Rocker makes AFL debut: 'He's going to be something special'

October 5th, 2022

SURPRISE, Ariz. – Kumar Rocker fired his first pitches with “Rangers” splayed across his chest Tuesday night at Surprise Stadium, home to Texas’ Spring Training complex.

The velocity was there. The snap on his breaking pitches was there. And for the first time since he was chosen with the third overall pick in the 2022 Draft, the crowd was there.

Rocker worked one scoreless frame for the Saguaros, consistently sitting at 95-96 mph with his heater, ramping it up as high as 97. He threw just nine of his 28 pitches for strikes and walked the bases loaded, but ultimately escaped unscathed with one strikeout to his credit. The punchout came off Mariners' No. 21 prospect Robert Perez Jr., who swung at three sliders that were down and out of the zone.

“He looked really good,” Saguaros catcher Cody Freeman said. “He was around the zone a little bit, but he got back in there and pounded it. He’s going to be something special.”

Freeman, a fourth-round selection by Texas in the 2019 Draft out of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., was the lone Surprise hitter to produce a multihit outing in Peoria’s 6-4 victory. Tuesday marked his first time catching Rocker, the club’s No. 8 prospect.

Rocker’s path to pitching in affiliated ball has been arduous: taken with the 10th overall pick by the Mets in the 2021 Draft, the hard-throwing righty did not sign after concerns emerged from a physical. He was thus eligible to be taken in ‘22 and the Rangers surprised many prognosticators by taking him as early as they did.

The 6-foot-5 right-hander featured a revamped motion with Surprise, which was much more rigid and upright than during his college days. His stuff was fastball-heavy, and he went through a stretch of throwing seven consecutive balls, eventually resulting in Freeman jogging to the mound for a visit.

“I was just giving him a little breather,” said Freeman, who caught a pair of no-hitters earlier this summer with High-A Hickory. “I told him to relax and enjoy the moment.”

The outing marked the first time Rocker took the hill since a five-start stint with the Tri-City ValleyCats of the independent Frontier League this summer. The 22-year-old dominated over his 20 innings there, striking out 32 batters with four walks on his ledger. He yielded just three earned runs and showcased his top-tier arsenal, setting the stage for Texas to select him as its first-round pick this past June.

Following the pageantry surrounding Rocker, fellow Rangers pitching prospect Grant Wolfram picked up the momentum and ran with it. The 6-foot-6 southpaw walked the first batter he faced and then promptly struck out six consecutive hitters swinging.

“He’s a strike thrower and he has some nasty stuff, as you could tell,” Freeman said.

Wolfram, an 18th-round pick out of Davenport University (Mich.) in 2018, ramped up his fastball as high as 95 mph for his first punchout, with three of his K’s coming on the heater. Across 39 outings for Double-A Frisco during the regular season, his high was five strikeouts, even as he averaged 11.2 K/9.

Surprise’s first offensive jolt came off the bat of Rangers No. 7 prospect Luisangel Acuna, who connected for a two-run homer to left-center field in the eighth. The younger brother of Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr., the shortstop compiled a .900 OPS in 54 games at High-A, earning a promotion to Frisco during the summer at just 20 years old. 

Peoria’s offense was kicked into gear by Mariners bats for the second consecutive contest. Seattle’s No. 14 prospect Alberto Rodriguez opened the scoring with an opposite-field double in the fifth that plated Padres top prospect Jackson Merrill, who reached with a rocket single and then promptly stole second base.

Merrill was back at it in the sixth, slashing an RBI triple down the right-field line. MLB’s No. 83 overall prospect capped his impressive performance with a sacrifice fly in the eighth.

While five Javelinas hurlers combined to blank the Saguaros over the front seven frames, the relief corps was on high alert in the top of the sixth when Mariners outfielder Spencer Packard walloped a two-run roundtripper into his club’s bullpen beyond the right-field fence. Packard, who produced an .888 OPS in 69 games at High-A Everett, also drew two walks in his Fall League debut.