2021 MLB draft: Why Vanderbilt RHP Kumar Rocker ‘fits perfectly’ for Detroit Tigers

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
| Detroit Free Press

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The Detroit Tigers improved their farm system’s offense by taking outfielder Riley Greene and third baseman Spencer Torkelson with first-round picks in consecutive drafts.

After selecting Torkelson at No. 1 overall in 2020, the Tigers added five more hitters: catcher Dillon Dingler, outfielder Daniel Cabrera, shortstop Trei Cruz, third baseman Gage Workman and third baseman Colt Keith.

Still, the Tigers could use more bats.

But ESPN draft and prospect analyst Kiley McDaniel predicts the Tigers will draft Vanderbilt right-hander Kumar Rocker with the No. 3 overall pick in 2021. The draft begins July 11 in conjunction with MLB’s All-Star Game festivities in Atlanta.

“I probably don’t have to tell you that Detroit, it’s not just believed to be, like they will openly talk about ‘We love players that perform in the SEC that we’ve seen for multiple years,’” McDaniel said Friday in a conference call with reporters, “and Kumar is that to a tee. He fits them perfectly.”

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The Tigers possess plenty of esteemed young arms, namely right-hander Casey Mize, lefty Tarik Skubal, righty Matt Manning, righty Alex Faedo and lefty Joey Wentz. Faedo and Wentz are recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Adding Rocker before snagging offensive weapons in the later rounds makes sense.

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Rocker, 21, had a 3.06 ERA, 1.073 WHIP, 142 strikeouts and 29 walks in 114⅔ innings through parts of two seasons for Vanderbilt. Before the 2020 campaign was nixed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the righty had a 1.80 ERA, 28 strikeouts and eight walks in 15 innings.

As a freshman in 2019, Rocker tossed a 19-strikeout no-hitter against Duke in the NCAA Super Regionals, followed by two wins (with a 1.46 ERA) and Most Outstanding Player in the College World Series. In his four NCAA tournament starts, he went 4-0 with a 0.96 ERA.

Here’s how McDaniel believes the top three picks will unfold: Prep shortstop Jordan Lawlar (No. 1 to Pittsburgh Pirates), Vanderbilt right-hander Jack Leiter (No. 2 to Texas Rangers) and Rocker (No. 3 to Tigers).

“May sound surprising,” McDaniel said, “because I think everyone thinks (Rocker) is the best prospect. He is not. Right now, I think he’s seen as either second or third, depending on how much you like Jack Leiter.”

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Rocker’s wipeout pitch is his power slider. His fastball sits in the 93-96 mph range. His changeup, however, isn’t as consistent and must develop for him to become an ace in the majors.

Lawlar — from Dallas Jesuit High School in Texas — is “pretty clearly the best prospect,” McDaniel said, comparing his body to Carlos Correa and Derek Jeter. He added that the 18-year-old would be ranked somewhere in the top 50 of baseball’s best 100 prospects if he were already a professional.

“And then it’s a lot of college pitching and up-the-middle college hitters,” McDaniel said. “The other hitter that would be in that area is Matt McLain, a shortstop/second baseman (from) UCLA, and Marcelo Mayer, a high school infielder out of Southern California. Those are probably the best two bats right now behind Lawlar that would be in play at three.”

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Leiter, 20, posted a 1.72 ERA, 0.830 WHIP, 22 strikeouts and eight walks across 15⅔ innings as a freshman in Vanderbilt’s canceled 2020 season. He started three of his four appearances.

His best pitch is a 12-6 curveball, accompanied by a slider and a fastball between 94-97 mph with cutting action. Leiter hasn’t used his changeup much since arriving at Vanderbilt. In his college debut, he struck out 12 through five no-hit innings against South Alabama.

“I think there’s a real shot that Leiter slides ahead of him, and Kumar is just the best player at No. 3,” McDaniel said. “If I had to put my money on anybody, I would say it’s him. And if it’s a bat, it’s unclear who the next best bat behind Lawlar is. I don’t have a great answer for you yet.”

When will Tork arrive?

The Tigers placed five players on ESPN’s top 100 prospects for 2021: Torkelson (No. 4), Mize (No. 20), Manning (No. 23), Greene (No. 25) and Skubal (No. 53). All of them will be at big-league spring training this month, with Torkelson and Greene as nonroster invitees.

Mize and Skubal will compete for jobs in the starting rotation, but Manning seems set for a short stint in Triple-A Toledo before his MLB arrival midway through the year. Greene is expected to start in Double-A Erie and Torkelson in High-A West Michigan.

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“Not this year,” McDaniel said about Torkelson’s MLB debut. “It seems like Detroit is pretty hesitant to call guys up before they’re ready just to try to get somebody on the field. … So I would say as early as two weeks into 2022 is when I would start looking for him; toward the end of ’22, I think, would be like the later end of that window. If it takes him until ’23 I would almost be a little bit worried that there was like a real injury or something went a little sideways.”

The minors were canceled last season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so Torkelson has yet to play in a professional game. Across 129 games in parts of three college seasons at Arizona State, he hit .337 with 54 homers and 130 RBIs. He had 110 walks to 104 strikeouts, a .436 OBP and 1.192 OPS.

“The sort of assumption is when you’re that good you can probably just steamroll through the minor leagues and then maybe you’d have your first sort of problems in the big leagues,” McDaniel said. “And rather than doing that, let him run into some problems and take it a little bit slower in the minors. Maybe Double-A/Triple-A he runs into some problems, hangs around for a few months there.”

McDaniel said he expects third baseman Isaac Paredes, another valued prospect, to break spring training on the Tigers’ Opening Day roster.

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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