Coming off a division one-leading 14 win season with 179 strikeouts in 122 innings, Vanderbilt pitcher Kumar Rocker finds himself without a contract after being drafted 10th overall by the New York Mets with a $6 million signing bonus. Though his stock fell as the draft neared, Rocker was still regarded as one of the top pitchers in college baseball, rivaled by fellow Commodore and 2nd overall pick, Jack Leiter. What went so wrong between draft day and the signing deadline that one of the top pitching prospects going into the draft was left without a chance at the majors until 2022?
As with many top prospects, Rocker was selected for the pre-draft MRI program which would have made his medical information available for all thirty MLB teams. Skipping this program is not uncommon; in fact, Scott Boras - who represents Rocker, amongst other Major Leaguers and Major League hopefuls - advises his clients against participating in it. Following his selection, Rocker completed his physical examination with the Mets which led to concerns over the health of his arm. Boras maintains that his client is healthy, but to no avail as the parties were unable to come to new terms prior to the signing deadline. Though issues with physical examinations cannot always be predicted ahead of time, many have criticized the Mets for not anticipating this outcome, as Rocker’s velocity was noticeably down later in his junior season at Vanderbilt. With that being said, selecting Rocker in the first place was not necessarily a bad move for the Mets, but how they handled the rest of the draft and their draft pool was. Described as “arcane” by one reporter, the draft pool warrants its own explanation so we can truly understand where the Mets went wrong.
It’s your birthday, cheers to you! Your grandparents sent you an assortment of gift cards, each one with a different value. Let’s say you got a Dunkin’ gift card for $25, a Cava gift card for $15, and a Target gift card for $10. In all you have $50 to spend, but because they are gift cards and not cash, you can only spend them at their assigned business. Now say the Dunkin’ in your town closed down, so you can no longer spend your $25 gift card. You don’t lose any money, and the money on the gift card doesn’t go away, but you don’t get to use it elsewhere. You still have $50 in gift cards, but with the ability to spend only $25 of it.
That’s essentially how draft pools work. The Mets had about $9 million in their draft pool, with each pick in the draft having a slotted value - in the 2021 Draft, the 10th overall pick had a slot of about $4.7 million. The Mets spent that $4.7 million “gift card” on Rocker when they drafted him 10th, but lost out on it when they decided not to sign him. While this money doesn’t necessarily come out of anyone’s pockets, it can’t be utilized elsewhere.
So the Mets chose not to sign Rocker and lost out on using $4.7 million of their draft pool, but it doesn’t stop there. Rocker’s slot value can be thought of as a sunk cost, which refers to costs that have already been incurred and are unable to be recovered. As soon as the Mets drafted and decided not to sign Rocker, that $4.7 million signing bonus became a sunk cost. Where the Mets continued to make mistakes is offering Rocker a signing bonus $1.3 million overslot, for a total of $6 million. In order to do this, the Mets had to sign six of their remaining nine picks in the first half of the draft underslot. Now, not only are they unable to use the $4.7 million gift card, they lost out on being able to spend the $1.3 million gift card as well.
There is a way this could have been avoided: by taking out an “insurance policy” in the second half of the draft. Scouting sources from various teams have noted that it is “standard operating procedure” to draft a player in later rounds to redirect any overslot value should a situation like Rocker’s arise. If the Mets took an insurance pick, Rocker’s $4.7 million slot would have still been a sunk cost, but the $1.3 million would have been available for redirect to that insurance pick. Unfortunately for the Mets, they had already agreed to terms with their 11th-20th round picks and were not able to divert Rocker’s overslot money to them. In the end, the Mets lost out on utilizing $6 million of their $9 million draft pool.
While the Mets won’t get Rocker, they will get the 11th overall pick in the 2022 draft as a compensation pick for not signing the pitcher. Typically, in order to get a compensation pick, teams have to offer the unsigned player 40% of his slotted bonus. Sources have stated that the Mets never even put a contract on the table for Rocker to accept or reject, but Rocker’s decision to forgo the pre-draft MRI program means the Mets can still get the compensation pick without offering Rocker anything.
