Texas Rangers shake up first round, take Kumar Rocker third, after Baltimore Orioles open MLB draft by picking Jackson Holliday
LOS ANGELES — The Baltimore Orioles made high school shortstop Jackson Holliday the first selection in the Major League Baseball draft on Sunday, but the biggest shocker came with the No. 3 overall pick, so that the Texas Rangers selected Kumar Rocker, the highly touted pitching prospect. who did not sign with the New York Mets last season.
Rocker now joins former Vanderbilt teammate Jack Leiter, who was picked second overall by Rangers last year.
Druw Jones, the son of five-time All-Star Andruw Jones, finished second overall on Sunday ahead of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Rocker, 22, was selected 10th overall last summer, but the Mets ultimately didn’t offer a contract after some issues with his medicals. Rather than return to Vanderbilt, Rocker made five appearances for the independent Frontier League Tri-City ValleyCats, posting a 1.35 ERA with 32 strikeouts and four walks in 20 innings while reportedly hitting 98 mph with his fastball. He was expected to leave late in the first round, but Rangers clearly see enough upside to take him high in a draft that doesn’t boast a lot of shots.
Rangers should be able to sign Rocker for about $2 million less than the $7.59 million that’s slated for the No. 3 overall pick, sources told ESPN’s Jeff Passan. Rangers chief executive Chris Young said the organization was “extremely comfortable with the medical review”.
“Kumar’s risk is medical; we recognize that, but we’re comfortable with what we’ve seen,” Young added. “He’s an elite competitor, an incredibly strong, tough person who, if you talk to anyone who’s been around him, he’s just a winner. We’re comfortable with medical, we’re excited to know where he is physically and we’re looking forward to a great future with the Texas Rangers.”
Rocker was named the 2019 College World Series Most Outstanding Player and was a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award in 2021 alongside Leiter, leading Division I with 14 wins and tying Leiter for the lead with 179 strikeouts while adding a 2.73 ERA in 122 innings. . (Arkansas pitcher Kevin Kopps won the 2021 Golden Spikes Award.) Rocker underwent shoulder surgery soon after, in September 2021, but the surgery was considered minor and did not involve his rotator cuff or his labrum.
Rocker spent the next 10 months trying to prove himself again, but he said he always believed he would be a first-round pick again.
“I think my talent speaks for itself,” Rocker said during a videoconference.
When asked if he had an extra chip on his shoulder based on what he went through last year, Rocker said: “I wouldn’t necessarily call it a chip on my shoulder, but I I have a renewed motivation to move forward just to attack my work at a different rate, in a different way.”
Holliday, the son of seven-time All-Star Matt Holliday, is an elite hitter who made significant progress in several aspects of his game during his senior year at Stillwater High School in Oklahoma. The 6-foot-1, 175-pound left-handed hitter finished his senior season with a .685 batting average and was named Baseball America High School Player of the Year.
Holliday previously committed to Oklahoma State, where his uncle, Josh, is the head coach, but he’ll likely venture straight into pro baseball, where his improved quickness and arm strength should keep him at shortstop. Holliday’s calling card, however, is his hitting. The 18-year-old already has an advanced approach in the batting box, having racked up 89 hits in 41 games last season and breaking the high school record previously held by Philadelphia Phillies catcher JT Realmuto.
“I kind of found out what they were saying,” Holliday said upon realizing he would be the first player drafted. “It was really cool. My dad didn’t really tell me. He was on the phone for a bit and then he was like, ‘Okay, you’re going to find out.’ It was really, really good and something I’ll probably never forget. I didn’t know it was a possibility, to be honest, going into high school season. I just wanted to help my team win and hopefully get myself in a good position going into today.”
There was a lot of uncertainty over who the Orioles would take No. 1 overall, with Jones, Georgia high school middle fielder Termarr Johnson and Cal Poly shortstop Brooks Lee – picked eighth. overall for the Minnesota Twins – among the rumored selections. Orioles general manager Mike Elias likened it to “deciding what to order at a five-star restaurant.”
“It was a really good class,” Elias said. “We narrowed it down to five players. We had defenders and justification to take one of the five players, but at the end of the day you’re only allowed one of them, and we got picked our favorite.”
