At this time last year, Kumar Rocker was the consensus No. 1 pick in the MLB draft. Only weeks ago, it looked like Vanderbilt teammate Jack Leiter had surpassed him.
Next month, either one of them could suddenly be there at No. 4 for the Red Sox. And here's the $6 million question -- will they bite?
Depends on whom you ask. Rival scouts and evaluators seem torn between the Red Sox grabbing the best Vandy pitcher available vs. the traditionally safer pick of a position player, possibly Louisville catcher Henry Davis if he happens to slide.
It is the question that will no doubt consume the club's amateur scouting department over the next month as the Red Sox prepare to make their highest selection in more than five decades.
"Our scouts have been out for a while," chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said recently. "It's not just that fourth pick, but the whole draft, we want to make sure we've got all the work done. We obviously still have a ways to go. Looks that have happened, when seasons end, you can't get those looks back. So our group has been out in force in a lot of places throughout the country. We have more work to do, but we feel like we're in a pretty good position."
Normally the draft is held in June, but MLB moved it to All-Star weekend this year on July 11. That gives the Red Sox some extra time to make a decision, and they'll use it scouting the College World Series, where Rocker and Leiter are leading the Commodores in pursuit of their third national title.
Leiter (156) and Rocker (155) rank Nos. 1 and 2 in the nation in strikeouts. The former is 10-3 with a 2.16 ERA, while the latter is 13-3 with a 2.46 ERA. In a Super Regional sweep of East Carolina last weekend, Rocker struck out 11 in 7.2 innings of a 2-0 victory, while Leiter followed with seven innings of one-run ball and 10 strikeouts in a 4-1 win the next day.
Leiter is the more polished pitcher -- perhaps befitting his lineage as the son of two-time All-Star left-hander Al Leiter -- while the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Rocker possesses better pure stuff. They're widely considered the best two pitchers in this year's draft, and it's not out of the question that they go 1-2 overall to the Pirates and Rangers, respectively. But recent indicators have the top two clubs targeting high school shortstops Marcelo Mayer and Jordan Lawlar.
If they go 1-2, it ensures that one of the Vandy right-handers will be there for Boston. Fangraphs recently reported that Leiter is trying to "price himself" down to the Red Sox, but such a move could backfire, especially if the Red Sox decide they'd rather sign the fourth pick for something below the roughly $6.6 million slotted to the selection, thereby leaving more of their $11.36 million bonus pool for future choices.
It's also not clear where Bloom falls on the pitcher vs. position player debate this high in a draft. He used his first two picks last year on high school hitters. During his days with the Rays, Tampa used top-10 picks on right-hander Wade Townsend and left-hander David Price, himself a Vanderbilt grad, but also on position players Evan Longoria and Tim Beckham.
Between 2011, when Bloom was promoted to Tampa's director of baseball operations, and 2019, when he left for the Red Sox, the Rays made 24 first-round picks, including the supplemental round. They took 10 pitchers and 14 position players, with their best pick being future Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell at No. 52 overall. Only three times did they use their first pick on a pitcher, and one of them was Louisville two-way standout Brendan McKay, who's currently returning from shoulder surgery and hopes to follow the Shohei Ohtani model.
McKay presents an intriguing parallel. The Rays selected him No. 4 overall in 2017 and then signed him to a $7 million bonus, which was a record for the post-2012 slot era. If Leiter hopes to price himself down to the Red Sox, McKay should give him some inspiration.
Both Vandy pitchers have exhibited some red flags, however. Leiter was scratched from a start vs. Alabama in May because of fatigue. Rocker has occasionally struggled with command, and allowed at least five runs in starts against Arkansas, Alabama, and Georgia, the last a 14-2 loss.
Because pitchers are more likely to be injured and return zero on a team's investment, there are rumblings that the Red Sox would rather play it safe with someone like Davis, himself a candidate to be picked first overall. The slugging backstop checks all the boxes as a hitter and receiver, and could race through the minor leagues.
It's also worth noting that the industry as a whole views position players as safer bets than pitchers. All Bloom will say is that the Red Sox recognize their opportunity.
"Really it just comes down to using every pick we have to just add as much talent as we can to the organization," he said.
"It's maybe the greatest three-day opportunity to add talent that we have and we want just to maximize it. Usually that means just taking the best guy at every pick. Sometimes there might be different things you do to try to use your bonus pool as well as you can, but at the end of it, we want to come out feeling like we maximized that opportunity to add talent to the organization.
"Where we're picking this year, we have a chance for that talent to have a little greater impact than if we were picking at the back half of the first round. But really wherever it is, we just want to line up the board the right way so that we can make good decisions."