Reminders of the power imbalance between MLB’s teams, prospects

This article is free for anyone to read, but please consider becoming a Patreon subscriber to allow me to keep writing posts like this one. Sign up to receive articles like this one in your inbox here.

Kumar Rocker has finally signed. No, not with a Major League Baseball team, but with the independent Tri-City Valley Cats. The former Vanderbilt ace had to go this route because, last summer, the Mets drafted him and then essentially refused to sign him, as they attempted to lowball him due to injury concerns and refused to actually negotiate with their first-round pick.

The Mets were able to do this knowing that they would have a second first-round pick waiting for them in the 2022 draft as compensation for not signing Kumar. So long as their offer is worth at least 40 percent of the slot value for where the player was selected, the club remains eligible for this compensation. While the initial report said that the Mets didn’t make a formal offer to Rocker at all, they’re listed as having the 11th-overall pick in the 2022 amateur entry draft, and it being marked as compensation — clearly, they did make an offer, even if it was as equivalently serious to not making one at all.

The Mets and Rocker were nearing a $6 million deal, which was overslot for the 10th pick in the draft ($4,739,900). New York changed its mind after Rocker’s physical, though, because, per

Rocker could pitch tomorrow, one source said. That’s not the issue. The Mets believe Rocker could have a successful career somewhere.

But they simply didn’t feel comfortable enough with the prospects of his long-term health — which is the determination they try to make when reviewing physicals — to take that risk themselves.

Rocker’s agent, Scott Boras, released his own statement in response, one that included the results of an independent physical that gave Rocker the thumbs up. None of that mattered to the Mets, though: they had made their decision, and would not suffer for it. Sure, they built their draft around the idea of paying overslot for Rocker, but in 2022, they’d get extra slot money to play around with by virtue of having the 11th and 14th picks of the draft, and can shuffle those funds around in a number of ways to make up for the loss of Rocker. The pitcher himself, on the other hand, was left to wait.

Rocker is eligible for the 2022 draft, and how he pitches in his time with Tri-City will determine whether clubs reshuffle their draft boards to grab him earlier. It’s pretty unlikely he’s going to be able to pull in the $6 million that the Mets were close to giving him, or even the slot value of the 10th pick. That the Mets were able to just straight-up drop negotiations entirely because Rocker might be hurt someday in the future is too much power for one party to wield when Rocker was still considered the property of the Mets as far as MLB is concerned. If he could have then become a free agent after being drafted, it would be one thing, to let another club take the shot on him that the Mets would not, but that’s not how the system works. It is slanted entirely toward the teams, and now Rocker has seen his draft stock fall, the most likely outcome of which is another team getting a great deal on him and his arm because of how the Mets behaved, not because of anything Rocker is responsible for.

It’s not just amateurs who are held back in their earnings and are entirely at the whim of MLB’s clubs, of course. Consider Orioles’ top prospect Adley Rutschman, who made his debut in the bigs this past weekend. Rutschman was the number two prospect in the minors coming into the year, according to Baseball Prospectus, and with Bobby Witt Jr. already in the majors, he was the top prospect left in the minors for more than just BP.

His being held down was also very obviously a service-time issue: BP’s report on him from the Orioles’ top 10 prospect list said Rutschman should have been in the majors in August of last year, as he was likely the best defensive catcher in the minors and had posted an 899 OPS at the upper levels. A future all-star who would probably casually slot in as one of the top five backstops in the game, who looked ready for the challenge of the majors as early as last summer, and he didn’t get the call-up to starved-for-talent Baltimore until it was nearly June, anyway.

This sort of issue is no small thing in a vacuum, but as The Ringer’s Michael Baumann and BP’s Craig Goldstein were discussing on Twitter after the call-up, it’s a huge problem for Rutschmann given his age and position. The Orioles have secured an extra year of the backstop, and now the 24-year-old is in line to be a 32-year-old free agent catcher. That pushes him closer to caving and signing a team-friendly extension that will buy up even more of his career for the Orioles, and at a significant discount compared to what he would be able to receive in a more open system.

And it’s all so blatant, too. Even the Orioles’ announcers were talking about how some scouts saw Rutschman as a guy who could have debuted in the majors the same season he was drafted… which was back in 2019. The aforementioned Baseball Prospectus Top 10 for the O’s suggested Baltimore even held him back in the pandemic-shortened 2020 until after big-league games began so they wouldn’t have to risk him winning a job through his performance in camp. It’s now nearly June of 2022, and he’s just now in the majors. What will the penalty be for the Orioles? Well, nothing, probably. Baltimore won’t have access to some bonus picks they deem less valuable than another year of a 1.1 draft pick who might very well be one of the best players at his position throughout the life of his career with them, and they’re now in a better position to leverage their way into extending his stay even longer, at a discount for them.

As has been written before, withholding bonus draft picks isn’t going to be enough to curb service-time manipulation. There needs to be an actual punishment in place, but the clubs aren’t going to want to go for that, in the same way they aren’t going to want to make things more fair for amateurs who get hosed by the team that drafts them. The leverage, the power, is the point, the imbalance of it all a feature, not a bug.

Visit my Patreon to become a supporter and help me continue to write articles like this one.