Sunday, December 4, 2022

How Kumar Rocker went from top-10 pick in 2021 to one of MLB draft’s biggest mysteries in 2022

It’s almost here. Yes, Major League Baseball’s draft (scheduled to begin on Sunday, July 17), but also the conclusion of Kumar Rocker’s year-long odyssey that has seen him transition from the class’s most overexposed prospect to a relative mystery.

Rocker has been on the national radar since 2019 when he threw a 19-strikeout no-hitter in the NCAA Super Regionals as a member of Vanderbilt’s staff. Last summer, he was drafted by the New York Mets with the 10th overall pick in the 2021 MLB Draft. A post-draft physical revealed something that the Mets did not want to see, however, and caused negotiations between the two sides to fizzle. The Mets were compensated with the 11th pick in this summer’s draft while Rocker retained his draft eligibility for yet another season, ensuring he’ll be picked for the third time. (He was a late-round selection by the Colorado Rockies out of high school but did not sign.)

Rocker had a few options ahead of him, including returning to Vanderbilt for another season or turning professional by joining an independent or international league team. (If you’re wondering how a professional can remain draft-eligible … well, welcome to MLB’s monopoly.) He chose to disappear from public life for the first half of the year, leading a high-ranking scouting official with one team to tell CBS Sports that he was the most difficult player to gain new information on this draft cycle.

Over the weekend, ESPN reported that Rocker had shoulder surgery last September, describing as a “minor scope” on his right arm. He’s since resurfaced on a Proof of Life Tour as a member of the Tri-City Valley Cats, an unaffiliated team in the Frontier League. He’s added four starts to his résumé as a Valley Cat, amassing a 1.35 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 20 innings against substandard competition. The reality is that Rocker’s performance in the Frontier League means less than him providing teams with some peace of mind about his current wellbeing. In that respect, his time with the Valley Cats has been a success: a scout in attendance for one of his starts clocked his fastball up to 99 mph and graded his slider as being a 70 on the 20-80 scale, or a plus- plus offering that is borderline elite. If Rocker were compromised, it stands for reason that his quality of stuff would demonstrate as much.

Even so, there is and will remain a gulf between the public perception of Rocker — that he is, essentially, a bonafide ace-in-the-making — and the industry’s more tempered read on him. The difference comes down to the reservations scouts and analysts have about his arsenal’s depth (he lacks a good changeup) and how his mechanics will affect his command and long-term durability. (The latter talking point is unlikely to fade anytime soon in light of the Mets’ evaluation last summer)

We here at CBS Sports nevertheless ranked Rocker as the 25th best prospect in this class, noting that it feels silly to obsess too much about what might happen with his arm when almost every other prominent pitcher in this class has already had elbow or shoulder issues. Besides, the risk of injury is present with any and every pitcher; that’s the warp and woof of matters. Our expectation for him, then, is that some team will roll the dice before the end of the first round, albeit, in all likelihood, outside of the top 10.

After that? Who knows what’s to become of Rocker. We do know that he’s going to be a difficult act for any collegiate player to top when he comes to the amount and duration of attention he was able to summon before ever throwing a minor-league pitch. It’s been a heck of a ride over these last three years, but if we had to guess, Rocker is probably thrilled to be nearing his destination, wherever that ends up being.

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