Jones, a Vanderbilt draftee, is a top defensive center back with five-tool potential, just like his dad. Young Jones is 6-foot-4 and 180 pounds, and he just won the Gatorade Georgia Baseball Player of the Year award while leading the Wesleyan School to the Georgia Class A Private School State Championship.
Jones is arguably the best defenseman, at any position, in this draft and has displayed both elite foot speed and batting speed on the showcase circuit. His swing still isn’t a finished product — he’s 18, after all — but he’s continually improved his plate discipline, and more raw power will come as he fills his frame. Jones hit .570 with 13 home runs, 32 stolen bases and a 1.702 OPS in his senior year.
The Pittsburgh Pirates selected Johnson at No. 4, and the Washington Nationals followed with Florida high school outfielder Elijah Green at No. 5, making it only the second time in draft history that players high school chose four of the top five choices.
The rest of the top 10 included LSU infielder/outfielder Jacob Berry (sixth from the Miami Marlins), Oklahoma pitcher Cade Horton (seventh from the Chicago Cubs), Virginia Tech outfielder Gavin Cross (ninth Kansas City Royals) and Gonzaga pitcher Gabriel Hughes (10th in the Colorado Rockies).
Johnson, 18, is considered the best hitter in this draft and is arguably one of the greatest high school hitters in history, his bat drawing comparisons to Rafael Devers, Jose Ramirez, Wade Boggs and Vladimir Guerrero. A 5-foot-10, 175-pound left-handed hitter, Johnson already has the batting speed, power and hand-eye coordination that could eventually make him a consistent 30-homer threat in the major leagues. Johnson, a draftee from Arizona State, played shortstop in high school but is considered a better fit at second base professionally.
“The Pittsburgh Pirates got the best player in the draft,” Johnson told the draft site at LA Live. “We will get there.”
Green is the son of former NFL Pro Bowl tight end Eric Green. Young Green, 18, is a prototypical risk-reward guy who many believe could slip in the first round of the draft. He’s 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, and he’s got the power, speed, and elite arm strength that’s put him on a course to become a No. 1 overall slam-dunk pick in 2021. But Green has produced some disturbing swing-and-miss rates while playing for IMG Academy in Florida the past two springs, though he ultimately slashed .462 / .592 / 1.000 in 25 high school games this season.
The Orioles had the No. 1 overall pick for the second time in four years, after drafting Oregon State wide receiver Adley Rutschman in 2019, and they’re just starting to come out of an extended rebuild so that players register in their system.
The Orioles, with Rutschman now in the majors, recently rode a 10-game winning streak to race for American League wildcards despite playing in the toughest division in the industry. In the previous five seasons, they lost 64% of their games, the worst in the major leagues. Each of their last four first-round picks was a collegiate position player, with Baltimore drafted, in descending order: outfielder Colton Cowser (fifth overall in 2021), outfielder Heston Kjerstad (second in 2020), shortstop Jordan Westburg (30th in 2020) and Rutschman.
The draft will last just 20 rounds for the second straight year (usually it’s 40 rounds), and the Orioles entered it with the second-largest bonus pool in history at $16.9 million. The Mets are the only team with two top-30 selections, one of which is compensation for not signing Rocker last year; and the Los Angeles Dodgers are the only team with zero, a penalty equal to the amount by which they exceeded the luxury tax threshold last year. This year’s No. 1 overall pick is worth $8.84 million, but the Orioles went under the slot with their last two first-round picks in order to use the savings elsewhere in the draft.
Each selection in the first 10 rounds of the draft comes with an assigned value. Teams are mostly free to ration their entire bonus pool as they see fit, but face overage taxes if they exceed the amounts allocated to them. First-round picks begin to be withdrawn if teams spend more than 5% of their allocated amounts. Teams have exceeded their allowances 172 times in the 10 drafts with bonus pools, but never by more than 5%, according to MLB.com.
The top three pitchers selected in this year’s draft – Rocker, Horton and Hughes – all went higher than most draft prognosticators had ranked them talent-wise, a nod to the relative lack of top pitchers this year. Disorganized. The San Diego Padres then took a shot at right-hander Dylan Lesko with the No. 15 pick. Lesko, of Buford High School in Georgia, became the first junior to be named 2021 Gatorade National Baseball Player of the Year, but he injured his elbow in April and underwent surgery at Tommy John.
The Padres have historically taken high risks like Lesko under president of baseball operations AJ Preller.