As for Rocker, he will be able to enter the 2022 MLB Draft but cannot sign to a Major League team in the meantime. Though he is eligible to do so, reports have stated that Rocker has ruled out returning to Vanderbilt for his senior season, leaving him with a few options: sign to an independent or international team, or continue to practice and host open workouts as the 2022 Draft nears. This last option is an attractive one for former Commodores, as Vanderbilt has a locker room specifically for professional players - including David Price, Sonny Gray, and Mike Minor - returning to campus to workout. Rocker’s former teammate, Jack Leiter, plans to spend the fall working out at Vanderbilt while continuing his progress toward his degree as opposed to pitching in the minors or playing in the Arizona Fall League.
While the Mets’ mishandling of the 2021 Draft should serve as a lesson to the organization, it should also serve as a red flag to the MLBPA. Professor Mark Edelman notes that the next round of collective bargaining between the league and the players association should include creating less restrictive rules for first-year draft picks. He suggests an updated draft system that would automatically create a contract between a player and the team who drafts him, or a supplemental draft should a team decide not to sign one of their picks. In the end, the ones who suffer the most as a result of this blunder are, of course, Rocker, and baseball fans everywhere who will not have the opportunity to see him pitch in the majors for upwards of another year. Jake Mintz of The Ringer Podcast Network pointed out that the Mets are facing very few repercussions for botching this draft; sure, they lost the chance to use two-thirds of their draft pool, but they still came out of this with the 11th overall pick in the 2022 Draft, whereas Rocker is left “out in the wind.” Let’s hope the MLBPA considers this in their next round of collective bargaining so they can protect future draft picks from ending up in “baseball purgatory.”
Rebekah Ansbro is a second year law student at George Mason University where she is the outreach & social media chair and events chair for the Mason Sport and Entertainment Law Association. You can connect with Rebekah about sport and entertainment law on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/rebekah-ansbro-21a24115a.
 Statistics, D1 Baseball (2021). https://d1baseball.com/statistics/  McDaniel, K., Passan, J., New York Mets don't sign first-round draft pick Kumar Rocker before deadline, ESPN (Aug 1, 2021). https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/31934790/new-york-mets-plan-sign-top-pick-kumar-rocker-concerns-physical-exam-sources-say  Ibid.  Anderson, R., How the New York Mets botched their Kumar Rocker selection in the 2021 MLB Draft, CBS (Aug 2, 2021). https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/how-the-new-york-mets-botched-their-kumar-rocker-selection-in-the-2021-mlb-draft/  Ibid.  Ibid.  McDaniel, K., Passan, J., New York Mets don't sign first-round draft pick Kumar Rocker before deadline, ESPN (Aug 1, 2021). https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/31934790/new-york-mets-plan-sign-top-pick-kumar-rocker-concerns-physical-exam-sources-say  Anderson, R., What’s next for Kumar rocker after Mets fail to sign former Vanderbilt star?, CBS (Aug 2, 2021). https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/whats-next-for-kumar-rocker-after-mets-fail-to-sign-former-vanderbilt-star/  Gerson, A., 'Forever thankful': Jack Leiter lauds Vanderbilt baseball after signing with Rangers, Tennessean (July 28, 2021). https://www.tennessean.com/story/sports/college/vanderbilt/2021/07/28/jack-leiter-vanderbilt-baseball-after-texas-rangers/5408387001/  Edelman, M., Unsigned New York Mets Draft Pick Kumar Rocker Can Place Some Of Blame On MLB Players Association, Forbes (Aug 2, 2021). https://www.forbes.com/sites/marcedelman/2021/08/02/unsigned-mets-draft-pick-kumar-rocker-has-union-partially-to-blame/?sh=12b5aa8d2cb6  Ibid.  Mintz, J., Who Actually Has a Shot at Winning the World Series?, The Ringer (Aug 3, 2021). https://www.theringer.com/2021/8/3/22608384/who-actually-has-a-shot-at-winning-the-world-series  Edelman, M., Unsigned New York Mets Draft Pick Kumar Rocker Can Place Some Of Blame On MLB Players Association, Forbes (Aug 2, 2021). https://www.forbes.com/sites/marcedelman/2021/08/02/unsigned-mets-draft-pick-kumar-rocker-has-union-partially-to-blame/?sh=12b5aa8d2cb6