Tim Benz: Vanderbilt pitchers are too good to pass on both. But be prepared for Pirates to do so anyway.

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  • Kumar Rocker
    American baseball player
  • Jack Leiter
    Jack Leiter
    American baseball player
  • Al Leiter
    Baseball player
  • Marc-Andre Fleury
    Marc-Andre Fleury
    Ice hockey player
  • Kevin Ingram
    American football player

Jun. 23—It's not to the same degree that Pittsburgh Penguins fans have adopted the Vegas Golden Knights as a second team, but some diehard Pirates fans have tracked Vanderbilt baseball with a similar interest.

Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker don't have Marc-Andre Fleury's cachet just yet in Pittsburgh. But they might someday ... if the Pirates are actually willing to draft one of the two Commodores pitchers with the first pick of the MLB Draft on July 11.

"If you're looking to bring in a guy who could be a starter for you for a long time potentially, I would say it would be hard to go wrong with either one of these guys," said Vanderbilt play-by-play man Kevin Ingram on Wednesday's "Breakfast With Benz" podcast.

Throughout much of the last two seasons, it appeared that Rocker, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound right-hander, was going to be a lock for that first pick. He's been tied to the Pirates for so long, I'm surprised the team store isn't already selling his No. 80 jersey.

In either Bucco black and gold or Vandy black and gold. Or both.

But as time has moved along this season, Leiter may have passed him on the draft board.

Leiter is the son of former MLB All-Star pitcher Al Leiter. His uncle (Mark Sr.) and cousin (Mark Jr.) also have MLB experience.

This season, Leiter is 10-4 with a 2.08 ERA, boasting 171 strikeouts against 42 walks in 104 innings pitched. Rocker is 13-3 with a 2.58 ERA, spinning 162 strikeouts to just 36 walks.

"They are similar in terms of the power stuff," Ingram said. "You'll see a mid-90s fastball out of both of them. You'll see a hard slider sitting somewhere at 85-86 usually. They both mix in a cutter that sits 89-91. Leiter will throw more of the 12-to-6 curveball. You'll see more of that out of him. They'll both go to a changeup every now and then. But it's mostly power stuff."

The only major difference between the two pitchers is size, according to Ingram. Rocker is about four inches taller and 40 pounds heavier.

The Commodores are now on the verge of elimination in the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. That's because Leiter lost a 1-0 game to N.C. State Monday when he was brilliant, notching 15 strikeouts and allowing just one solo homer.

Leiter and Rocker hold two important traits off the field as well. The first is poise having grown up around pro sports. We already gave you Leiter's bloodlines, and Rocker's dad is former NFL player Tracy Rocker.

The other is polish.

"These guys who come out of this program always seem to be really well prepared," Ingram said. "Scott Brown is a great pitching coach. The attention to detail. The science that goes into pitching. All the different monitoring and different things they can look at in terms of video work. It's very advanced in terms of how they evaluate these guys and help them grow as pitchers."

Yet most draft analysts now seem to think that the Pirates will pass on both college pitchers for longer-term projections on one of a host of high school shortstops. Marcelo Mayer (Eastlake HS, Calif.), Jordan Lawlar (Jesuit Preparatory School, Texas), Kahlil Watson (Wake Forest HS, N.C.) and Brady House (Winder-Barrow HS, Ga.) are all top-10 projections.

Why? A few reasons I suppose.

The Pirates still aren't planning to be all that good within the next two years by the time these pitchers are likely ready to debut. The Pirates are all about selling long-term development of their prospects, and the high school shortstops can incubate for a while before they get called up, whenever the Pirates are "targeting" (clears throat with skepticism) to be competitive at the MLB level.

Also, signing one of the high school shortstops may cost the franchise less, allowing them to spend more on other picks later in the draft.

OK, fine. But I'd rather get a guy who looks a lot like Gerrit Cole coming out of UCLA, instead of someone who may just be another version of Kevin Newman or Cole Tucker.

Not to mention, the Pirates have shortstop Oneil Cruz in Altoona (although a position change is possible with him). Then there is Nick Gonzales who was a middle infielder drafted in the first round out of New Mexico State a year ago. Plus, the franchise also has infielder Liover Peguero in high-A Greensboro. He was part of the Starling Marte trade.

I say go with Leiter or Rocker. The Pirates don't seem to agree. But, hey, they are usually right.

As their four winning seasons since the end of the 1992 playoffs clearly indicate.

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Also in our podcast, Vanderbilt plays again in the College World Series Wednesday. They need a win to stay alive against Stanford. Rocker and Leiter are not available to start because they've both been used already this week. We talk to Ingram about what they may do next.

We also get into how head coach Tim Corbin has built a dynasty in Nashville, the popularity of the team in the region and the return of the CWS in Omaha after coronavirus snuffed the event a year ago.

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Listen: Tim Benz talks with Vanderbilt play-by-play man Kevin Ingram about prospects Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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