Hi all. Here’s how I see baseball on this Sunday, August 1.
I’d say Kumar Rocker has had a rough summer. Before the College World Series began, every draft in the country had him as either the first or second pick along with his Vanderbilt teammate Jack Leiter. Then came Omaha, which in Rocker’s case was more like Omaha Beach. In just over a week, we saw 2 bad performances in Omaha and one good showing against an overmatched team. Kumar dropped like an anvil, all the way to the 10th pick in the first round. High school boys were getting taken ahead of him. This wasn’t how the plot would have come out in one of those tacky 1940’s baseball movies. And then it got worse. Just 3 weeks after Draft Day, the guy who should have been one of the elite won’t even get the $6 million signing bonus he was supposed to get. The Mets aren’t signing him for medical reasons.
Rocker hailed from Montgomery, Alabama, the town that brought Hank Williams to fame and fortune. Kumar played his high school baseball in Georgia and committed to Vanderbilt. As a freshman, he threw a no-hitter against Duke, striking out 19 Blue Devils as Vanderbilt beat Duike 3-0 in the super regional. Nobody had fired a no-hitter since the NCAA instituted the super regionals in between the regionals and the World Series. He took the World Series’ Most Outstanding Player award as Vanderbilt won the national title. We all know Covid took out the 2020 NCAA and minor league seasons. Rocker’s numbers for 2021 at Vanderbilt were on every lip during the college playoffs and especially the World Series in Omaha. 179 strikeouts in 122 innings. In the most competitive conference in the land, he put up a 2.73 ERA. None of that mattered when Arizona pounded Rocker in his first World Series appearance this year. His next outing was against an overmatched NC State team with too many of its players sidelined due to Covid concerns. That was a “no win” game for Rocker. If he won, as he did, he beat an overmatched team. If he lost, Vanderbilt wouldn’t have reached the final series. As it was, the NCAA stepped in and eliminated NC State without allowing them to play the last game against Vanderbilt, laying down a red carpet to get the Commodores into the final round against Mississippi State. The ploy almost worked. Vanderbilt stomped Mississippi State in the first game with Jack Leiter on his mettle. But the Bulldogs from Starkville took both games 2 and 3, doing a number on Rocker in game 3 although he was on full rest. It was all downhill from there to where we are now. I hope he didn’t have that $6 million spent already, as I would, given my past record for counting my chickens before they hatched.
What’s next for the players involved? For Rocker, he’s luckier than a football or basketball player would be if this sort of calamity happened. Those guys aren’t allowed to return to college if the draft doesn’t go the way they want it to go. Rocker has two choices. He can try independent ball, as J.D. Drew did in 1997 when he didn’t sign with the Phillies after they drafted him. His other option is to return to Vanderbilt. The wild card in the deck is, what exact medical problem did the Mets find. I’ve read one rumor_ that it was an elbow injury. If true, it’s hardly new to the Mets. Matt Harvey and Jacob DeGrom needed Tommy John surgery early in their careers. Their #1 draft choice in 2016, Anthony Kay blew out his elbow before throwing a pitch as a pro and ended up getting traded to the Blue Jays in the Marcus Stroman deal. Another very early elbow injury to a #1 draft choice is the sort of trouble the Mets don’t need. Bottom line, they get nothing with their #1 pick and their owner pockets the $6 million Rocker would have gotten.
Again if this is actually an elbow injury, the chance of Rocker playing anywhere in 2022 would be in jeopardy. Should he be injured, his best chance is to return to Vanderbilt where presumably he can get expert medical help. I wouldn’t care to take bets on what sort of treatment he’d get in a small town with an independent league team. Rocker is just 21. The NCAA does allow what they call a “Medical redshirt” if his injury should deep-six an entire season.
Now comes the most troubling question of all. Come 2022, will we find prospects of Rocker’s ilk backing out of Omaha to protect their stock? It could certainly be managed. Guys have been backing out of the All-Star game since Gary Templeton told the world “If I ain’t startin’, I ain’t departin’.” MLB hasn’t demanded proof that injuries keeping players out of All-Star games are real injuries like the one suffered by Ronald Acuna JR. The NCAA has pretty much stood by and let the College World Series be until their intervention this summer. I have no idea what interest they would show in protecting the integrity of the CWS as opposed to protecting the stock value of college baseball’s best players. There are more questions than answers since the Mets didn’t sign Kumar Rocker.