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Thoughts on the Mets and Kumar Rocker

Ultimately, this was about respect.

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Mississippi State v Vanderbilt Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Andrew had the initial report on the MLB Draft signing deadline passing without Kumar Rocker reaching a deal with the New York Mets, and this morning I have some deeper thoughts about the whole ridiculous thing.

The following is what I think is probably true. This is all based on reports and guesswork on my part.

The Mets had an informal agreement with Rocker to sign for $6 million, pending physical. Rocker then (according to the Mets) failed said physical, though the Mets were pretty nonspecific about what exactly they saw that spooked them. The Mets then tried to get Rocker to accept a reduced signing bonus, Rocker said his number was $6 million, and the deadline passed with neither side budging.

Here’s what I don’t think is true. The leaked report that the Mets never made an offer is more than likely only true in an extremely lawyer sense; the initial $6 million offer was never an official offer until the physical came back, and after that, Rocker’s camp told the Mets he wouldn’t accept whatever reduced offer they were making, so the Mets never formally sent over a contract offer for him to sign because he had already told him he wasn’t going to sign said contract. And the idea that the Mets simply decided that they didn’t want him has the same energy as a man who just got utterly shot down by an attractive woman telling his buddies that he didn’t want her anyway.

And this, meanwhile, is completely ludicrous:

I simply do not buy anything the New York Mets are saying here about what happened, because all of this is just a vain attempt to save face over the fact that they saw a ghost on Kumar Rocker’s physical, tried to play hardball with him, Rocker didn’t bite, and now they have to try to explain away why one of the best pitchers in college baseball over the last few years did not sign with them.

So let’s talk about that physical. Every now and then, you’ll hear about a team reaching an agreement with a free agent pending a physical, and then the player fails said physical. What happens after that is not that the player and the team go back to the negotiating table; the team simply signs someone else, and the player signs with a different team. Only that’s not an option with a draft pick. That makes it exceptionally tricky when a draft pick fails a post-draft physical; the team’s only option other than signing the player is to sign no one.

Or, at least, not sign a first-round caliber draft pick. As Mets blog Amazin’ Avenue pointed out, normally teams will draft a high school player in the later rounds whose bonus demands they probably don’t want to meet, but will if something like this happens. The Mets didn’t do this, and so whatever money they were trying to save by asking Rocker to take a haircut off their initial offer wasn’t actually going to go anywhere. Likewise, if Rocker didn’t sign, the money that they saved on later picks in order to go over slot on Rocker was not going to go to anyone else. This was, to be blunt, a mostly pointless negotiation tactic.

And it ended up costing them Rocker. Once the Mets asked Rocker to take a reduced bonus because of the purported medical issue, Rocker was never going to sign with the Mets, just like Brady Aiken was never going to sign with the Astros after they asked him to take a reduced bonus under similar circumstances in 2014. This was about respect, and in neither case did the player feel like he was getting it.

Speaking of that, some people have tried to draw comparisons between Aiken and Rocker, and as an Astros fan I can tell you that the comparison ends at that point. The Astros drafted Aiken with the first overall pick in 2014 not because anyone thought that he was the best player available, but because the Astros thought they could get him to agree to an under-slot bonus and use the savings to shore up the depth in their farm system by signing later picks for over slot. That was exactly what they tried to do, getting fifth-round pick Jacob Nix and 23rd-round pick Mac Marshall to agree to above-slot deals contingent on Aiken signing under slot, only those deals fell through when Aiken didn’t sign. But the Astros also had good reason to think that if Aiken didn’t sign, they’d be able to get a better prospect with the second pick in the 2015 draft — which is exactly what ended up happening. The Astros got an All-Star third baseman (Alex Bregman) instead of a guy who would undergo Tommy John surgery within a year and, as of 2021, has never made the major leagues and has pitched just 0.2 innings since 2017. Allegedly, Aiken is still in professional baseball.

None of that is true of Rocker. Rocker is a guy who going into the 2021 season was thought to be a potential first overall pick, who fell to the Mets at 10 for reasons that only make sense if you work in a MLB front office. The Mets didn’t have any particular thing they hoped to accomplish by asking Rocker to agree to a reduced signing bonus, other than being dicks. And it doesn’t seem terribly likely that the Mets will get a better prospect with the 11th pick in the 2022 draft. Certainly, there have been players drafted in that spot who have gone on to big things; that list includes a three-time Cy Young Award winner (Max Scherzer) and a former MVP (Andrew McCutchen) ... but then, we all watched Kumar Rocker at Vanderbilt for two-plus seasons, enough to know that the idea that he could be as good as Max Scherzer is not ridiculous.

And finally, a few commenters have brought up that Rocker could have made seven figures simply by returning to Vanderbilt and exercising his NIL rights; but this ignores that if this were purely a financial decision, his NIL money at Vanderbilt was extremely unlikely to be equivalent even to the amount of the signing bonus the Mets probably offered him post-physical. Again, this was about respect, something that Rocker thought he deserved and the Mets were not willing to give him, and that’s the context in which Rocker will probably play independent ball in 2022 before going back into the Draft. I can completely understand why Rocker is not returning to Vanderbilt, with his tail between his legs after a single MLB team decided that he was not worth as much money as he thought he was (and which amount he had apparently communicated to them before they decided to draft him.)