MLBTR continues its Draft Prospect Q&A series in order to give our readers a look at some of the top names on the board in this year’s draft. MLBTR will be chatting with some of the draft’s most well-regarded prospects as they prepare for the 2016 draft on June 9-11; we’ve already spoken with Mercer’s Kyle Lewis, Oklahoma’s Alec Hansen and Louisville’s Corey Ray.
It’s wait-and-see time for Blake Rutherford. The left-handed-hitting centerfielder has been at the top of the prospect ranking charts all year – and figures to be among the first high school players selected in the June draft.
Rutherford, who attends Chaminade College Preparatory School in West Hills, CA, has been known in scout circles for years. In fact, he committed to UCLA as a freshman and played on the international stage last summer – earning a Gold Medal as a member of USA Baseball’s 18U world championship-winning team in Japan.
The 6’2 ½”, 195-pound Rutherford was recently called “the most advanced pure bat in the class, college or high school” by ESPN.com’s Keith Law – who ranks him as the draft’s No. 4 prospect. Rutherford began the spring as Baseball America’s No. 3 prospect, while MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo has him coming in at No. 6. Rutherford took some time out to talk with MLBTR:
Chuck Wasserstrom: Your brother, Cole is a first baseman at Cornell University. What have you been learning about college from your brother?
Blake Rutherford: “He’s told me that college is a great experience. Obviously, it’s hard sometimes to juggle both school and baseball, and he’s at a real prestigious school in Cornell. But he’s having a great time … he loves it. He just said it’s a really good experience for him, and he’s happy that he went across the country to go play baseball so that he could get a whole other perspective on life.”
How much of that is going to play in your decision as to whether you’re going to go to UCLA?
“It probably won’t. I’m going to have to make my own decision as to what’s best for me. He made the decision what’s best for him. He got into a good school like Cornell to play baseball. UCLA is another amazing school where you can get a great education. But I’m going to have to wait and see what happens with the draft. I’ll talk to him about it. We’ll talk about everything. When it comes down to it, I’m going to sit down with my family and make a decision that’s best for me – like he did when he made the decision to go to Cornell.”
I want you to describe your game for me. I don’t want a scouting report that I can read online. I want to hear you tell me about your game. So, Blake, how would you describe Blake?
“I would describe my game as someone who can do all things on a baseball field. I truly believe I’m a five-tool player who has a very overall strong game. I feel like the main thing people have always talked about is my hitting, but I really feel like my fielding, my running and my throwing have all taken a huge step this year. I’m also someone who’s super competitive, and I’m not going to stop until I get what I want – which is winning. I’m just someone who’s passionate and loves to play the game, but stays calm and cool during all situations.”
For most readers not in California, you’re a name. What do you do on the field that makes you unique, or at least makes you stand out?
“The thing that makes me stand out is I can try to change the game with my bat, on the base paths or in the field. I can make a diving catch that can save runs or save a game. I can steal bases consecutively; I’ve stolen home a couple times. I have the ability to hit a home run, hit a ball in the gap or get the base hit to get a rally started.”
Your high school was selected to the play in the National High School Invitational last month in North Carolina – where you went 9-for-14 facing some of the elite high school pitchers in this country. What was that experience like?
“That experience was unbelievable. USA Baseball did an amazing job putting us up and getting us around and getting the fields ready. But the competition out there was crazy. Every team had a couple guys on the mound that could deal. A lot of teams had hitters 1-through-9 that could absolutely mash. We knew going into it that we were going to have to play our best games. We did for three games, but in the fourth game we kind of ran out of energy and a couple things went the other way. I was really happy with how we did as a team. My performance individually … I was pretty happy with it because it helped my team win a couple of those games.
Baseball-wise, you’ve played on some pretty big stages already and done some pretty neat things like playing overseas. What stands out for you?
“This last summer, going to Japan (with the 18U USA Baseball national team) – I think that really stands out. We faced some adversity. We lost a couple exhibition games. We lost an earlier game to Japan. So we were kind of down a little bit. Then we came together as a team and bonded. We really got super close and we were able to pull it off. We came from behind in three or four of those games. And then to be able to defeat Japan in their big stadium in front of all their fans for the Gold Medal – that’s something I’ll probably never forget.”
