For all of its historic struggles on the field, Northwestern baseball has never failed to churn out big leaguers. Last year, five former Wildcats appeared in a Major League game, tied for second most among Big Ten Teams. In total, 47 players have been drafted under Coach Paul Stevens’ 30-year tenure.
Stevens says four more names could be added to that list when Major League Baseball holds its annual Amateur Draft June 8-10: Kyle Ruchim, Matt Portland, Brandon Magallones and Scott Heelan.
Next month, fifth-year senior Kyle Ruchim should become the fourth Northwestern player to be drafted twice. Ruchim turned down a contract from the St. Louis Cardinals last year, hoping to get healthy and improve his stock for 2015.
For much of the season, he did just that, hitting .362 (third best in the Big Ten) through the end of April. He flashed pop with a career-high six home runs and versatility by moving from second base to centerfield. That probably helped his draft stock, but Ruchim suffered an oblique injury in the Wildcats' last series in April against Ohio State, sidelining him for two weeks and weakening him for upcoming showcases.
“There's going to be people interested in him because he's healthy now,” Stevens said, “I mean, he didn't do things envisioned himself doing but I'm telling you he's close. He will be hitting balls out of the ballpark and tearing people up as he goes along, that's for sure."
Ruchim will work out for the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets, and scouts from other teams may be in attendance. Ruchim said last month that teams are looking at him largely as a second baseman, where his bat would be more valuable.
Stevens was reluctant to project where most Wildcats might be taken, but earlier this month he forecasted that Matt Portland could be taken in “the low teens.” That may not sound promising (the NFL and NBA drafts don’t even last that long) but Ruchim was a 39th round pick last season. Of the 32 Wildcats selected since 1994, five went before the 15th round.
Portland emerged as Northwestern’s ace this season, leading the club in ERA (earned run average), innings pitched and strikeouts. He can touch 94 mph with good command of his changeup and a developing breaking pitch, according to Stevens.
Teammate Brandon Magallones possesses a similar arsenal, but can throw a mile or two per hour harder. He struggled to a 5.55 ERA this year, but that has not scared off scouts. Major League talent evaluators look primarily at strikeouts, where both pitchers have excelled. Portland and Magallones finished 11th and 13th in the conference in that department in 2015, and Magallones led the entire Big Ten in 2014.
Both should add velocity as they start their professional careers, though Stevens emphasized that wasn’t their most important weapon as they head into the Minor Leagues.
“That’s going to be one component,” Stevens said, “but the way that they can throw their breaking balls and their changeups are going to be major assets to the two of them.”
Portland and Magallones’ battery mate, Scott Heelan, is getting looks, as well. Despite being eligible to be drafted since 2013, Heelan has yet to receive a call from a Major League team in either of the last two drafts. Stevens chalks that up to his small stature as well as Heelan’s own unwillingness to sign until he graduated – the 5’10 catcher sat out his sophomore year at Virginia before transferring to Northwestern, preventing him from graduating in what was technically his senior season
Heelan hit .332 this season, 12th best in the Big Ten, and improved behind the dish. Stevens says he sees shades of the first player he ever coached to the Majors: current Yankees manager and former All-Star catcher Joe Girardi.
“He’s someone who has been on the radar just because of the way he swings a bat,” Stevens said. ”But he did a tremendous job this year of catching and controlling [the game] in ways that even Joe Girardi did.”
The MLB draft is not like that of the NFL. While former NU football players like Kyle Prater and Trevor Siemian are all but guaranteed to play in the NFL simply by virtue of being signed or drafted, a late round baseball pick faces slim odds to make the Majors, simply because of the amount of development usually needed to break through at the highest professional level and the amount of other prospects they compete against. Of the 65 players (18 of whom went undrafted) to sign a professional contract under Stevens' tenure, just six went onto the majors. Starting June 8, Ruchim, Portland, Magallones and Heelan will do their best to buck that trend.