MLB

What’s next for Kumar Rocker after Mets fail to sign former Vanderbilt star?

Major League Baseball’s deadline for signing draft picks passed on Sunday evening, and with it so did the chances of right-hander Kumar Rocker, the No. 10 selection, joining the New York Mets. An agreement worth a $6 million signing bonus went by the wayside after a post-draft medical revealed arm damage that alarmed the Mets. (Though some people in the Mets front office believe Rocker could have a fruitful career.) The Mets will now gain a compensatory pick in next year’s draft, No. 11 overall, and they’ll continue to draw criticism from all corners of the league for an unforced error in how they laid out their draft strategy.

For all the focus on the Mets’ side of things, a more important question concerns what comes next for Rocker. Under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, he won’t be eligible to join an MLB club by any route other than the 2022 draft. (If that sounds unfair, Mets owner Steven Cohen unwittingly pointed out how draftees are massively undercompensated relative to the value they create for franchises.) 

That leaves Rocker with a few options on how to spend the next 10 months. He’s reportedly ruled out is a return to Vanderbilt, where he could have benefitted from the NCAA’s new NIL (Name, Image, and Likeness) guidelines. 

So what else can Rocker do? Let’s break down the three paths.

1. Independent baseball

Rocker signing with an independent league team is the most straightforward option, and it’s the one that has the most historical precedents. One of the top recent examples of how this works involves Luke Hochevar.

Hochevar, like Rocker, was advised by Scott Boras when the Los Angeles Dodgers selected him 40th in the 2005 draft. The long story short — and the long story involves two representation changes, among other dramatic flairs — is that Boras advised Hochevar against signing with the Dodgers, and instead guided him to the Fort Worth Cats of the American Association.

Hochevar made four starts with the Cats and was able to improve upon his draft status, to the extent that the Kansas City Royals selected him No. 1 in 2006. Boras’ gambit paid off, too, as Hochevar’s signing bonus was more than $500,000 richer than the Dodgers’ reported offer.

Boras repeated the same indy ball trick several years later with James Paxton, the 37th selection in the 2009 draft. The Toronto Blue Jays offered him less than $900,000 to sign, but that didn’t get the deal done. Comments made by a Toronto executive then caused Paxton to lose his eligibility at Kentucky (that, predictably, resulted in a legal battle). Boras led Paxton to the Grand Prairie AirHogs, with whom he started four times before the 2010 draft. 

Paxton slipped to the Seattle Mariners in the fourth round, yet his $942,500 signing bonus still exceeded the Jays’ offer.

Rocker’s situation isn’t directly comparable to either Hochevar’s or Paxton’s because of the medical angle and because of how the landscape has changed with slotting. Still, Rocker making a handful of appearances with the Milwaukee Milkmen or the Kansas City Monarchs before trying his hand again in the draft would seem to be the likeliest outcome.

2. International baseball

A more lucrative (if perhaps inconvenient) option for Rocker would take him outside of the United States, likely to Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league. That may sound outlandish but the trail was blazed recently by a different Boras client: Carter Stewart.

Stewart, the eighth pick in the 2018 draft, was offered just around $2 million by the Atlanta Braves after a post-draft medical revealed a wrist ailment. Rather than sign or take the more traditional independent league route, Stewart agreed to a $7 million contract with the Softbank Hawks. However unconventional the play was, it made a lot of sense on paper. (Boras, if it wasn’t obvious, is the king of exploiting the draft, an inherently anti-labor mechanism.) 

Former Marlins president David Samson broke down the Kumar Rocker situation on Monday’s Nothing Personal with David Samson. Listen below:

In addition to guaranteeing Stewart more money upfront, going to Japan ensured he would reach free agency earlier than if he had signed with the Braves or re-entered the following draft. At that point, Stewart could sign with an MLB team without being subjected to the rules limiting younger international talents’ earning potential. Unfortunately, Stewart’s career hasn’t gone according to plan yet. He’s made only 29 appearances for the Hawks’ so far, posting a 3.34 ERA and a 1.74 strikeout-to-walk ratio. (It should be noted that Stewart won’t turn 22 until November, giving him ample time to turn things around.) 

Rocker might not want to uproot his life and commit to playing in Japan for six years. It’s an option, though, and it stands to reason someone else will one day follow Stewart’s path.

3. No baseball

As our own Dayn Perry once noted, spring is “the season of figuring out what it takes to get by and then doing a bit less than even that.” How is that relevant to Rocker’s situation? Well, he could theoretically forego playing with an independent or international team altogether. 

Under this scenario, Rocker would keep himself in shape while sparing his body the toll of starting once every five days. He would then host several workouts leading into the draft, allowing scouts and evaluators in-person looks to confirm he remains an intriguing prospect. There are a few obvious downsides to this approach, with the biggest being that it’s the only of the three that wouldn’t net him a paycheck. 

Beyond that, Rocker wouldn’t have the benefit of showing what he can do within the context of a structured game. Of course, it’s fair to wonder what a handful of indy-league starts would demonstrate given that he has an extensive and prolific track record at an SEC school.

Whatever route Rocker ends up taking will have major ramifications for his story, next year’s draft, and the choices made by future draftees who find themselves in a similar situation.



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