To get there, you needed a 9th-inning rally against South Korea in the tournament opener – and you hit a clutch go-ahead three-run homer.
“We started the inning with a Will Benson walk. And then Hagen Danner had a pinch-hit double to set it up. Second-and-third, no outs … I knew somehow I had to get one run in. Their pitcher had thrown me all fastballs. I fouled a couple off. It got to 3-and-2, and I just got the barrel to the ball and it took off. At first, I didn’t know if it was gone; it’s kind of hard to hit the ball out of the park there. I never saw it go over. I just heard the crowd go crazy. And I saw the runners stop running – so I knew it must have gone out. I remember that I felt happy because we were now winning, but I wasn’t out of control or too excited because I knew South Korea still had to come up to hit – and they had a couple good hitters. Luckily, we were able to get a couple more insurance runs.”
You won the Gold Medal there, and as a result – your team was honored prior to Game Four of the World Series last fall (at Citi Field in New York). How amazing was that?
“That was so exciting. Not only were we at the World Series, but it was the first time the USA players had gotten together (since Japan). So we were just hanging out and loving every second of it. But just going on the field and meeting a lot of the guys and seeing the atmosphere of the World Series. It made all of us want to make it that much more.”
Growing up in Southern California, what are your favorite things to do?
“Obviously, going to the beach … Hanging out with my friends … Anything competitive. We might go hit on the local baseball field or go laser tagging. Me and my brother always grew up super competitive. We have a lot of friends who are competitive. So we ended up playing baseball or football. There was always some activity going on outside.”
Read on for more after the break …
What about a favorite baseball team?
I was expecting a California team. I’ll ask … Why?
“I was born in New Jersey. I didn’t live there that long, but I was born there, and my favorite player growing up was Derek Jeter. So growing up watching him play, I just loved the Yankees.”
Obviously, different positions, but do you try to pattern yourself after his game in any way?
“I played shortstop until I was in eighth grade, so we played the same position for a long time. From three years old until 14, I played shortstop. Then I made the transition to the outfield. But I do pattern my game after him. The way he carried himself. Obviously, we hit a little different and have different stances, but I don’t think you pattern a mental game any better than Derek Jeter … the way he carried himself in the biggest moments in baseball and really in sports.”
You seem really comfortable doing this interview. Is this really natural for you, or is it because it’s the draft year?
“I’m pretty comfortable with it. When I committed to UCLA as a freshman, I had to do some interviews. It seems like every year, there are more and more interviews. I don’t feel a whole lot of pressure during this situation. I love getting to talk to people and like talking about the whole process and everything that’s been going on. It’s not something that I’ve really been uncomfortable with. It’s something I’m becoming more comfortable with, and I’m grateful. If I do get lucky enough that I am drafted and I sign, the media is a big part of what baseball is.”
Have you allowed yourself to think about the draft, or is it something you’re trying to keep at the back of your brain?
“There’s times when I’ll start thinking about it, then I’m like ‘You can’t start thinking about it. There’s a long season to go.’ But now, my main focus is winning the Mission League championship. There’s times when all of a sudden I’ll start thinking about it. Really, it’s in the back of my head. I’m not going to think about it until June 9. I’ll catch myself at times. Other than that, I’m just going to keep working hard and hopefully make a team want me enough to draft me.”
I’m guessing you do hear what people say. If you do get picked as high as it sounds like you will, is college an option for you? Has that decision been made?
“We honestly haven’t made a decision. We really haven’t talked about it yet. My family and I aren’t going to talk about it until my season ends. And then we’ll decide what the best situation is. I’m just going to have to wait and see what happens. Obviously, I want to play professional baseball. That’s my dream. I think that’s every kid’s dream who really loves baseball. So I really want that. But I have to wait and see what happens.”
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Chuck Wasserstrom spent 25 years in the Chicago Cubs’ front office – 16 in Media Relations and nine in Baseball Operations. Now a freelance writer, his behind-the-scenes stories of his time in a big league front office can be found on www.chuckblogerstrom.com.