The Pittsburgh Pirates hold the top pick in the 2021 MLB Draft. This franchise is in the shitter right now, though there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel. That light is being produced by their farm system.
The Pirates farm system is seen as good-not-great right now. Most experts rank them around the edge of the top-10. With the top pick in this year’s draft, however, they will likely shoot into the top 5 if they really nail their top few rounds. None is more important than #1 overall, and there seems to be two names attached to that pick: Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter.
What a presence Rocker is on the mound. He’s 6’5″, 245 pounds, sits in the mid- to high-90s, and has an slider fit to make Major League hitters look foolish, right now. He’s pitched on the biggest stage for Vanderbilt and shined. There’s not much else he can accomplish at the collegiate level that could affect his draft stock, as he is considered by most to be the #1 pick in this year’s draft. There’s a good chance Rocker is a member of the Pirates organization this summer.
I see issues with taking Rocker #1 overall, however, and that issue is related to his mechanics. Rocker’s shoulders form an “M” shape during his release, which tends to lead to injuries, as it causes an added strain on the shoulder due to the arm coming around late and rushed. Mark Prior and Stephen Strasburg both had it coming out of college, two guys who also had big fastballs, wipeout breaking balls, and eventually, major arm surgeries. Rocker presents a serious injury risk I’d be unwilling to take with my first overall pick, especially when Jack Leiter is right there for the taking.
Kumar Rocker’s teammate for the Vanderbilt Commodores, Jack Leiter, is also projected to be a top pick in the draft. Most have Rocker going #1, but Leiter has overtaken him on some draft boards. Leiter doesn’t throw as consistently hard as Rocker does, though he has a high-90s heater in his quiver when he needs it. He also doesn’t have a pitch as devastating as Rocker’s slider, but he has multiple MLB-quality offerings that he commands very well. Injury risks aside, I’d say Leiter is a more polished pitcher, and is therefore more big league-ready at this moment, while Rocker has more upside.
Thing is, we can’t just forget about the injury risk. Leiter, the son of two-time MLB All Star and 19-year veteran Al Leiter, has much cleaner mechanics than Rocker. His delivery is more repeatable and more fluid, which could make him more durable than Rocker in the long run.
Who’s it gonna be, Bucs?
Everybody is different, but I’d prefer the sure thing over the high-risk, high-reward option if I was the Pirates. They absolutely need to nail this pick. Granted, I could be wrong about Rocker’s mechanics. Maybe his body is just built different than most, and he’s able to safely maintain that delivery. Normally though, that “M” shape indicates injuries (plural) are coming unless something changes. This is also a possibility. If the Pirates take Rocker, I hope they work to tweak his mechanics a bit.
Gimme Leiter all day, though. I want the guy I don’t have to worry about. A small-market team like the Pirates don’t have the luxury of whiffing on #1 picks. This was the worst team in baseball in 2020. They might be the worst again in 2021. Drafting well ensures that won’t be the case in a year or two, though. Taking Jack Leiter would be a step in the right direction for the Bucs.