In an alternate universe, Brent Rooker is playing for Class A Advanced Fort Myers in the Twins' system. OK, that's this universe as well. But in this other reality, the former Mississippi State slugger is in the midst of his first full season, having signed with the Twins as a 38th-round pick in 2016. That was nearly the case.
"I got some calls earlier [in the 2016 Draft], but I kind of shook them off and the Twins ended up taking me in the 38th round anyways," Rooker said. "They came up to [the Cape Cod Baseball League] to watch me and ended up making an offer with some of the money they had left over. It was certainly good enough to make me think things over, but from the beginning, I had thought it was better to have another year of development under me before I went pro. I won't lie though. There were some moments in the fall or here there where doubt crept in, but I'm glad I stayed faithful to the original plan."
He's proving to be worth the wait.
The 22-year-old first baseman/outfielder went on to win the SEC Triple Crown in his final season with at Mississippi State and showed enough improvements -- both statistically and mechanically -- to jump from the 38th round in 2016 to the 35th overall pick year. He's now considered Minnesota's No. 14 prospect and has already climbed from Rookie-level Elizabethton to Fort Myers in his third month of pro ball.
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Rooker's climb was the result of a 12-to-18-month process after he turned down the Twins' initial offer last summer -- one that had a chance to be fairly substantial, despite the fact that he was taken in the third-to-last round of the 2016 Draft. Minnesota decided to take a chance on the slugger after he'd hit .324/.376/.578 with 11 homers in 58 games as a redshirt sophomore, and after signing each of their picks from the first 10 rounds as well as 11th-rounder Tyler Benninghoff for $600,000, the Twins still had a little more than $500,000 left in their bonus pool. Signing Rooker to anything above $100,000 would have counted against that pool, so there was some negotiating room.
Instead, he made a big bet on himself, going back to Starkville for what would be his redshirt junior season -- but not before signing a customary document giving the Twins permission to take him again in the 2017 Draft. For that bet to pay off, Rooker had to work on his swing and approach at the plate. As a first baseman with the Bulldogs, his bat would drive his value in both college and the pros. Around preseason scrimmages in January and February, he could feel something click.
"I had a backwards move going on whenever I got ready to swing," he said. "That messed with my timing, and it'd take longer to get into my load. Eliminating that negative move backward allows me to get more into my hips and moving forward a lot quicker. That allows me to react better to off-speed pitches, and I can see velocity better too."
It didn't take long for results to follow. He became the second player ever to win the SEC Triple Crown by hitting .387 with 23 homers and 82 RBIs. The other was fellow Bulldog legend Rafael Palmerio in 1984. He set a school record with 30 doubles. His .810 slugging percentage was the highest among all Division I hitters. The awards rolled in as well -- All-SEC First Team, SEC Player of the Year, Golden Spikes Award finalist. It was clear that Rooker wouldn't be available in the 38th round again in 2017.
Where he would fall, however, was still up in the air. He had dominated, but as a 22-year-old who turns 23 in November, he was essentially a senior dominating lowerclassmen. He also didn't have much bargaining power, having already graduated with a double major in business management and administration. MLB.com had him slated as the Draft's No. 50 overall prospect, putting him around the second round in terms of talent. The Twins instead came calling in Collective Balance Round A at No. 35 overall and signed him days later to the full-slot $1.935 million bonus.
"This year, the expectations were higher, and that made it a more fun process for me," he said. "We had a range of picks that we thought I could go in, and I ended up falling right in the middle. There were still some nerves there. I was a little anxious, but there was a comfort level that really I had done all I could to put myself in the best possible position for this. ... I still obviously didn't know what teams would think because I was year older and I'm a corner-first player defensively. I thought if I could keep my head down, do the best I could, help my team win, I had confidence the Draft would go fine."
It didn't take long for the right-handed slugger to take off in the pros. Now ranked as the No. 14 prospect in the Twins' system, he homered in his third and fourth games of pro ball with Elizabethton, and by July 17 was hitting .282/.364/.588 with an Appalachian League-best seven homers in 22 games. The Twins then promoted him past Class A Cedar Rapids and sent him straight to Fort Myers. An aggressive but justified move for a slugger dominating Rookie-level pitching, Rooker claimed it had been the plan since he signed. The Twins have a history of aggressive promotion, having sent 2015 first-rounder Tyler Jay -- Minnesota's only other college first-rounder in the last five Drafts -- to Fort Myers back in 2015.
Rooker's numbers with the Miracle haven't been as great -- .232/.308/.402 line in 23 games -- but he has turned it on lately, going 11-for-35 (.314) with three homers in his last nine games. Statistics for players in their Draft years aren't always predictive because they come after already long college or high school seasons, with prospects still adjusting to the everyday nature of the pro game. It's a little different with a player of Rooker's ilk, however. Before his Mississippi State breakout, Rooker spent the 2015 summer in the New England Collegiate Baseball League with Plymouth and 2016 in the vaunted Cape Cod Baseball League with Brewster. He showed promise in the latter -- the most highly celebrated summer circuit for college prospects -- hitting .305/.338/.426 with three homers in 35 games on the way to an All-Star spot. Getting in dozens of extra games with a wood bat in his hands set him up for the Florida State and Appalachian Leagues to come.
"Whether it was Plymouth or Brewster, I was getting in 60 games in college and 40 more in the summer," he said. "The Minors are obviously a lot longer, but after playing about 100 games a year the last two years, it's not as big a shock. I just have to worry about getting used to competing at this level, rather than how I can handle the amount of games."
Not just the game prep, but the level of competition prepared him for the arms he'd face in the FSL.
"The first day after Arizona eliminated us from the Super Regionals, I got in a plane to head to the Cape," he said. "I was off by the plane by 3, in the batter's box around 6:30 and I'm facing J.B Bukauskas, who's throwing 96-98 with a wipeout slider. That was an instructional day right off the bat, for sure. But I'd faced guys like Corbin Martin from Texas A&M and Brady Singer from Florida too. Every team has three or four arms that could go in the first round. There's no escaping it."
There are still plenty of adjustments to come for the former Bulldogs star. He admits the individualization of pro ball was an initial surprise, compared to the universal approach to development undertaken in the college ranks. He'll see better command from pitchers, and his new mechanical changes will be challenged by even more velocity the higher he climbs. His defensive position also remains up in the air. Rooker played exclusively in left field in Elizabethton, but he's gone back to splitting time between left and first in Fort Myers. He'll take whatever approach gets him to the Majors first.
"It's in the best interest of both me and the organization, I think," Rooker said. "It gives me more options as I work my way up, and for them, it gets my bat in the lineup because obviously that's what they're looking for. I'll continue to work hard at both, and we'll see how things go."
For now, he's a slugger first and foremost, albeit perhaps a different one than he would have been had he signed with the Twins in 2016.
"It's cool how it worked out," he said. "It shows how bad that they wanted me bad enough to come get me again. It was honestly a tough decision, and we talked for a while about me coming here last year. I thought it'd be best to go back to school, but to be with them again, obviously the front office likes me. That's a great feeling."