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Is Rocker a slam dunk for Bucs’ top pick?

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College World Series - Vanderbilt v Michigan - Game Two Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

Plenty of unknowns await baseball fans with regard to the 2021 season, thanks in large part to COVID-19. But a few things have been sorted out in recent weeks, most notably the structure of the minor leagues, particularly as it applies to the Pirates.

Last week it became clear that the minors would feature four basic levels of play beyond rookie ball – Triple A, Double A, high A and low A — and the Pirates would field clubs in Indianapolis, Altoona, Greensboro, N.C., and Bradenton, Fla., respectively, barring any last-minute changes.

It also became clear recently that the 2021 first-year player draft would take place a little later than it has in the past – specifically during the MLB All-Star break in July. The 2021 game will be played in Atlanta.

For months now Pirate fans have been extolling the virtues of Vanderbilt pitcher Kumar Rocker and hoping the Bucs would make the big right-hander their top pick come July. They point to Rocker’s raw stuff, his size, his competitive nature and his accomplishments as a freshman at Vanderbilt as proof that he’s a worthy1.1 selection.

But is Rocker a slam dunk to go No. 1? Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com isn’t so sure.

Earlier this month, Mayo and Jim Callis, his partner on the MLB Pipeline podcast, took turns making the first 10 picks in the July draft, and Mayo – who is based in Pittsburgh – passed on both Rocker and his highly regarded Commodore teammate, Jack Leiter, when it came time to picking No. 1 for the Pirates.

Instead, Mayo opted for high school shortstop Jordan Lawlar as the top selection. In a follow-up article posted on MLB Thursday, Mayo said he didn’t make the pick because he thought the Pirates would go in that direction, nor did he think Lawlar was the “clear choice” at No. 1. Instead, Mayo indicated that people just might want to hold their horses before anointing Rocker as the slam dunk No. 1 pick.

So, what do we know about Jordan Lawlar? And should the fact that four of the Pirates’ top 12 prospects – according to MLB.com – either play shortstop or are capable of playing there dissuade the club from adding yet another one to the fold? To answer the second question first, Mayo said it would be a mistake to worry about position depth at this point and instead the Pirates should take the best player available. That’s particularly true in this case, given that none of the four – Nick Gonzales, Oneil Cruz, Liover Peguero and Ji-Hwan Bae — is a lock to stick at shortstop into the big leagues. All might be better served to move elsewhere, particularly Cruz and his 6-foot-7 frame.

As for Lawlar, he’s a 6-foot 2, 185-pound right-handed hitter from Jesuit College Prep in Dallas who will turn 19 a few days after the draft. MLB.com put him at the top of its high school rankings following a solid summer and said he was “as close to Bobby Witt Jr., the No. 2 overall pick in 2019, as this class has.” Baseball America, meanwhile, has him as the No. 2-ranked prep performer behind fellow shortstop Brady House of Georgia but noted that Lawlar is giving House a run for his money at the No. 1 spot.

Prospectsworldwide.com notes that Lawlar has talent worthy of the top pick in the draft but wouldn’t call him a lock for No. 1, instead saying he’s a likely top five selection. “An impact player on a championship caliber team on both sides of the ball,” the site said in describing Lawlar, calling him the prototypical No. 2 hitter with plus-plus bat control and a solid run producer. The site likens him to the Red Sox’ Zander Bogaerts in terms of his frame.

MLB.com’s top high school pitching prospect is Andrew Painter, a 6-7 right-hander from Florida whom the website describes as having a “legitimate three-pitch mix – a fastball up to 96 mph, a slider thrown typically 84-86 mph and a mid-80s changeup – and he folds in a curve as well.” Baseball America also has Painter as its top high school arm in what it calls “a deep crop of arms.”

The point of this is to emphasize that Rocker is not a given No. 1 choice at this point, with the draft nearly seven months away. With any luck – and an effective vaccine – these prospects and others will have the opportunity to show their wares on high school and college diamonds this spring, and give Ben Cherington, Steve Sanders and the rest of the Pirates brain trust a chance to properly evaluate their talents and see which one makes the most sense at 1.1.