The Pittsburgh Pirates have the number one overall pick in the draft, and while many have them taking Dylan Crews, Paul Skenes is a player that's been thrown around in talks. But the Texas Rangers are a cautionary tale the Pirates should take note of if there's any thought of taking a pitcher that early in the draft.
The upcoming 2023 MLB draft will have some of the most hyped college talents many have ever seen in their lives. There’s been plenty of talk about who the Pittsburgh Pirates will pick number one overall, and many have the Bucs taking LSU outfielder Dylan Crews. But his teammate and top draft pitching prospect Paul Skenes has also been thrown into the conversation by some.
If Crews is the most talented position player prospect the draft has seen in a decade-plus, then Skenes is the most talented pitcher the draft has seen in a decade-plus. However, the 2021 draft is a cautionary tale of why Crews needs to be the pick.
Let’s look at the two top starting pitching prospects from the 2021 draft. They were both aces at Vanderbilt, and that was Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker. Leiter was taken second overall by the Texas Rangers in 2021. At the time, there was no question that he was the top pitching prospect in the draft. After a highly dominant season at Vandy, the Rangers took him over some other players, like Marcelo Mayer or Jordan Lawlar, who could have gone second overall.
Rocker was then taken with the tenth overall pick by the New York Mets. Rocker was arguably equally as dominant for Vandy in 2021. At one point, Rocker was considered the draft’s best prospect. However, concerns about his velocity and health arose near the end of the college season, which caused him to drop down to ten. The Mets then became highly suspicious of his medicals, and the two sides could not come to an agreement.
Rocker then pitched for the Frontier League Tri-City ValleyCats to start 2022 with the intent of re-entering the MLB draft. Many didn’t see Rocker going early in the draft, but the Rangers surprised everyone by taking him third overall, just one pick later than his former and now teammate Leiter went. It was an under-slot pick but an instance of a starting pitching prospect getting drafted in the top three picks.
So how have both Leiter and Rocker worked out for the Rangers? Well, Leiter is in his second season at Double-A, where he has an ERA over 4.30. That is an improvement from 5.54 last season, but still not great. Leiter has punched out 32.6% of the batters he’s faced but has also allowed 14.1% to reach via free pass and has an HR/9 of 1.45. So far, he’s yet to post a FIP below 5.00.
On the other hand, Rocker has gotten off to a pretty decent start to his affiliated career. He’s only pitched 28 innings for the Rangers’ High-A affiliate, and while his 3.86 ERA doesn’t jump off the page, he’s struck out 37.8% of opponents, has a strong 6.3% walk rate, and has allowed just two home runs with a GB% above 50% (51.6%). However, the long-term effects of pitching 236 innings in college, plus the frames he threw in Vanderbilt’s postseason runs and the 20 more innings for the ValleyCats, have seemingly caught up to him. Rocker will undergo the always dreaded Tommy John surgery, and it’s likely he won’t return until he is in his age-25 season.
That’s not to say that Skenes will be a bust or get injured in his first professional season and then miss multiple seasons. Not to mention that Skenes has been ten times more dominant for Louisiana than either Rocker or Leiter ever were at Vanderbilt. Skenes has a sub-2.00 ERA (1.69), has struck out over 50% of the batters he’s faced (50.5% to be exact), and has a walk rate under 5% (4.7%), all while maintaining an upper-90s fastball late into games. Those are numbers that Leiter and Rocker could have only dreamed of posting in college. That’s also not to say that there’s never been a pitcher taken early in the draft, and it’s worked out well, nor has every position player taken first overall was a super star. Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and David Price were all taken within the first three picks. Meanwhile, Delmon Young, Tim Beckham, and Mickey Moniak are first overall picks who's major league careers have not, or did not come within the same zipcode to their expectations.
However, the Texas Rangers and their 2021 (and subsequent draft in 2022) are good examples of the major risk you take when drafting a pitcher over a position player, and something the Pirates need to keep in mind when drafting. Looking back in hindsight, they would have been much better off taking the best available position player at that time. In 2021, that was Marcelo Mayer, while in 2022, that was Termarr Johnson, who the Pirates took after Rocker was selected.