Back to the Future
Hey everybody, it's Ben. I'm back for my fourth season writing about Illinois baseball for IlliniBoard.
I'm a history teacher by trade and a sports fan by birth, so one of my favorite past-times is collecting historical sports periodicals. I've got copies of the Sporting News from the 1950s, Sport Magazine, Sports Illustrated, copies of the old Chicago Tribune, Sun-Times, Post-Dispatch and even a few copies of The National. (For those of you too young to know, The National was the internet for sports before the internet -- an all-sports daily newspaper aka heaven in a newspaper box. Still remember where I bought my first one - Mattoon, Ill. while visiting my aunt and uncle. I don't remember the store, but I'd wager there's a good chance friend of the IB Will Leitch could tell me where it was located!).
Going back and reading some of these old stories has me really into old baseball lingo. I saw a reference to somebody's Diamond 9 the other day and it's really stuck with me. I think "Illini 9" kind of rolls off the tongue. I mean, if it doesn't, you guys would tell me, right? You'd tell a stranger on the internet your unvarnished opinion wouldn't you???
I want this baseball preview to build. I thought about going the mixtape route and just starting out with a rocker. This, of course, is known as the Barney Stinson method - kick it off with Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name" and just crank it from there. Eventually every mixtape goes maudlin, however, and that's not our style. We're just going to steadily build until it's cranked to 11 and the volume button on our iPhones or Samsungs is stuck wide open. And if that's too loud, you're too old!
All that being said, I think we'll start with our "weakest" positions and build from there
You may have noticed that I said "weakest" above. Truth be told, I'm not sure this squad has any glaring weaknesses. Most of the publications (D1Baseball.com, Perfect Game, Baseball America) have Dan Hartleb's squad picked top 4 in the Big 10. These days, that usually equates with also making the NCAA Tournament (though Baseball America lists the Illini 9 among the First Four Out). The generally positive rankings come despite losing consensus first-team All-American and Collegiate Baseball News National Player of the Year Bren Spillane (Cincinnati Reds - 3rd round), all-Big 10 closer Joey Gerber (Seattle Mariners - 8th round) and all-Big 10 outfielder Doran Turchin (Baltimore Orioles - 14th round). Frankly, given the returnees and the addition of an outstanding freshman class, I think the ceiling might be even higher.
And then there's the historical bent to all this: the last time that one of Dan Hartleb's squad missed the NCAA tournament as one of the last four teams left out was 2014. And I think we all remember what happened in 2015.
"We've never had a lot of power in our lineup like we had last year with Bren and Doran," Hartleb said. "This year, we plan on going back to the kind of teams we've had in years past where we're looking to use motion to put pressure on defenses via stolen bases, starting runners and things like that to manufacture runs."
In turn, you have to stop opposing clubs from doing the same to you and therefore we start this positional preview with the Illini backstops.
Hartleb's squad returns return the two players who spent the most time wearing the tools of ignorance in 2018 - Seniors Jeff Korte and David Craan.
Korte, a transfer from Eastern Florida State College, stepped right into the lineup and started 47 games as a junior. He hit a respectable .262 with 11 doubles, 3 home runs and 26 RBIs while anchoring the lower half of the lineup.
"Korte gives us some tools offensively," Hartleb said.
-- Illinois Baseball (@IlliniBaseball) March 4, 2018
Korte, however, does need to control the opposition's running game better. Opponents attempted 61 steals against him a year ago and succeeded at an 82% clip. Craan, meanwhile gunned down 8 of the 12 basestealers that tried to run against him. The Chicago native has tremendous physical tools, including an arm that has clocked throws from the outfield at 92 mph, but his bat has not developed as the staff hoped. Craan enters his final season as a career .132 hitter.
That may open the door for freshman Jacob Campbell. The Janesville, Wis. native was one of the headliners in a recruiting class that ranked No. 22 overall in the country by D1baseball.com and No. 24 in the country by Baseball America.
Baseball America ranks Campbell as the No. 1 newcomer in the Big 10, while D1baseball.com checks him in at No. 4. Coming out of high school, he was ranked as the No. 8 catcher in the nation by Prep Baseball Report and as the No. 154 overall prospect available in the 2018 MLB draft. That works out to being a projected 5th-round draft pick.
In the end, he ended up getting taken in the 36th round of the 2018 MLB draft by the Chicago Cubs. Typically, when a player drops like that it shows big-league clubs' concern about being able to sign the player. With his draft position, the Cubs would have been forced to count anything over $125,000 toward their draft bonus pool that pays players taken in the first 10 rounds.
Here's a look at what Campbell can bring to the position according to Prep Baseball Report.
"With plus arm strength behind the plate (87 mph at the Super 60), routinely put throws at infielder's chests from knees and out of chute during pregame. Repeats a short arm action from over-the-top slot, throws carry with ease. Advanced footwork, powerful first movements, stays low, gains ground, consistent, pop time ranging between 1.95-1.98 in between innings, popped a 1.79 during pregame."
"We're looking forward to getting Jacob some reps here early on because he has a very high ceiling," Hartleb said.
Once Korte leaves, the position is Campbell's to hold down because the Illini will have only one other catcher, redshirt freshman Kellen Sarver, on the roster. And Sarver may be needed elsewhere. Recruiting-wise, they don't currently have a catcher committed in the Class of 2019 or 2020. The next catcher in the pipeline is Class of 2021 commit Camden Janik of Wauconda, who ranks No. 15 overall in the state in the class and as the No. 3 catcher.
Be sure to check back throughout the week as our preview looks like this:
Thursday: Pitchers and weekend preview