By MARK PARKER Record Sports Correspondent
On Sunday, July 17, Major League Baseball held its first-year draft as part of the All-Star Game festivities. At the time of the first round, my wife and I were enjoying a night out for ice cream.
Thirty-four minutes into the draft, I got a text that said, “Wow… Kumar Rocker to Rangers. Will he play with the Crawdads this season?
Other messages reached me that evening and the following day. Thinking about this question, my answer at the time was, “I don’t know. The other answer, in general, was “it’s a risky choice”.
Rocker was selected as the third overall pick by the Texas Rangers, a year after the New York Mets selected the Vanderbilt product as the 10th overall pick in the 2021 draft. After the selection, the Mets saw something thing about the physique they didn’t like and decided not to sign the right-hander. The team did not disclose what their concerns were.
People also read…
Steve Boras, Rocker’s agent, insisted there was no issue that should have prevented the Mets from signing the pitcher. The pitcher and agent agreed that Rocker would not return to Vanderbilt for another season. Instead, he would prepare for the 2022 draft and field an independent league team this spring.
Two weeks before the draft, ESPN’s Jeff Passan and Kiley McDaniel reported that Rocker underwent right shoulder arthroscopy last fall.
Boras said in the ESPN story, “We have a very clear understanding, after a minor litter, of Kumar’s medically documented health, which allowed him to perform at the highest level.”
Linked to the history of the Rocker’s surgery, Jim Callis of MLB.com reported that the teams received Rocker’s medical records, which included information about the surgery.
It is with this backdrop that the Rangers selected Rocker. Shoulder surgeries will always come with risks, but with the Rangers currently employing as general manager Chris Young, a big league pitcher for 13 seasons – incidentally a pitcher for the Crawdads in 2001 and 2002 – it looks like a choice that Rangers were comfortable doing based on what the team saw in medicals. Considering it’s the third pick overall, a slot that surprised many draft betting tipsters, they better be.
Now, where does Rocker go? In the recent past, the Rangers practiced starting first-round picks in a short-season league before a trip to an A-ball team like Hickory or Kinston. With pitching, however, the Rangers have tended to take a more individual approach.
Some recent examples of college pitchers taken in the first round by the Rangers: In 2013, the Rangers picked Chi Chi Gonzalez from Oral Roberts Univ. After a quick stint in Spokane in the short season, the Rangers were actually going to send him to Hickory — in fact, the team was ready to make the announcement — but then decided to send him to High-A Myrtle Beach. Gonzalez reached the majors in 2015 but struggled to stay there and is with his fourth team in six major league seasons.
Dillon Tate was the fourth overall pick in 2015. After two starts at Spokane, Tate came to Hickory and made four very short starts (7 innings overall), as he had already pitched a full season at California-Santa Barbara. A hamstring injury hampered his return to Hickory in 2016, but the Rangers never felt comfortable with Tate and sent him to the New York Yankees as part of a trade deal for Carlos Beltran – a rental player – that summer. He is currently in his fourth season with Baltimore.
The Rangers’ next first-round pick for a varsity pitcher came last summer when they picked second-overall Jack Leiter over Vanderbilt. With Leiter having already kicked off a full college season with the Commodores, the Rangers decided to shut him down for the summer. Texas asked Leiter to skip both A-ball levels and sent him to Double-A Frisco this season.
This season, Rocker has made five starts for Tri-City (New York) in the independent Frontier League, which tends to have players looking for a major league club to sign them, or who have been released from an organization. MLB with very few exceeding AA. In those five starts, Rocker struck out 32 and walked four in 20 innings with a 1.35 ERA.
A few thoughts to keep in mind: Was the move to the Frontier League competitive enough to show Rangers they’re ready to give Double-A a try? Do Rangers have an interest in reuniting Rocker and Leiter sooner rather than later? Does Texas want to see how it handles the rigors of pro baseball and have it seemingly dominate a level in Hickory or Down East? Bus rides and day-to-day gameplay are a challenge for players who have never done it before. Will Rangers be careful with the shoulder and prepare him for 2023 and also have him on a similar path as Leiter?
Another thing: A-level baseball tends to be a laboratory where players can try things out, whether it’s a hitting approach, a new pitch, etc. Double-A tends to be more concerned with results.
For minor league fans in the area, as well as Rangers fans, it’s a story worth following.
ROME (Georgia) BRAVES (53-37 overall, 17-7 second half) at HICKORY CRAWDADS (48-42, 10-14)
Tuesday, July 26, 7 p.m. (Dollar Dog Tuesday, $2 Craft Beer Tuesday)
Wednesday, July 27, 7 p.m. (Kids Win Wednesday, Wine Wednesday, Horrific Promo Night)
Thursday, July 28, 7 p.m. (thirsty Thursday, Banque Populaire Thursday, Papa Bod evening)
Friday, July 29, 7 p.m. (Fireworks Friday, Christmas in July)
Saturday, July 30, 6 p.m. (Postgame Christian Concert with Ryan Stevenson)
Sunday, July 31, 3 p.m. (Church Bulletin Sunday, 30th Anniversary Jersey Auction)
Prospects (MLB.com rankings):
Hickory (Texas Rangers): OF Evan Carter (9), SS Luisangel Acuna (10), OF Aaron Zavala (11), RHP Ricky Vanasco (13), RHP TK Roby (14), LF Trevor Hauver (18), IF Thomas Saggai (26).
Roma (Atlanta Braves): SS Cal Conley (15), RHP Royber Salinas (27)
About the Crawdads: Hickory returns home after a short streak in Greensboro, having lost two of three to the Grasshoppers. With the two-week homestand, Hickory concludes a streak in which he plays 24 of 33 at home. Unfortunately, the Crawdads are 8-13 so far, and the root cause has been pitching. In the past seven games, Hickory has allowed nine or more runs in four of them. Starting pitchers were unable to go deep, which taxed and strained the bullpen. Since Tekoah Roby went seven innings in a game against Wilmington, Delaware on July 12, in the last eight games only one starter has advanced to fifth. The Crawdads’ ERA of 6.42 in July is the worst in the South Atlantic League, as is the 29 homers allowed in 18 games. month. The Crawdads lead with 29 homers, second in runs scored and have the fewest strikeouts. Three players have an OPS over 1,000 this month, including Thomas Saggese (1,113), Aaron Zavala (1,084) and Evan Carter (1,054).
About the Braves: After picking up two of three wins this weekend at Winston-Salem, Rome is 14-4 in July and a lot has to do with the pitching staff. The Braves have the best ERA in the South Atlantic League this month (2.75) with nine games allowed two or fewer runs, including four shutouts. In July, Luis De Avila has a 1.42 ERA over 25.1 innings spanning four starts. Also this month, Roddery Munoz has a 2.08 ERA in 21.2 innings with 27 strikeouts… At the plate, Rome leads in on-base percentage (.365) and is second in the league in OPS ( .776). Hickory and Rome are tied for the top of the SAL with a .263 batting average. The top hitter this month is outfielder Drew Campbell, who is hitting .393 in 15 games with 16 RBI and .990 OPS. Pitcher JJ Niekro is the son of former major league pitcher Joe Niekro and nephew of Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro.
Series history: In the only series played this season, Hickory won four of six on the road against the Braves. A season ago, Rome won the hard-fought series at LP Frans 3-2. The Crawdads finished the season in Georgia with a win to end a 16-game losing streak. Rome won the first two of this series, which had two games canceled by rain and another by a COVID-19 outbreak in the Crawdads squad.