Will the Rangers Pass on Potential Ace For Prep Player?

With the 2021 MLB Draft just three months away, will the Texas Rangers select a prep shortstop over a polished college pitcher?
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The 2021 MLB Draft is just under three months away. Based on last season's performance, the Texas Rangers currently hold the second pick in this year's draft. The general consensus in the industry is that their are three players in this draft who will all go within the first three picks. However, the order in which they get drafted is anybody's guess. 

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Those players include Vanderbilt pitchers Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter, as well as Dallas area prep shortstop Jordan Lawlar. Many of the top experts have changed their tune on who could wind up going to Texas with MLB and The Athletic predicting that Lawlar will remain in Texas with the Rangers. 

But is Lawlar to the Rangers realistic? Leiter has proven he is the best pitcher in college this season and has been dominate to the tune of a 1.49 ERA and 102 strikeouts over 60.1 innings. However, he does not have as long of a track record as his teammate. Yet, it seems almost certain at this point, just under three months from the draft, that the Pittsburgh Pirates will draft Leiter. That means that as of today, Lawlar and Rocker seem the likely two options remaining with the second pick.

Lawlar has been incredible this season, but his previous was shortened by COVID-19 which meant scouts have had less time to get eyes on him. He is generally regarded as the best raw prospect in this draft, but the question remains of his fit with the club. 

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The Rangers have been heavily linked to shortstop Trevor Story and there have been reports that Texas will make a run at the superstar this winter. If that is the case, then does Lawlar really fit into the rebuilding plans of the Rangers, especially if Story is offered a long-term contract that players of his caliber have been receiving over the last couple of offseasons? 

Additionally, the club already is deep with shortstops in the system. Generally speaking a team should draft the best player available, but if the Rangers' window of contention will be wide open in 2023 or 2024 then a top pick this season, especially a college player, could make and impact in those seasons.

For the reason above it would make sense for Texas to draft Rocker. Much like his teammate Leiter, Rocker's ERA sits down at 1.55 but his strikeouts, while still impressive, are less so than Leiter's with 89 punch outs over 64 innings. Some of that can be contributed to his dip in velocity over the middle part of this season which saw his usually upper 90s fastball dip down to around 92 MPH. 

Generally, this would be cause for concern, but Rocker is an exceptional talent who was able to use his command and secondary pitches to still be one of the most effective pitchers in college this season. However, the dip in velocity and subsequent decline in performances has seen him slip from first on most draft boards to second or third.

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An explanation for Rocker's temporary dip in velocity could be as simple fatigue as this season has been much longer than last season due to COVID-19. It would make sense for fatigue to begin to set in around this portion of the season. Luckily, he has seen his velocity increase and in his last two starts he has looked just as lethal as he did to start the season. 

Rocker represents a player with a higher ceiling than Leiter, is polished, and projects to be a top of the rotation starter for any team. If he progressed on time, like Leiter, then he would arrive in Arlington just in time to help the team when the window for contention is wide open. 

Who the Rangers draft will determine their philosophy heading forward. Drafting Lawlar likely signals the "best prospect available" approach and the development process will take longer. If Texas decides to go the Rocker, or even Leiter route, depending on how their seasons finish, then the Rangers are signaling their intent to have a top pitching prospect arrive in Arlington in time for contention.

As of now, prior to the draft, there is no "wrong" answer for Texas. It won't be for years down the road that we will learn what the "right" answer was. 

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