Vanderbilt aces Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker were drafted in the top 10, but their MLB fates were seemingly sealed weeks ago.
Leiter this spring pitched in front of a few members of the Texas Rangers’ front office, and each time they walked away overly impressed. Rangers President of Baseball Operations Jon Daniels saw Leiter pitch against Ole Miss in May. The 21-year-old righty struck out 13 batters and allowed just two hits in six innings.
Rangers General Manager Chris Young then watched Leiter pitch in the Nashville Regional, where he allowed three hits and one run while striking out 11 over six innings against a high-powered Georgia Tech offense.
During his four starts in the NCAA tournament and College World Series — where Rangers scouting director Kip Fagg watched him — Leiter struck out 44 hitters over 27 innings, allowing just seven hits and five runs.
So, when the first round of the 2021 MLB Draft rolled around on Sunday, Young and company knew exactly who they were picking if Leiter fell past the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“All along in my heart, I felt like Jack was the right one for the Texas Rangers,” Young said Sunday after drafting Leiter. “What I see is a winner. I’m confident that he is going to help enhance what we’re building.
“He’s going to make the players around him better. He’s a leader. He’s a great teammate. He’s an unbelievably hard worker. He embodies everything that we want in terms of our culture, and what we want in our players.”
Rocker ending up in New York was less of a sure thing. In fact, it might have been one of the biggest long shots of the first round: The 22-year-old had been projected to be taken in the top five.
The Detroit Tigers took a pitcher at No. 3, the Kansas City Royals at No. 7 and the Los Angeles Angels at No. 9. All of them were rated below Rocker, who was ranked the No. 2 pitcher and No. 6 overall prospect in the draft by MLB.com.
So, when Rocker was still sitting there at No. 10, the Mets couldn’t turn in their draft card fast enough.
“We’re still so elated here — so happy — that Kumar got to us,” Mets VP of Amateur Scouting Tommy Tanous told reporters on Sunday. “We really thought there was very little chance that this would happen, a pitcher of this talent and his portfolio. This doesn’t happen very often. We feel very fortunate that his name and magnet was still on the board. Kumar was more of a dream than anything else.”
Added Scouting Director Marc Tramuta: “For us, this was an obvious pick. This is an extremely talented young man that we just couldn’t pass.”
Rocker’s draft tumble was the result of a perfect cocktail of questions regarding his consistency and command coupled with Leiter’s ascension up the draft board. Despite that, the 6-foot-5 righty led the NCAA in wins (14) and strikeouts (179) and helped lead Vanderbilt to the College World Series final, presumably cementing at least a top-five draft spot for himself.
Still, the Mets continued scouting Rocker in the months leading up to the draft despite believing their chances of getting him were virtually nonexistent. Now, New York has one of the best pitchers in the 2021 draft class and a prospect who could reach the major leagues fairly quickly.
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_