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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Mets running low on first-round talent

Starting pitcher Kumar Rocker #80 of the Vanderbilt

Starting pitcher Kumar Rocker #80 of the Vanderbilt reacts after giving up a run against Luke Hancock #20 of the Mississippi St. in the top of the fifth inning during game three of the College World Series Championship at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha on June 30, 2021 in Omaha, Nebraska.  Credit: Getty Images/Sean M. Haffey

At 5 p.m. Sunday, the Mets made it official: First-round pick Kumar Rocker, the 10th overall selection in last month’s draft, is not coming to Flushing.

This never would have happened under the Wilpons.

We can say that with some certainty because it literally never did. The last time the Mets failed to sign a first-round draft pick was 1970, when talks fell apart with George Ambrow, a shortstop from Polytechnic High in Long Beach, California, over some concern involving knee issues.

That was a decade before Fred Wilpon went in as a minority owner with Nelson Doubleday and the Mets sold for $21.1 million.

It also was a very, very long time ago. And this Rocker fiasco is not the kind of stuff we were expecting under new owner Steve Cohen, who purchased the franchise for $2.4 billion. To a hedge-fund titan like Cohen, the $6 million signing bonus for Rocker amounts to couch-cushion change. We’re talking about a guy with a $14 billion fortune.

Regardless, the Mets ultimately didn’t like the results of Rocker’s post-draft physical, according to multiple sources, and chose to pull back the bonus. It was a generous offer to begin with — well over the slotted $4.7 million for that pick — and the two sides came to agreement within 24 hours of his selection.

Back then, it was considered a coup for the beaming Mets, as Rocker, a projected top three pick, somehow slid all the way to them. But that usually doesn’t happen by accident, and the team declined to give any detailed reason Sunday for their decision to pass on him.

"This is clearly not the outcome we had hoped for and wish Kumar nothing but success," acting general manager Zack Scott said in a statement.

Abruptly punting on Rocker, however, speaks volumes about the Mets’ suspect handling of the whole matter. By steering a huge over-slot chunk of money to Rocker — $6 million of their roughly $9 million draft pool — they looked to save on the rest of the picks, and now that cash goes unused.

Despite Rocker’s immense talent (a 2.89 ERA with 321 strikeouts over 236 2⁄3 career innings at Vanderbilt), there were whispers about a velocity dip and worrisome mechanics. Rocker didn’t participate in the MLB-sponsored pre-draft medical review, so there was always the possibility of a red flag popping up when the team screened him.

In the week leading up to Sunday’s signing deadline, Rocker’s camp disputed that he has a medical issue. Scott Boras, his adviser at this stage, said in a statement: "Kumar Rocker is healthy, according to independent medical review by multiple prominent baseball orthopedic surgeons. Immediately upon conclusion of his collegiate season, he had an MRI on both his shoulder and elbow. When compared with his 2018 MRIs, the medical experts found no significant change. Kumar requires no medical attention and will continue to pitch in the regular course as he prepares to begin his professional career."

Maybe the key word there is "significant," but it doesn’t really matter now. Rocker won’t be a Met, and the team will get next year’s 11th overall pick as compensation for this whole thing blowing up.

It’s worth noting that the Mets currently have possession of only one of their last four first-round picks: Brett Baty (2019). In addition to Rocker being cut loose, Pete Crow-Armstrong (’20) was traded to the Cubs for Javy Baez and Jarred Kelenic (’18) got shipped to the Mariners for Robinson Cano/Edwin Diaz.

Considering that first-rounders are technically supposed to be your most valued prospects, that’s a serious talent drain, and Rocker should have been a solid front-end-of-the-rotation type to have in the pipeline. The way his brief Mets career unfolded turned out to be a fitting epitaph to the just-completed 5-6 homestand, which ended with a lifeless 7-1 loss to the Reds.

What a weekend. Not only did the Mets fail to trade for a starter Friday in the wake of Jacob deGrom’s setback — the ace now is a maybe (fingers crossed) for September — they wound up not drafting one, either, with Rocker being jettisoned.

Rocker wasn’t going to help the Mets stay in first place this season, but they could use someone else to step up soon.

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