So Major League baseball held the first day of its annual draft Monday and 34 players were chosen before the Minnesota Twins picked Brent Rooker out of Mississippi State with the next to last pick of the first round.
Color me surprised.
I just don’t believe there were 34 amateur baseball players in all the world who are potentially better Major League ballplayers than Rooker.
You know the numbers. He almost surely will win the SEC triple crown this season with a .387 average, 23 home runs and 82 runs batted in. He did this without a great deal of protection in the MSU lineup. That is, teams often chose to pitch around him. That’s why he walked 48 times in 67 games. He often saw just a couple of pitches a game to hit. Those, he rarely missed.
And so, you ask, what is the knock? How come 34 players – including six SEC players – were chosen ahead of Rooker?
Part of the answer is that Major League teams make mistakes all the time, and we’ll get to that.
But here are the knocks I have heard from scouts:
• One, his age. He is 22, a year older than most prospects who sign out of college.
• Two, his running speed, which is rated as average. And yet he stole 18 bases, tied for second best in the SEC.
• Three, his throwing arm is considered average, which mattered a lot more when he played right field than it does when he plays first base, as he did this past season. You ask me, he has plenty arm to play left field in the Major Leagues if that’s what a team needs.
• Four, some scouts wonder how his hitting numbers will translate when he shifts from college baseball’s metal bats to wood. That’s interesting because he hit well in both the New England Collegiate League in 2015 and the Cape Cod League in 2016, using wood bats.
Otherwise, there’s nothing not to like. Rooker is big, athletic and, from all accounts, works extremely hard.
One theory (mine), is that Major League baseball scouts and front office people haven’t adjusted their evaluations of Rooker’s game as much as he has adjusted his own game. He has been a walking, talking, baseball-bashing definition of a late bloomer.
Four years ago, he wasn’t drafted out of high school, where he starred in three sports instead of concentrating on just one. Three years ago, he was red-shirted in his first year of college. Two years ago, he hit .257 with all of two home runs as a red-shirt freshman. Last year, he hit .324 with 11 home runs, which is really, really good, but nothing like what he did this season.
Again, baseball is a game of adjustments. Rooker, while getting stronger, has kept making adjustments, tweaking his swing and his game. His plate discipline has improved. He has adjusted his swing to get more power from his lower body. He simply has improved immensely. His best baseball should he ahead, not behind, him.
I keep going back to something John Cohen, his former MSU coach, said about him earlier this spring.
“Brent’s intangibles are off the charts,” Cohen said. “He would be in my top five players I’ve ever been around as far as being a great teammate and human being, his work ethic, his making people around him better. I’ll tell you his makeup is a little big Dak Prescott-ish. He has that special aura about him.”
Prescott, famously, was drafted in the fourth round and became the NFL’s 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year and made the Pro Bowl.
Pro football scouts make mistakes, too.
This column is certainly no pity party for Rooker, who will get a first-round signing bonus and will makes millions upon millions if he continues to work as he has in the past.
Look no further than the Minnesota Twins, who drafted him, to see how wrong the MLB evaluators can be when it comes to college baseball talent. In 2009, Major League baseball teams chose 251 players before the Twins picked Brian Dozier out of Southern Miss in the eighth round. (Dozier, by the way, was 22 – too old? – at the time.) Last season, Dozier became the first second baseman in American League history to hit 40 or more home runs when he hit 42.
Yes, and before long, we could see Rooker and Dozier in the same lineup.