In the 30 years of the Arizona Fall League, no player arrived at the developmental circuit with more fame than Michael Jordan. After His Airness, Tim Tebow and Bryce Harper would be the next-most famous participants.
Kumar Rocker, currently pitching for the Surprise Saguaros, might come in fourth on that list. Not that it matters to him at all. He's focused on getting his professional career started, a year later than expected.
"My stuff looks good, my body looks good," Rocker said. "I'm excited to see how far I've come."
Rocker starred in college at Vanderbilt. He pitched the Commodores to a national championship as a freshman in 2019, throwing a 19-strikeout no-hitter against Duke in the NCAA super regionals and earning two victories and Most Outstanding Player honors at the College World Series. After the truncated pandemic season in 2020, he topped NCAA Division I in wins (14) and strikeouts (179 in 122 innings, tying teammate Jack Leiter) in 2021 as Vanderbilt lost in the CWS finals.
The Mets drafted Rocker 10th overall that July and the two sides quickly agreed to a $6 million bonus. But New York developed concerns about his elbow and shoulder following a post-Draft physical, reduced its offer to $0 and chose to receive the No. 11 pick in 2022 rather than try to renegotiate.
Rocker quietly had shoulder surgery last September -- a fact that didn't become public knowledge until 10 months later -- and returned to the mound in the independent Frontier League in June. Though the No. 8 Rangers prospect ran his fastball to 99 mph and snapped off some of his trademark wipeout sliders, most clubs were stunned when the Rangers drafted him third overall in July. They signed him for a below-slot $5.2 million and used the bonus-pool savings to pay Brock Porter, MLB Pipeline's top-rated pitcher, $3.7 million in the fourth round.
Rocker spent most of his time since signing at the club's training base at Surprise, building up arm strength and preparing to pitch in the Fall League. The idea is to get him acclimated against the most advanced hitters he ever has faced so he'll be ready for his official pro debut next spring, perhaps in Double-A.
In his first two outings with the Saguaros, Rocker worked three scoreless innings while allowing just one hit and striking out three, albeit with five walks. He operated at 95-97 mph with his fastball and got all three of his whiffs with a mid-80s slider. His delivery was more upright and his arm slot was lower than it was at Vanderbilt.
Rocker said he's excited to be in the AFL, facing and learning from experienced players and getting the chance to compete.
“That was the biggest thing I was looking forward to,” Rocker said. “Being on a team with great talent, great skill guys who have been in the game for a little while. Double-A and Triple-A guys, just seeing what they have to say and learning from them.”
Rangers hitters in the Fall League
Luisangel Acuña, SS/2B (No. 7): The younger brother of Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr., Luisangel received a higher signing bonus than his sibling ($425,000 versus $100,000) when he signed out of Venezuela in 2018. He has the potential for solid or better tools across the board and hit .277/.369/.426 with 11 homers and 40 steals in 91 games between High-A and Double-A.
Aaron Zavala, OF (No. 11): One of the best pure hitters in the Texas system, Zavala batted .277/.420/.453 with 16 homers and 14 steals in 111 games between High-A and Double-A in his first full pro season. He was the Pacific-12 Conference player of the year and a second-round pick out of Oregon in 2021.
Jayce Easley, OF/INF: The son of former All-Star Damion Easley, Jayce was a 2018 fifth-round pick out of an Arizona high school and used his plus speed to lead the Minors with 70 steals in 2021. He batted .230/.372/.345 with 21 steals in 56 games in High-A this season.
Cody Freeman, C/3B: Yet another Rangers AFL participant with big league bloodlines, Freeman is the younger brother of Guardians infielder Tyler Freeman. A 2019 fourth-round pick as a California high schooler, he stands out with his bat-to-ball skills as well as his athleticism and leadership behind the plate. He hit .234/.312/.366 with 13 homers in 102 games in High-A.
Trevor Hauver, OF: Part of the Joey Gallo trade with the Yankees in July 2021, Hauver offers left-handed power and draws more than his share of walks. The Arizona State product batted .220/.387/.427 with 17 homers in 103 games between High-A and Double-A.
Rangers pitchers in the Fall League
Daniel Robert, RHP: A 21st-round pick from Auburn in 2017, Robert pairs a 95-98 mph fastball with a sweeping low-80s slider. He posted a 6.28 ERA with 48 strikeouts in 38 2/3 Triple-A innings.
Nick Starr, RHP: Starr operates with a 92-96 mph fastball and backs it up with a hard cutter and an upper-70s curveball. Selected in the 19th round out of NCAA Division II Southern Arkansas in 2018, he compiled a 2.05 ERA, .184 opponent average and 25 strikeouts in 30 2/3 Double-A innings this summer.
Grant Wolfram, LHP: Wolfram led NCAA Division II with 13 wins at Davenport (Mich.) in 2017 and signed as an 18th-rounder the following year. He showed a 93-97 mph fastball and mid-80s slider while logging a 4.21 ERA with 99 strikeouts in 66 1/3 Double-A innings.