In the immediate years before Rick Heller’s arrival, Iowa’s MLB draft presence was primarily limited to late-round selections and pro ball long shots.
Heller’s resurrection of Hawkeye baseball comes in many forms, and Tuesday provided the latest evidence. Iowa produced two top-10 round picks on the draft’s second day, as Robert Neustrom went in the fifth round to the Baltimore Orioles (No. 145 overall) and Tyler Cropley in the eighth to the Washington Nationals (No. 251 overall).
From 1994-2013, the Hawkeyes had exactly one single-digit rounder. Iowa has now had six under Heller, including two apiece the last two seasons.
Middle of day two was the projected landing spot for the Hawkeyes’ offensive duo — Neustrom a power-swinging junior with loads of potential, and Cropley a money-saving senior catcher who took off in 2018.
Of the two, Neustrom was the one with an eligibility decision to make. His father, Tim, confirmed Neustrom will forgo his senior year and sign with Baltimore. Slot value for the pick is $361,000.
"He will be going with the Orioles," Tim said. "(His selection) kind of went right with the projections, where they did have him projected as far as the number in the draft. And the amount was right there too. Everything kind of fell in place to go with the Orioles upon their selection. "
Three years ago, Neustrom was a lightly recruited outfielder just looking for a collegiate chance. Now, he’s Iowa’s highest drafted position player since Danan Hughes in 1992.
Neustrom landed on draft radars following an all-star summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League, and kept momentum flowing into his junior season. As one of Iowa’s offensive catalysts, Neustrom hit .311/.386/.538 with 15 doubles, 11 homers and 36 RBIs in 2018.
The right-fielder was named a first-team all-Big Ten selection and helped propel the Hawkeyes to a 33-20 campaign. Baseball America rated Neustrom as the No. 189 overall prospect heading into the draft.
“Neustrom puts on quite a show in batting practice when he displays plus-plus raw power,” his Baseball America scouting report reads. “But in games, he’s just as comfortable poking a ball to right field with a contact-oriented approach.”
Tuesday’s selection caps a hectic couple of weeks. Once Iowa was eliminated from the Big Ten Tournament on May 24, Neustrom flipped his full focus toward the draft. That included a bevy of workouts and conversations with scouts and his adviser.
It was a joyous scene in the Neustrom household when his name was called. He's now organizational teammates with former Hawkeye Mason McCoy, whom Baltimore drafted in the sixth round last season.
“Really the last couple of weeks have been a whirlwind,” Tim said. “I took him to Chicago last week — he had tryouts with the White Sox and Cubs. And then last Friday, he flew down to Detroit. But he had some contact with the Orioles as well.”
Cropley generated a multitude of interest as well. Despite being ranked as Baseball America’s No. 472 overall prospect, teams viewed the senior catcher as a viable asset they could get for cheap.
His senior season sealed the deal. Cropley led the Hawkeyes in average (.342), hits (68), doubles (20), RBIs (50), slugging percentage (.578) and on-base percentage (.449). Like Neustrom, he was a first-team all-Big Ten selection.
His leadership behind the plate was just as pivotal. Cropley caught 44 of Iowa’s 53 games and helped guide a pitching staff that featured a lot of moving parts.
“He’s athletic, tough,” MLB.com’s Jim Callis said on the draft show. “Had a really nice year at the plate — more walks (30) than strikeouts (28). Has some pull power —swing can get a little bit long sometimes when he’s shooting for the fences.
“But look, you’re always looking for catchers. And this is guy who definitely has the defensive skills to stick back there. The receiving stands out a little bit more than his arm. It wouldn’t shock me if six, seven years from now, we look up and maybe Tyler Cropley is a backup in the big leagues.”
Heller hasn’t had a big leaguer yet at Iowa, but the chances increase with every passing draft. Add Cropley and Neustrom to the list of potential candidates.
"It's definitely showing that coach Heller is getting the right guys in there, and he's really making them work hard," Cropley said. "There's a lot of talent there, and the work ethic is one thing that he really solidifies."
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for The Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.