Back to the Future Part II (Outfielders)
Outfielders are a rare breed at the college level. Some recruiters almost consider a true outfielder at the high school or junior college level to be an afterthought. One veteran coach used to tell me he'd recruit six shortstops every year. The best shortstop stayed at the position, the most athletic went to centerfield, the least athletic went to first base, the best arm moved to catcher, the weakest arm went to second, and the sixth became a jack-of-all trades.
In theory, this might the "weakest" spot for Dan Hartleb's club. Can it really be considered a weak spot, however, when you return your starting centerfielder, who was drafted and chose to return to school, and your returning rightfielder has performed at a Big 10 Player of the Year level in the past?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and there is plenty to behold in the green at Illinois Field.
Start with redshirt senior centerfielder Zac Taylor, who returned to school despite being drafted in the 36th round by the Minnesota Twins. The transfer from the University of Houston moved right into the starting lineup in his first year of eligibility and produced 12 doubles, a triple, 10 home runs, 37 RBIs and 10 stolen bases.
-- Illinois Baseball (@IlliniBaseball) May 18, 2018
In short, he's got juice in the bat. The only chink in Taylor's armor came in his ability to consistently make contact. He finished up hitting just .226 overall and that number dropped to .192 in Big 10 Play, which meant head coach Dan Hartleb had a very powerful, albeit inconsistent, bat in the back end of the lineup.
The same problem plagued senior rightfielder Jack Yalowitz, who hit just .216 with nine doubles, four home runs and 30 RBIs as a junior. This came on the heels of a first-team all-Big 10 sophomore campaign in which the southpaw hit .335 with nine doubles, three triples, 12 home runs and 44 RBIs.
Yalowitz has also gained renown in scouting circles because of his arm as seen below.
-- Illinois Baseball (@IlliniBaseball) May 25, 2018
For his part, Hartleb sees a simple fix for both Taylor and Yalowitz.
"I think the key for both of those guys is just to relax and put last year behind them," Hartleb said. "Just go out and play with passion and let everything fall into place."
The only spot to be filled is that left by the departure of Doran Turchin, who turned a scorching hot Summer 2017 in the Northwoods League into an all-Big 10 selection in 2018 and a 14th-round pick by the Baltimore Orioles. The main candidate to fill that role would seem to be senior Michael Michalak, who hit .282 with seven doubles, a home run and 17 RBIs in 41 starts as a junior last year.
Just like Turchin in 2017, Michalak enjoyed a monster Summer 2018 in the Northwoods League. The transfer from Des Moines Area Community College hit .275 over the summer with 14 doubles, seven home runs and 33 RBIs for his hometown Rochester (Minn.) Honkers.
-- Northwoods League (@NWLbaseball) July 21, 2018
The problem is, however, where does Michalak fit best? He's capable of playing first base as well and the Illini have an even bigger hole to fill there with the departure of everybody's All-American, Bren Spillane.
Hartleb sees it not as a dilemma, but as a healthy competition.
"Sometimes, you're forced to play a guy in a situation like that and it's not best for the team or for that player," Hartleb said. "But in this case, there's going to be competition for those open spots.
"Some of it's going to depend on the infield competition."
Hey, hey, hey coach, I decide when to move on to the next position groupings. So check back tomorrow for our look at the Illini infielders!