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Kumar Rocker at No. 3? Rangers think the risk will pay off

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It’s been a while since Rangers have talked about the sport. For a moment on Sunday, that changed. While most draft pundits predicted a fairly straightforward top three talent — Druw Jones, Jackson Holliday and Elijah Green, with the possibility of Kevin Parada or Termarr Johnson sneaking in — Rangers took a left turn, choosing instead to take starting pitcher and former Vanderbilt Commodore Kumar Rocker with the third pick.

The decision prompted a question to kick off media availability: “How does it feel to break the draft?”

“I can only speak about what we do,” Rangers senior director of amateur scouting Kip Fagg said in response to the question. “I don’t worry about anyone else. So I don’t know if we broke the repechage.

Maybe they didn’t break it, but they sure took a risk. Rocker was once considered the price of the 2021 draft class. Then health issues hurt his draft stock, and he dropped to 10th, a pick our Tim Britton described as “a draft hit. “. One problem: The Mets didn’t like what they saw in Rocker’s medicals, and he didn’t sign, eventually choosing to play freeball with the Tri-City ValleyCats in Troy, NY

“Kumar Rocker is in good health based on an independent medical examination performed by several leading baseball orthopedic surgeons,” Rocker’s agent Scott Boras said in a statement released at the time. “Immediately after the end of his college season, he had an MRI of his shoulder and elbow. Compared to his 2018 MRIs, medical experts found no significant changes. Kumar does not require any medical attention and will continue to launch into the regular course as he prepares to begin his professional career.

So what exactly was the problem? Neither the team nor the player chose to shed more light on the situation.

“I can’t comment on that; I’m not versed enough to comment,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said when asked for details. “I don’t want to get into the semantics of what it was. Kumar and Scott can talk about it when the time comes. But yeah, that would be a good question.

Rocker was a little more succinct while not being more forthcoming: “Yeah, I can’t really talk about that bro.”

Scientists will tell you there is no sound in a vacuum, but scientists apparently don’t read many baseball Facebook groups, message boards, or Twitter. Rumors swirled, both in and out of baseball circles. What we do know, from one source, is that medical reports sent after Rocker’s surgery showed that a scope was made that did not involve the rotator cuff or labrum.

“We are extremely comfortable with the examination that our medical team has done,” Young said. “Clearly, Kumar was taken care of by one of the world’s leading orthopedic surgeons (Dr. Neal ElAttrache, et) under great supervision throughout his rehab. He is launching in good health, we are very comfortable with the medical exam. And that’s why we drafted him.

Yet it was Something — something big enough that the Mets decided against signing the 10th pick in the draft last year. And while the Mets’ medical team hasn’t been above reproach over the past decade, it’s not like they’ve shied away from signing players with medical risks before. A year prior, in 2020, the team drafted JT Ginn as he returned from Tommy John surgery. Whatever they saw had to be more concerning than that.

And yet, says Fagg, when he saw Rocker in Troy, the launcher’s speed ranged from 94 to 98 mph. According Jhe athletic’s Keith Law, Rocker dropped to a slightly lower arm lunge and looked no worse with the ValleyCats.

“It was probably a little better than he was in school (at Vanderbilt),” Fagg said after seeing Rocker this summer. “But obviously it’s a short window and a short time frame. So like CY said, we have to work around it and find the best plan moving forward.

For all the questions about Rocker’s arm, one thing that doesn’t seem to be at issue is what people in the baseball industry call “makeup.”

“I think Kumar answered the questions,” Young said. “I think he certainly faced a lot of adversity last year with the draft and the way it all went. He had a procedure. He came back healthy. is an incredibly hard worker, someone who we’re very, very comfortable with (with) the character, the makeup, the drive and seeing him pitch this summer I think those are just the first steps of what is going to be a really successful career. And we are very lucky to have had this opportunity to choose him.

“(He) brings a competitive intensity, not just between the lines but in everything he does, that elevates his teammates,” Young added. “He’s something really special. … He’s an incredibly caring person who pushes his teammates to greatness (and) himself as well. And that’s what we’re excited to get.

One teammate in particular agrees with the front office: Jack Leiter was the Rangers’ first pick last year and pitched with Rocker at Vanderbilt. Asked about his impression of Rocker, Leiter used a lot of the same verbiage.

“The first thing that comes to mind with Kumar as a pitcher is (he is) a competitor,” Leiter said. “It’s pretty obvious when you watch him pitch, and it’s a lot of fun watching him pitch. And I think having the privilege of watching it on Fridays at Vandy (when) I launch the next day, that really motivated me to go the next day. I really think we’ve improved a lot, by teaming up; we made ourselves better competitors and better throwers. … The idea of ​​possibly pitching on the same staff very soon is super exciting.

They could be teammates sooner or later. Rocker, like Leiter, is 22 and has been out of college for a year. The Indy Ball isn’t exactly Triple-A competition, but given his level of experience, it’s not inconceivable that Rocker could follow in Leiter’s footsteps and move straight into Double-A Frisco, although Young made it clear that no decision had been taken prematurely.

“We’re going to start with getting him in here first and do a normal physical and then finalize the contract,” Young said. “And then we will assess that. We will understand where it is in terms of schedule and throwing routine and decide on the next steps.

One way Rocker is unlikely to mirror Leiter’s path is that Rangers shut Leiter down after drafting him last year. Leiter had pitched 110 innings at Vanderbilt (Rocker pitched 122 this season — both ended with identical totals of 179 apiece), and the team figured his arm could use the rest. A year later, Rocker pitched 20 innings for Tri-City (strouting 32, walking just four, and finishing the season with a 1.35 ERA).

“I think I need a foundation to move forward,” Rocker said. “I mean, there’s a lot of time left in the year.”

Frankly, it’s the kind of choice that can determine the future of an entire front office. After all, it’s not like Rangers don’t have options. According to the sources, the team was very high on both Holliday and Jones – if the Orioles had decided to pick a sub-location and pick, say, Johnson with the first pick, it’s likely Texas would have chosen one of these two. But when the Orioles won Holliday with the first pick, and the Diamondbacks followed by taking Jones, the Rangers decided — whether they put it that way or not — to “break the draft” and take a pitcher who has a vast spectrum of possibilities between its ceiling and its floor.

If Rocker ends up being the better starting pitcher that Young and Fagg seem certain he’s destined to be, they’re going to look like geniuses. If his shoulder ends up being worse than expected when the team performs a physical, that’s the kind of pickaxe that could prompt a ritual house cleaning.

But it may not be as big a risk as it seems. After all, when asked after the 2021 season for an “accountability timeline,” President of Baseball Operations Jon Daniels gave a very soon answer: 2023. It’s a timeline that Young reiterated again. sunday.

“We expect to struggle next year, if not the second half of (this) season,” Young said when asked about Rangers’ window of contention. If that plan fails, Rocker could be another front office’s problem. If both the plan and pitcher are successful, it could be considered one of the shrewdest moves in recent memory.

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(File Photo: Wade Payne/Associated Press)