When Nick Gonzales left Cienega High School in 2017 to begin a new chapter of his life as a college baseball player, the MLB draft was still a dream.
“I never thought of it,” he said. “I never even knew how the draft worked.”
Even his father, Mike Gonzales, “thought he’d go to college and have a pretty solid career and eventually get an opportunity.”
“To say that I thought he was going to be a first-round draft pick? No. But watching his progression ... I thought, ‘Wait a minute, this is different,’” The elder Gonzales said. “Every level, he just kept getting better and better and better.”
From his childhood home in Vail, with family — including older brother Daniel on a TV screen from Okinawa, Japan — and friends surrounding him, Gonzales grabbed a piece of Tucson sports history.
The Pittsburgh Pirates took Gonzales with the No. 7 overall pick in Wednesday’s amateur draft. The former Cienega High School and New Mexico State infielder, who is slotted to earn $5,432,400, ties former Sahuaro High School standout Sammy Khalifa as the highest-drafted Tucsonan or Arizona Wildcat of all time. Gonzlaes was one of two locals to go in the first round; the New York Yankees selected UA catcher Austin Wells 28th.
“It’s just awesome,” Gonzales said. “I can’t explain it. This is something that I’ve put a lot of work into and I’m super fortunate it came.”
Khalifa was drafted seventh overall — also by the Pittsburgh Pirates — in 1982.
“Wow. Same pick, same team, same city. I think that’s really special,” Gonzales said.
There are more Pittsburgh parallels.
“My grandfather was a huge Pirates fan, and it’s one of my uncle’s favorite teams,” said Gonzales’ mother, Jill Bosland-Gonzales. “I loved the Pirates when I was younger. I don’t know why I loved the Pirates, but I remember loving them and it’s so odd that this has happened, because I don’t care which team he plays for, I just want him to get an opportunity.
“But it’s just a great feeling that maybe someone up there is looking out for us.”
Former All-Star outfielder Andrew McCutchen was also one of Gonzales’ favorite players growing up.
“Watching him play, especially when I was playing outfield, I really enjoyed it,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales is also the highest pick in New Mexico State history, passing former NMSU teammate Joey Ortiz, who was taken by the Orioles in the fourth round of last year’s draft.
Gonzales’ rise to baseball stardom and route to become a first-round pick was the road less traveled. Despite posting a .543 batting average as a Cienega senior in 2017, Gonzales was lightly recruited.
The 5-foot-11-inch Gonzales was left with two options: Play for Austin Peay in Clarksville, Tennessee, on a 98% scholarship or walk on at New Mexico State. He chose the latter.
Gonzales was named the WAC Freshman of the Year after leading New Mexico State with a .347 batting average, nine home runs and 36 RBIs. As a sophomore, Gonzales posted one of the top offensive seasons in NMSU history, increasing his batting average to .432 with 16 home runs, 80 RBIs and 19 doubles. The second baseman was crowned the NCAA batting champion and became a unanimous All-American in 2019.
But Gonzales didn’t surface as a draft prospect until last summer, when — while playing for the Cotuit Kettleers — he was named MVP of the Cape Cod League.
Entering his junior season, Gonzales was a unanimous preseason All-American, the first-ever in New Mexico State history, and was predicted to receive WAC Player of the Year honors.
Gonzales has spent the last few months training with former NMSU teammate Joey Ortiz at a facility in Las Cruces. Cienega strength and conditioning coach Steve Schween helped guide his training.
Gonzales joins Seth Mejias-Brean, Luis Gamez and Andre Jackson as Cienega players to get drafted by MLB teams. Mejias-Brean made his major-league debut with the San Diego Padres last summer.
Gonzales will have to work his way through the Pirates’ farm system, which includes the Single-A Greensboro Grasshoppers, Double-A Altoona Curve and Triple-A Indianapolis Indians. He’ll do so in a new number, as the No. 21 he wore at NMSU is retired by the Pirates because of Roberto Clemente.
“I think I’m gonna go with seven. I went No. 7 in the draft,” Gonzales said. “I had no connection with 21 in college. That’s what I was given and I stuck with it. I wore 13 in high school, because of (Alex Rodriguez), but I’m gonna move on to someone else.”
• Wells, a sophomore catcher, became the first Arizona Wildcat selected in the first round since Kevin Newman in 2015. The team that selected him, the Yankees, took Wells in the 35th round in 2018. But he wasn’t ready to go pro then because of an arm injury that prevented him from playing catcher as a senior at Las Vegas’ Bishop Gorman High School.
Wells made an instant impact at Arizona, homering in his first career at-bat and becoming the first Wildcat to be named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. Wells slashed .353/.462/.552, had 27 extra-base hits and set UA freshman records in on-base percentage and runs (73). The latter figure paced the Pac-12. Wells also excelled in the Cape Cod League last summer, batting .308 with 13 doubles and seven home runs in 156 at-bats. Wells was off to a hot start in 2020, batting .375 in 56 at-bats. He finished his UA career with a slash line of .357/.476/.560 and more walks (63) than strikeouts (57).
• The Boston Red Sox selected UA signee Nick Yorke with the 17th pick — significantly higher than most experts had projected.
Yorke, a shortstop from Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, California, was ranked 96th by Baseball America and 139th by MLB.com. Yorke did make BA’s list of 10 draft sleepers.
UA coach Jay Johnson predicted last month that “100% of the players that get drafted will sign” this year, when the draft is only five rounds long. “I don’t think a team is going to take a player without an agreement in place,” Johnson added.
So don’t expect Yorke to enroll at Arizona.