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‘Best ever’ Aggie Gonzales goes No. 7 in MLB draft to Pittsburgh

In this May 10, 2019, file photo, New Mexico State’s Nick Gonzales waits for a pitch during an at-bat in an NCAA college baseball game against Seattle University, in Bellevue, Wash. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear, File)

New Mexico State infielder Nick Gonzales went from walk-on at New Mexico State to the No. 7 overall pick in the Major League Baseball draft on Wednesday night.

Gonzales, called “the best player in college baseball” by Harold Reynolds on MLB Network’s draft telecast, went to the Pittsburgh Pirates, who selected him as a shortstop.

The Vail, Arizona native is the highest draft pick in program history, surpassing shortstop Joey Ortiz’s fourth-round (108th overall pick) selection last year by Baltimore. Gonzales is the 66th Aggie selected in the history of the draft and the first taken by Pittsburgh.

“It was pure joy and excitement for me and my family (to hear my name called),” Gonzales said in a statement from the school. “I’ll never forget that moment.”

Gonzales hit a Division I-leading .432 with 16 homers and 80 RBIs in 2019 for the Aggies, then capped his big year and made his mark by winning the Cape Cod League MVP award while hitting .351 in the wooden bat college summer circuit.

This spring, the 21-year-old got off to another torrid start with his short, compact swing, hitting .448 and leading the country with 12 homers, 36 RBIs, 67 total bases and 28 runs in just 82 plate appearances before the coronavirus public health concern brought an end to the college baseball season.

“(Nick is) the best to ever wear an Aggie uniform,” said NMSU coach Mike Kirby.

Gonzales is a bit undersized at 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, but scouts love his makeup.

One plus to the Pirates selecting Gonzales is that he should likely travel a short path to the majors. He’s viewed as being an advanced prospect, one that could move through the minor leagues at a solid pace.

This year’s draft was originally scheduled to be held for the first time in Omaha, Nebraska, as a lead-in to the College World Series. Instead, the coronavirus pandemic caused baseball to make some drastic changes, including holding the draft as a remote event — much like the NFL did in April — and shortening it from three days with 40 rounds to just two days and five rounds.

Commissioner Rob Manfred announced the first-round selections from MLB Network studios in Secaucus, New Jersey, as he has done since taking over for Bud Selig in 2015. Manfred also addressed racial injustice and the recent protests that have taken place all around the country and the world. All 30 team representatives, operating remotely, held up signs at the beginning of the broadcast that read: “Black Lives Matter. United For Change.”

The shortened college and high school baseball seasons presented unique challenges for big league scouting departments, which had to rely more on videos of players instead of attending games to help with their evaluations. Perhaps that contributed to a record seven straight college players being selected to begin the draft.

After Arizona State slugger Spencer Torkelson went first to the Detroit Tigers, and Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad went No. 2 overall to Baltimore, Miami took Minnesota right-hander Max Meyer; Kansas City selected Texas A&M lefty Asa Lacy; Toronto went with Vanderbilt shortstop Austin Martin; and Seattle chose Georgia righty Emerson Hancock before Pittsburgh picked Gonzales.

With power to all fields and a great eye at the plate, the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Torkelson established himself as college baseball’s top slugger after going undrafted out of high school. He hit 54 home runs at Arizona State, two shy of the school record set by Bob Horner — who was drafted No. 1 overall in 1978.

“He’s exactly the type of player we hoped would be there for us to get with the top pick,” Detroit general manager Al Avila said on the ESPN broadcast.

After Gonzales, Tennessee high school outfielder Robert Hassell ended the run on college players, going No. 8 to San Diego. That’s the latest the first prep player was taken in a draft, surpassing Clayton Kershaw, who went to the Dodgers at No. 7 in 2006.

Florida high school outfielder Zac Veen was taken by Colorado with the ninth pick.

The first round of the draft was completed, along with eight competitive balance round selections, on Wednesday night — 37 picks in all. Rounds 2-5 will be held Thursday night, for a total of 160 players selected.

Undrafted players will need to wait until Sunday before they can sign with major league teams, who can offer signing bonuses only up to $20,000 as agreed upon by Major League Baseball and the players’ association. prompt many players to instead go back to school or junior college and be eligible again for the draft next year.