The Major League Draft is both rewarding and costly to Rick Heller

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Rick Heller is all smiles with Robert Neustrom preparing to hit. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa – For a college baseball coach like Rick Heller, the Major League Baseball Draft is both rewarding and costly.

It’s a reason to be proud, but also a reason to be concerned, because on one hand, Heller is thrilled when one of his players gets selected in the draft because it is a reward for all of the hard work put forth by that player and the start of a journey that could have life-changing ramifications.

But on the other hand, Heller has reason to be concerned after losing his All-Big Ten right fielder to the draft on Tuesday, along with on Wednesday three pitchers, including his top starter and ace reliever, and maybe one of his top incoming recruits.

Robert Neustrom will skip his senior season at Iowa after the Baltimore Orioles selected the All-Big Ten right fielder from Sioux City in the fifth round on Tuesday.

All-Big Ten pitcher Nick Allgeyer and top reliever Zach Daniels, both of whom would be seniors next season, also have told Heller they will turn pro after being selected in the draft on Wednesday.

Allgeyer was taken in the 12th round by the Toronto Blue Jays, while Daniels went in the 19th round to the Atlanta Braves.

Pitcher Brady Schanuel is also expected to turn pro after being selected in the 27th round by the Milwaukee Brewers.

And there is a strong possibility that Heller could lose junior-college shortstop Korry Howell to the draft after he was selected in the 12th round by the Milwaukee Brewers.

Heller ultimately wants what is best for his players, so to have four current players with eligibility still remaining and an incoming recruit all selected within the first 27 rounds is cause for celebration despite how it might affect his team.

“It certainly is rewarding because that’s why those guys come here,” Heller said. “And to know that if they come to Iowa, they’re going to continue to get better. Our staff does a great job of player development, which is what we hang our hats on and what we talk to recruits about. And the proof is in the pudding with the amount of guys we’ve had drafted in the five years we’ve been here.

“But it can hurt you because we’re not a school or a program that goes out and really over recruits and puts yourself in a position where if they don’t sign, you’ve got to cut kids. It’s very, very touchy and difficult to manage and try to stay competitive year after year.”

Senior catcher Tyler Cropley also was selected in the draft on Tuesday as the Washington Nationals picked him in the eighth round. He is the only Hawkeye among the five taken in the draft with no eligibility remaining.

Heller was prepared for Neustrom to be gone, because Heller figured that barring an injury, his star right fielder would be picked high enough in the draft to where it wouldn’t make sense to return to college.

Heller also figured that Allgeyer, Daniels and Schanuel would turn pro because all three are juniors and wouldn’t have nearly as much bargaining power next year as seniors.

But just because Heller was prepared to lose some of his best players to the draft still doesn’t make it less costly.

Imagine Iowa next season with Neustrom in right field, Allgeyer, Daniels and Schanuel on the mound and Howell playing shortstop or another position where his athleticism could shine.

It's sort of like a football team losing its starting quarterback and leading rusher, and Heller agreed.

“You’re talking big, losses and it’s not always easy to cover yourself when that happens based on how things work,” Heller said. “So year, it’s a big challenge and something we probably talk about every single day of the year, how do we plan for this or that or what’s going to happen?

“Nobody has a crystal ball, and with a lot of the guys, it depends on the kind of year they have that spring. So you really can’t with good conscious give their scholarship away thinking that they will be gone when it’s based on how well they performed that season. And then if they get hurt, it’s just a very difficult thing to manage.””

So far, Heller has done more reloading than rebuilding during his five seasons at Iowa.

He lost his top two starting pitchers from the 2017 team when Nick Gallagher and C.J. Eldred both chose to turn pro despite having eligibility remaining.

All-America first baseman Jake Adams also skipped his senior season to enter the draft after leading the nation with 29 home runs as a junior in 2017.

“It’s the life of a college baseball coach and your program is developing kids,” Heller said. “You just try to keep them rolling down the line and guys step in and fill the holes.”

Heller can certainly use the draft as a recruiting tool and he often does when trying to sell his program. Iowa’s success in the draft, which includes 20 players selected since 2014, and its current streak of five consecutive 30-winning seasons are good selling points.

The Iowa baseball program is now relevant under Heller, but there is a price to pay with being relevant, especially during the draft.