2017 Baseball Preview
Editor's Note: Spring football has begun and it will be 60 degrees this weekend, so that must mean it's baseball season. Ben returns for a third season at IlliniBoard to write about Illini baseball. This is his 2017 preview. Enjoy!
The 2017 season figures to be to the first step in the foundation in an effort to return the Fighting Illini to the national prominence they enjoyed during the 2015 season when they won 50 games for the first time in school history and earned a top 8 seed in the NCAA tournament before falling to Vanderbilt in Game 3 of a Super Regional.
Last year, the Fighting Illini finished 28-23 overall and 12-12 in the B1G Conference. They failed to qualify for the B1G tournament.
The culprit last year? An anemic offense that averaged just 4.4 runs per game. And when your pitching staff gives up just 4.3 runs and has a staff ERA of 3.60 against metal bats, you have to be able to take advantage of that.
Dan Hartleb's squad will be very young, relying primarily upon freshmen and sophomores along with a few key upperclassmen. We'll start our preview with what has been the strength of the team the last two seasons - pitching.
Pitching coach Drew Dickinson has produced 1st-round draft picks in back-to-back years in LHP Tyler Jay (2015-Minnesota Twins) and RHP Cody Sedlock (2016-Baltimore Orioles). That's unheard of for a lot of northern schools in the southern-dominated world of NCAA Division I baseball.
The Illini also wave goodbye to rotation anchors Andrew Mamlic, Nick Blackburn and J.D. Nielsen. The latter two joined Sedlock in the professional ranks.
The front of the rotation doesn't figure to be as flash this year as redshirt senior LHP Doug Hayes moves into the Friday spot after posting a 6-5 mark with a 3.58 ERA as the #2 starter behind Sedlock last year. Hayes, you may recall, started his career with the Illinois club team. He was solid last year and at times very, very good. He'll need to be solid every time out if the Illini are going to get every series started right.
Behind Hayes though, there is high-end potential. We briefly mentioned Luke Shilling in this space a year ago as a high-profile freshman with the potential to blow away hitters with a fastball that climbed as high s 95 mph. The velocity was never a problem for Shilling, but filling the strike zone was.
However, the burly, 6-foot-5 right-hander found his control in the Northwoods League over the summer, where he posted a 2.76 ERA in 39 innings pitched and earned Top 10 Prospect status from Baseball America.
Right there with him is his classmate, Cole Bellair, who earned B1G all-freshman team honors last year after posting a 2-3 record with a 3.34 ERA in 9 starts, most of them in conference play.
So the rotation appears set, but the bullpen is up for grabs.
A trio of Wisconsinites could hold down the back end. Ty Weber was a 34th-round pick of the Cincinnati Reds last year after leading Menomonee Falls (Wis.) to a Summer state championship. He was clocked as high as 89 mph in high school and ranked as the #8 overall prospect in talent-rich Wisconsin.
Not far behind him is Ryan Schmitt, who was the #10 overall prospect in the state. Schmitt led Arrowhead Falls to a Spring state championship and has been clocked as high as 90 mph.
The wild-card in the Badger Staters could by Cyrillo Watson, who could see time in both the OF and on the mound. Watson was the top-ranked OF in Wisconsin and the #11 overall OF in the country by Prep Baseball Report.
Watson is very toolsy. He's got slightly better than average speed, but his throws from the OF have been blocked at 95 mph and the exit velocity off his bat has been as high as 93. But he's also been 87-90 off the mound with a plus curveball that could be a true strikeout pitch.
Nielsen's spot as a matchup lefty could be filled by Jackson Douglas, who at 6-foot-6, 245 pounds is imposing. (And it makes the fact that he was on his Rochester (Minn.) high school's alpine ski team all the more impressive). Douglas came to Illinois from JUCO powerhouse Iowa Western via Kansas State. He posted a 2.5 to 1 K-to BB ratio in the Northwoods League over the summer. He was primarily used as a starter in the Northwoods League, so he could also be a swing starter.
LHP Zak Deverman and RHP Quentin Sefcik could compete for time as mid-week starters as well.
The loss of Goldstein would be tough to overcome regardless of the situation. But the four-year starter was so reliable and durable that it made it hard for his reserves to gain experience.
The most experienced replacement option is Jr. Mark Skonieczny, who saw time in 17 games last year with 8 starts. Skonieczny is ok defensively, but his bat may need to be better as he hit just .139 last year
After Skonieczny, the catching corps has significantly less experience. I mentioned David Craan, now a sophomore a year ago. Craan is one of the most athletic specimens on the roster, but he needs to hit as well after posting a .211 mark in the Prospect League last summer. But it's still hard not to drool over Craan's skillset. He's thrown 82 mph out of the crouch, his pop time is 1.87 seconds.
