Updated: Oct 18, 2022
With the signing period for players selected in the MLB First Year Player Draft recently concluded, the biggest headline that emerged was that the New York Mets were unable to sign their first round pick (10th overall), Kumar Rocker. Rocker had become one of the most famous college baseball players in this generation following his 19-strikeout No-Hitter and College World Series Most Outstanding Player Award in 2019. Entering this Spring, many lauded Rocker as being the top candidate to go first overall in this Summer’s MLB Draft.
Although he was a First Team All-American for Vanderbilt, his performance didn’t live up to what scouts were looking for to go at the very top of the draft. Nonetheless, the Mets selected him in the top ten and many believed he was the ‘steal’ of the draft. Unlike some of the other drafts, the MLB signing bonus is negotiable around what is referred to as ‘slot-value’. Each pick in the first ten rounds has an assigned slot agreed upon by MLB and the MLBPA and each team has an assigned bonus pool they can spend according to the value of their picks.
Past that, teams and agents are left to their own to determine what each player signs for. Shortly after the draft, all signs pointed to Rocker and the Mets agreeing on a $6 million signing bonus, $1.3 million above the assigned $4.7 slot value for the 10th overall pick. However, things got complicated from there, and Rocker didn’t end up signing. Let’s look at how we got here and why something like this shouldn’t happen moving forward.
In the time from when the Mets drafted Kumar Rocker until the conclusion of the signing period, the Mets discovered some sort of medical issue with Rocker, obviously lessening their interest in extending him a $6 million signing bonus. While we will most likely never know where the negotiations and specific offers went from there, reports claim that the Mets either pulled their offer completely off the table or lessened it to a significant degree, which Rocker and his advisor, Scott Boras, likely scoffed at. Boras is known for not backing down or taking any discounts with his clients, and it led to Rocker not accepting anything below what he thought was acceptable.
In compensation for not signing Rocker, the Mets will receive the 11th overall pick in the 2022 MLB Draft. In Rocker’s case, he can return to Vanderbilt for his Redshirt Junior season, although initial reports have ruled that out. In addition, he can begin his professional career in Independent League Baseball domestically in the United States or sign overseas in Japan or Korea. He is not allowed to sign with another MLB club as a free agent and will have to wait until the 2022 MLB Draft to do so.
While it’s rare for a prospect drafted this high to not sign with the club that selects him, it is not unprecedented. In 2014, the Houston Astros decided to lessen their offer to high school pitcher, Brady Aiken (first overall), after his physical reportedly didn’t come back clean, and Aiken decided to take his talents to IMG Academy before being selected seventeenth overall by the Cleveland Indians the next year. If it makes Mets fans feel better, it actually turned out well for the Astros in this case. Houston received the number two overall pick in 2015, which turned out to be Alex Bregman, and Aiken has struggled with injuries over his Minor League career. There are a few other examples of this, but on the rare occasion it does happen, it makes many question the process of the MLB Draft.
On one hand, a rare occasion like we’re witnessing now with Kumar Rocker shouldn’t spark change to the whole MLB Draft system by itself. This issue just reinforces the problems that come with it in its entirety. The lack of concreteness of what the signing bonuses are in the first ten rounds allows teams to manipulate their offers up and down the draft. The MLB Draft has become less about selecting the best player, but selecting the best player at the right price. After already drafting him, the Mets determined that $6 million (or obviously anything near that) was not the right price for Rocker, so they opted not to sign him. Not assigning concrete and non-negotiable draft bonuses to specific slots creates vagueness and allows MLB teams to manipulate draftees up and down the board.
Just because the Mets didn’t believe Rocker was healthy enough to deserve a signing bonus doesn’t mean every team would’ve passed on Rocker as well. According to Scott Boras’ statement, his independent doctors claimed he had no structural damage. The fact that Rocker will not have to wait another calendar year to enter Major League Baseball because of one front office’s decision just feels wrong. The MLB Draft is already complex due to the above slot-below slot dynamic that goes on all the time, but an issue like this highlights why this system needs to be questioned.
A major fix would involve changing the slot system to that of the NFL where all of the picks slots are prearranged and non negotiable. But a more reasonable change would be to allow a player in Kumar Rocker’s situation with his alleged medical issue the ability to sign with another club that believes he’s healthy. Rocker is a victim of a system that rewards the Mets for not signing a player they believed was worthy of the tenth overall selection. The Mets will just move right along and take the eleventh overall pick along with their other first round pick next year while Rocker will have to wait one more year to fulfill his dream of signing that first MLB contract. The current CBA is set to expire following this season and this issue should be on the long list of discussion points that needs to be negotiated.