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2022 Mariners MLB Draft Preview: Kumar Rocker

Alexa, Play Deja Vu by Olivia Rodrigo

Gary Cosby Jr. via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The thing about the MLB draft and writing player profiles is that most of the time, you need to dive super deep into a player, because the casual fan has potentially never heard of them. Especially when you consider the lack of coverage college and high school baseball gets in places that aren’t hotbeds of talent. Even with the improved coverage over the last few years, the player pool is ridiculously deep, and it is quite the challenge to keep up with even a fraction of the players. Contrast that with tomorrow’s NBA Draft. We have heard about Chet Holmgren since he dominated competition at 16 years old. Jaden Ivey got on the radar a little later, but we still know all about him and his mom, the coach of Notre Dame’s women’s basketball program (quick aside that I, a Knicks fan, have lost countless hours over the last couple of weeks imagining Ivey in New York). We know more about NBA (and NFL, WNBA, NHL, MLS, NWSL) draft prospects than most MLB draft entries.

I say most because Kumar Rocker is the clearest exception to the rule in recent memory. Even a year ago, Rocker had more fanfare around him than any other prospect taken outside the top 10 (or even the top three) that I can ever remember. Add in the brouhaha with the Mets last season when they drafted Rocker but did not sign him, in which owner Steve Cohen referred to Rocker as an “investment,” which is a totally normal way of thinking about a human being. Aren’t billionaires so cool and relatable? The media circus surrounding his negotiations with the Mets only heightened his profile. Considering the lack of a bonafide star this year, and high school players dominating the top of the draft board, it’s not a reach to say Kumar Rocker is the most known player in July’s draft.

If you aren’t familiar with Kumar Rocker, 1. Thank you for still reading this far, 2. Joe Doyle did a fantastic write-up leading up to last year’s draft. A lot has changed since Joe’s write-up nearly two years ago. For starters, Rocker had a tremendous junior season at Vanderbilt with a 2.73 ERA with a 0.934 WHIP, and 13.2 K/9. There was some concern over his dip in velocity, but he still went 10th overall to the Mets.

After not coming to terms with the Mets, Rocker’s future was uncertain after he announced he would not be returning to Nashville. Eventually, Rocker went to the Tri-City ValleyCats of the Frontier League. To date, Rocker has made just three starts for the ValleyCats. It is tough to gauge the stats in the Frontier League, although they have been impressive in his limited action. More importantly, Rocker is healthy and looks like he hasn’t missed a beat.

You could read a plethora of scouting reports on Rocker, talking about his professional athlete bloodline or about how his slider is one of the best pitches in the draft class, so I won’t bore you with another one. Instead, I’ll make a case for why the Mariners should run to turn in their draft card if Rocker falls to them.

Listen, I know this goes against every draft philosophy I hold. I am almost always of the camp that says take the high school player with the higher ceiling over the college player with the higher floor. Look at what Edwin Arroyo and Harry Ford are doing in Modesto right now as teenagers. The thing is that, despite Kumar Rocker being older than most of the other players in this draft, he turns 23 in November, and he doesn’t fit the mold of a typical college player that would be on the board at #21. Rocker’s upside is that of a potential ace, and if not for concerns regarding his medicals, he would likely be a top 10 pick again this year.

“But Kyle, the Mariners are loaded with pitching depth from George Kirby and Logan Gilbert looking like solid players to guys waiting in the wings like Emerson Hancock, Bryce Miller, and Taylor Dollard. Why would they not take a position of need?”

We’ll do a deeper dive as July 17th approaches, but the other potential options at #21 don’t inspire a ton of confidence. The most common names mocked to Seattle are Tennesee outfielders Jordan Beck, Drew Gilbert, and Brock Jones. They are all fine, and like whoever the Knicks end up selecting, I will learn to love them within 24 hours of being picked, but they don’t exude anywhere close to the level of excitement that Rocker would bring.

I would argue that the success of Gilbert and Kirby is another reason to roll the dice on Rocker. This organization has shown at least a few times that it knows how to develop college pitching. It is always tough to know what percentage to give to a player and what percentage to give to the organization. Still, the Ms get at least a tiny bit of cred for what Gilbert has developed into, and the early results on Kirby are promising; that is not even mentioning the dominance of pitching currently on the farm. The Ms don’t have the same track record with hitters during the Dipoto era. Early results look promising for a handful of younger guys in Ford, Arroyo, and Spencer Packard, but it is not to the same level of development as pitching.

Imagine Gilbert, Kirby, and Rocker headlining a playoff rotation in 2024. Despite having a higher ceiling than any other realistic target at #21 if they go the college route, Rocker is also likely closer to the major leagues than most other players in this draft. In his latest mock draft, Keith Law hypothesized that Rocker could see time on a major league mound in 2022. Given the fickle nature of arm injuries and the Ms propensity for being cautious with their prized arms, I don’t think they would rush him to the bigs, but 2024 seems quite possible.

The final reason to draft Rocker is one that the team absolutely should not take into consideration,,, but just hear me out. Things are objectively going not as planned at the major league level right now. It is wild how much goodwill the Mariners threw away that they had before the season started. Considering how the last few years have gone, the Ms are due for some sort of national controversy that will make them the embarrassment of MLB any day now. There’s been speculation that people could lose their jobs if things don’t turn around soon.

There’s not an easy fix to most of those problems, but if you want to generate some buzz and good feelings around the team in the midst of one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory, then drafting Kumar Rocker is the way to do that. Casual baseball fans could not tell you when the MLB draft is; heck I had to double-check in the process of writing this. Most people could not tell you anything about 99% of the prospects. But they know Kumar Rocker. The guy with the former NFL player for a dad. The guy who looks like he could line up on the gridiron himself. He was the hero of the super regionals in 2019 when he struck out 19 Blue Devils in a no-hitter as a freshman. The most exciting player in college baseball Indy League baseball.

Rocker is a potential face of the franchise type player with his joyful play style and the amount of attention he will receive before he ever steps foot on a Major League diamond. You don’t draft someone solely for those reasons, but it is a nice bonus when they also throw 98 MPH with a devastating slider. If things go right, Rocker is one of the most exciting young pitchers in baseball with borderline ace potential. If things go wrong with his health down the line, you still get a potential lethal bullpen arm, and you rejuvenate a fan base that needs something to get excited about right now. It seems like the easiest call Jerry Dipoto will make this year if Kumar Rocker falls into Seattle’s lap.