Two starters return, but Sr. slugger Pat McInerney figures to be the focal point of the offense. The 6-foot-5, 240-pounder from Lisle Benet was recently named one of the top 50 collegiate first basemen in America by D1baseball.com after hitting .301 with 7 HR, 9 doubles and 27 RBIs as a junior.
Trent Hammond returns at the hot corner, but after hitting just .241 with 2 home runs and 18 RBIs he'll need to pick those numbers up.
Hammond and McInerney both earned Pre-Season all-B1G Conference honors on Wednesday.
Challenging Hammond will be r-Fr. Bren Spillane, a redshirt freshman from Wheeling, who was a 34th-round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates coming out of high school. Spillane struggled to overcome the effects of a concussion he suffered near the end of his senior year. When the symptoms persisted into his freshman year with the Illini, Hartleb and Co. decided to shut him down to preserve his eligibility.
Spillane returned to the field this fall and showed no ill-effects of the concussion. During the Orange and Blue World Series, Spillane blasted three home runs in Game 1 alone and followed that up with a walk-off single in Game 2 to finish the two-game series with eight RBIs.
The biggest areas of question figure to be up the middle, where the Illini return just a total of 15 starts -- all of which belong to Sr. MIF Zack Kolakowski.
The SS is particularly troublesome. Hartleb has made a habit of having some of the B1G 10's best shortstops as of late with Brandon Wikoff giving way to Josh Parr to Thomas Lindauer and then to Walton, all of whom have either played professionally or are still playing professionally
The man up the middle figures to be Fr. SS Mike Massey, a hard-nosed grinder out of Brother Rice. He ranked as the #3 SS in Illinois in the Class of 2016 and the #36 overall SS nationally by Prep Baseball Report. He sees a lot of pitches and puts the ball in play, qualities you want in someone at the top of the order or when you're trying to roll the order over. Defensively, he moves with the same type of fluidity exhibited by the likes of Wikoff and Parr.
If Massey stumbles, Tyler Engel aka the Ipava Comet returns for his sophomore season. Much like Spillane, he was plagued by injuries as a freshmen and saw action in only five games.
Kolakowski will most likely get first shot opposite Massey, but don't be surprised if Fr. Ben Troike gets a shot as well there. Troike profiles very similarly to Massey.
I've buried a pretty impressive statistic. Hartleb's squad returns an impressive 66% of its hits, 82% of hits home runs and 73% of its RBIs. As a team, the Illini hit just .251, so maybe it's not as impressive as it sounds, but still it's a starting point.
Nearly all that returning production belongs to the Fighting Illini outfielders, three of whom started at least 35 games a year ago.
Jr. Dan Rowbottom was the toughest man to strike out in the B1G with just one strikeout per 18.8 plate appearances and figures to be the man in right field. He finished up hitting .267 with 6 doubles and 18 RBIs.
He's joined out in the green by two sophomores who survived trial by fire. Doran Turchin figures to serve as McInerney's protection in the lineup after hitting .231 with 4 home runs, 3 triples, 7 doubles and 25 RBIs. He'll also patrol CF and was recognized as a pre-season all-B1G as well on Wednesday.
Left-field figures to be manned by Jack Yalowitz. Hartleb experimented with Yalowitz in the lead-off spot last season and it produced a 13-5 record for the Illini. He hit only hit .227, but gets on base at a .351 clip and also stole 13 bases, second most on the team.
Another source of the returning riches is Sr. Anthony Drago, who profiles as a utility man primarily man and could see time at either first base, outfield or be a third catcher.
Drago hit .277 with 4 home runs, 10 doubles and 19 RBIs.
Hartleb traditionally does not shy away from scheduling some of the nation's toughest teams in the non-conference portion of the schedule.
The Illini open up this Friday at the Cardinal Classic at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, where they will take on the host Cardinals twice and Wisconsin-Milwaukee twice.
The following weekend takes them back to the Lone Star State to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, where they will face the host Islanders along with traditional powers Houston and Mizzou...I mean Miznoz.
All of that, though, is merely window dressing for the real test looming the second week of March when the Fighting Illini head to Conway, S.C. to take on defending national champion Coastal Carolina in a three-game series.
B1G play opens the following weekend.
Are we looking at 50 wins? No. But are we better than the rest of the B1G thinks? I believe so. The coaches poll released Wednesday only showed what the coaches felt were the top six teams in the conference. The Illini were not mentioned, but don't be surprised to see the Illini make the tournament again.