On Aug. 1, Carter Stewart, a starting pitcher for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league, saw history repeating itself 7,071 miles away in Queens.
As the hours dwindled before the signing deadline for players selected in Major League Baseball’s 2021 draft, Kumar Rocker, the Mets’ first-round pick, remained unsigned. It was reported that the team had concerns about Rocker’s arm health after a physical at Citi Field. Stewart, who had a similar experience in 2018, felt a tinge of sadness as another player was forced to defend his health against a team that held all the power.
“I’d like to know more information about what they saw,” Stewart said. “It was very odd, seeing a guy like him not sign, because of how dominant he has been his entire career. I’d love to tell him my story and tell him, ‘Hey, it’s going to be all right.’”
When Rocker, a hard-throwing, right-handed pitcher out of Vanderbilt University, was selected by the Mets on July 11, many regarded the pick as a steal. Entering the draft, he was listed as the sixth-best prospect by MLB.com and the fifth-best by Baseball America. Falling to the 10th pick seemed low for a pitcher whose array of devastating pitches had made him something of an online sensation, along with his teammate Jack Leiter, who was taken by the Texas Rangers with the No. 2 pick.
Tommy Tanous, the Mets’ vice president for amateur and international scouting, told reporters that Rocker was a “dream” acquisition. Marc Tramuta, the team’s director of amateur scouting, described him as an “obvious pick.” Two Mets starting pitchers, Marcus Stroman and Taijuan Walker, tweeted words of encouragement to Rocker, and a few days later, Rocker’s face adorned billboards in Times Square and Queens.
It felt like the beginning of something big.
But that was July 11. As the days passed, Mets officials stopped receiving questions about where Rocker would start in their minor league system and started receiving questions about why they hadn’t signed him to a contract that had reportedly been agreed upon and which included a $6 million bonus. Zack Scott, the acting general manager, repeatedly declined to comment.
By Aug. 1, all of that enthusiasm for what Rocker could mean to the future of the organization had vanished. The deadline expired without the team and player agreeing to a deal.
It is a situation that has played out before, perhaps most notably when the Houston Astros declined to sign Brady Aiken, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft, because of concerns about his elbow. While the concerns proved legitimate with Aiken, other players, like R.A. Dickey and Stewart, have shown that supposed medical issues can be overblown.
By M.L.B.’s rules, a failure to sign the 10th pick in 2021 means the Mets will receive the 11th overall pick in 2022 as compensation. While that would typically require the team to have offered Rocker at least 40 percent of his slotted bonus of $4.74 million, a lower offer was not necessary in this case because Rocker chose not to participate in the league’s predraft M.R.I. program.
Rocker, meanwhile, is unable to sign with another team this season despite Tim Corbin, his coach at Vanderbilt, saying he has only ever known the player to be healthy. Regardless, Rocker will be placed in the pool of eligible players for the 2022 draft.
“M.L.B. missed the opportunity to have this player in their system because of the club’s decision to pursue draft dollars in next year’s draft,” Scott Boras, the agent who represents Rocker and Stewart, said in a statement, referring to the Mets essentially giving themselves a second first-round pick in 2022 (and the bonus dollars associated with that pick) by not signing Rocker. “The player should have the opportunity to pursue other M.L.B. teams to sign with.”
Boras described the draft compensation rules as unjust, and noted that both Rocker and Stewart were cleared by medical experts. In Rocker’s case, he saw two orthopedic surgeons before the draft, both of whom found him to be healthy. Stewart, who signed on as a Boras client after the draft, saw three medical experts following the Braves’ diagnosis, all of whom found him to be healthy, as well.
One question looms above the others: What exactly did the Mets see? Rocker may not even know what the Mets were concerned about, and to Stewart, who went unsigned because of what he describes as an unexplained wrist issue, that is one of the biggest obstacles for a young pitcher who is trying to move his career, and his life, forward.
“Initially, I doubted myself,” Stewart said of his own experience. “You would think that the team is the best of the best. You would think that everything they say should be final. Why are they saying this when I don’t feel the same way? It’s hard to hear from somebody that you’re hurt when you don’t physically feel hurt.”
Stewart had been selected by Atlanta with the eighth overall pick in the 2018 draft. He had never missed time because of a wrist injury, but something the team saw in his M.R.I. gave it enough pause to lower its offer drastically. The two parties did not come to a deal, and Stewart filed a grievance against the Braves through the players’ union.
“I don’t feel like I ever really got clarification on that,” he said. “I always wondered why they came to the decision they came to.”
Stewart describes the period after he declined to sign with Atlanta as a dark one. He didn’t pick up a baseball for five months. He was only 18 at the time, and with the union grievance ongoing, he was unable to attend a four-year college. The junior college baseball season was months away, giving him ample opportunity to think about what had transpired. He didn’t hate baseball, but he hated the way it treated him, and felt trapped inside a system that offered him little, if any, agency.
It was only when Stewart began throwing again that he rekindled his love for the game. He put together a solid season at Eastern Florida State College, posting a 1.80 E.R.A. and 108 strikeouts in 13 starts. When the draft rolled around later that year, he decided to forgo the system altogether, signing a six-year contract with Japan’s Hawks for $7 million.
“I had no real allegiance to Major League Baseball,” he said. “They hadn’t done anything for me so far, so why did I have to force myself to stay here?”
Dickey, the knuckleball pitcher who won the 2012 National League Cy Young Award for the Mets, took the opposite route when faced with a similar situation. He vividly remembers the day in 1996 when he arrived at the Ballpark in Arlington to sign a contract with an $810,000 bonus after being selected by the Texas Rangers with the 18th overall pick in the draft. He was supposed to meet Nolan Ryan, throw out the first pitch and watch the game with his agent. But after a physical, he ended up doing none of those things.
As Dickey stood on the balcony of the Rangers’ executive offices, watching what he believed to be his future team take batting practice, the general manager, Doug Melvin, told Dickey’s agent that they had some concerns with his arm and would have to wait until he underwent further testing to make an offer. An M.R.I. revealed that Dickey’s right elbow was missing its ulnar collateral ligament — the ligament that is repaired during Tommy John surgery — a diagnosis that Dickey described as “beyond shocking.” The Rangers rescinded their offer, and Dickey decided to re-enroll at the University of Tennessee.
“Then they called me the day before my first day of classes and said we’ll offer you $75,000, take it or leave it,” Dickey said. “They said it was all they had left in their budget. They had all of the leverage, of course. You step foot in a classroom, and you’re ineligible. I would have had to complete my senior year and hope another team would take a chance on me, but with that condition floating out there, who knows. So I decided to take the money.”
The experience was humbling for Dickey. For a while, he felt anger toward the team doctor, but he eventually channeled that anger into motivation, determined to shed the label of “the guy who is eventually going to break down.” It was this determination that led him to the knuckleball, a pitch that transformed and prolonged his career.
“To have some other human being who doesn’t know me intimately try to tell me what I am and am not capable of — that stuck with me,” Dickey said.
Dickey and Stewart look back on these experiences as painful but pivotal ones. It took time for them to learn to trust their bodies again, and to quell the feelings of insecurity that arose. But Dickey offered some optimism for Rocker as the young player enters his own uncertain chapter.
“You have these climax points in your journey, and he is in one,” Dickey said. “How he processes it will determine some of what happens in the end. He may win a World Series, and he may sign a 15-year contract for $700 million. But at some point, he will bounce off this moment. And that’s a big deal.”