Rick Heller, Hawkeyes anxious for First-Year Player Draft

Chad Leistikow
Iowa’s Tyler Peyton made a move onto scouts’ radar with a strong season that included a 7-4 record and 3.03 ERA. He led Iowa in innings (95) and strikeouts (74) and was the winning pitcher in the school’s first NCAA regional win since 1972.

Rick Heller this week was facing one of the stressful side effects of Iowa's baseball success: The circling shark known as the MLB draft.

Perhaps the biggest factor in shaping the Hawkeyes' 2016 roster will be determined Monday through Wednesday as the 40-round First-Year Player Draft unfolds.

The Hawkeyes are accepting that, as much as he loved being at Iowa, junior right-hander Blake Hickman is probably gone. He is projected to command a signing bonus in the high six figures, if not low sevens, after a first-team all-Big Ten Conference season in his first year as a full-time pitcher.

The big uncertainties, though, for Heller are with junior pitcher Tyler Peyton — a pivotal two-way player during the Hawkeyes' stirring 41-18 season — and at least five members of the incoming recruiting class, ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten by Perfect Game.

As Heller pointed out, it just takes one franchise out of 30 to fall in love with one of his players.

"That's the scary thing at this level, is that anybody you sign is probably going to be on somebody's draft list," Heller said. "You just don't know. You hope that all of (the recruits) are rational enough to see that there's more of a benefit of going to school."

The biggie for Heller to sweat out is Peyton, who broke into Baseball America's list of Top 500 draft prospects after upping his fastball by 3-4 mph into the low 90s since last year and showing moxie as Iowa's Friday-night starter.

"I know scouts really like him a lot," Heller said, "and there's a good chance he will get what he wants."

Peyton's dad, Byron, is a longtime coach at Dallas Center-Grimes and is in the unique position of having input with one Iowa's top recruits, Mustangs senior right-hander Cole Baker. The DC-G coach is well-educated on how college juniors like his son hold more leverage over seniors of similar ability, because they have the option of returning to school.

Tyler Peyton batted a team-high .337 for the Hawkeyes, so if he goes pro, Heller would have to replace a key pitcher and his starting first baseman. Byron said it's a win-win for his son: Fulfill a professional dream or return for his senior season at Iowa.

"He's got two different options there, and both of them are real good options," Byron said. "It's just going to come down to which one has the most value to him."

Other third-year Iowa players that teams could take a flyer on are left-handed pitcher Ryan Erickson (whose fastball can reach the low-90s), right-hander Connor Grant and outfielder Joel Booker.

Oh, and Hickman, who is a top-75 prospect — which would put him in the first two rounds that will air starting at 6 p.m. CT Monday on MLB Network. Any player chosen in the top 61 overall is slotted for a signing bonus of at least $1 million, per Baseball America. A fifth-round pick is slotted for between $300,000 and $400,000.

"I've heard second round. I've heard third round, fourth round, fifth round," Hickman said. "For me, let's just see what happens."

What about Iowa's outgoing seniors? Outfielders Eric Toole and Kris Goodman are seen as having the most pro potential (Toole's brother, Justin, is an infielder with the Cleveland Indians' double-A affiliate, and Goodman's father, Billy, is a Fort Dodge native who played in the Cincinnati Reds organization). The stock of relief pitcher Nick Hibbing also shot up after he was named MVP of the NCAA Springfield Regional, and infielders Jake Mangler and Nick Day have a chance, too.

But the key guy for Heller — and Hawkeye fans — to monitor is Peyton.

"If you get Tyler back, you feel really good about your staff," Heller said. "The pitching we have coming in is really good. We've got some guys that are going to be really good (draft candidates) as juniors in this freshman class."