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How the New York Mets botched their Kumar Rocker selection in the 2021 MLB Draft

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The New York Mets likely won’t sign the No. 10 pick in the draft, Vanderbilt right-hander Kumar Rocker, prior to Sunday’s deadline, according to ESPN. The Mets are said to have concerns about Rocker’s elbow health following a physical. As a result, they attempted to negotiate him down from their agreed-upon deal, which included a $6 million signing bonus. It now looks like the 5 p.m. deadline will pass without a deal.

The situation’s stakes are straightforward. If the Mets fail to reach an agreement with Rocker, they’ll receive the No. 11 pick in next year’s draft as compensation. Meanwhile, Rocker could return to Vanderbilt, where he can take advantage of the new NIL (Name, Image, and Likeness) rules to enrich himself while attempting to raise his stock ahead of next year’s draft.

But it’s clear that the Mets messed up — and not by taking him in the first place, as he clearly represented good value at the slot. (CBS Sports, though down on him relative to other publications, still had him as the eighth-best prospect in the class.) It’s true there were reasons to be cautious about Rocker’s health heading into the draft — his velocity waned during the season and his mechanics hint at future trouble — but it’s unreasonable to expect teams to have perfect knowledge of a player’s elbow ahead of time. (Unless said player undergoes the league’s voluntary testing ahead of time, anyway.) The real mistake the Mets made was in how they approached the rest of their class.

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The Mets had just over $9 million to spend over the course of the first 10 rounds. In agreeing to give Rocker an overslot bonus (the 10th pick carries a $4.74 million slot), they necessitated saving money elsewhere. Sure enough, the Mets created close to $1 million in pool space by signing six of their next nine picks to underslot arrangements. Those savings were earmarked for Rocker, and were supposed to allow the Mets to pay him his $6 million without incurring a penalty for exceeding their bonus pool amount. That’s all fine and well, but the Mets forgot to take out an insurance policy later in the draft. 

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CBS Sports has talked to several scouting sources with other teams in recent days about the Rocker situation, many of whom have used colorful language to analyze what they perceive as a baffling Mets misplay. Those sources have described how their own teams will take at least one player somewhere in the second half of the draft who they could theoretically redirect savings toward in case something unexpected pops up with one of their early round selections. (Some have expressed concern that their teams don’t draft enough of those types.)

Had the Mets taken a player in the later rounds as a contingency plan, their present situation wouldn’t be as bleak. They would’ve lost his allotted slot amount ($4.74 million) by failing to ink him, but they still could’ve used the savings from their other picks (nearly $1 million) to sign the flier. 

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As it is, the Mets took nothing except cheap collegiate players from the 11th round on, all of whom have already agreed to terms. Major League Baseball caps non-drafted signing bonuses at $20,000, so the Mets can’t leverage their savings to add talent through that avenue, either.

It’s clear the Mets need to reexamine their processes. Guessing wrong on what an MRI will reveal is an annoying, but understandable part of the draft; botching what other teams consider to be standard operating procedure is not.

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