Rangers were one of baseball’s model organizations when the team made the playoffs five times over a seven-season stretch from 2010 through 2016. That run included back-to-back World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011, including a heartbreaking game seven loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011.

Like many other organizations, the Rangers committed to a full rebuild only after everything else failed. Their goal was to improve the farm system and then spend on veteran talent. That they’ve done. “We expect to contend next year, if not the second half of (this) season,” Young said.

But it’s a lot easier to plan a championship rebuild than to execute one. Roster construction is as much art as science, and the best teams consist of a mixture of youth and experience, plus a resplendent talent or two sprinkled into the mix.

The Rangers are convinced Kumar Rocker could be one of those players. Here’s hoping they’re right. Back when the Houston Astros joined the American League, in 2013, some of us dreamed of a Rangers-Astros playoff rivalry. It’ll push the Cowboys, Aggies, and Longhorns off the front page! Nine years later, that’s still a pipe dream. But maybe, just maybe, it’s finally close.