No Scouting, No Problem!
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Covid19 hit at perhaps the worst possible time for Class of 2021 baseball players. If you were uncommitted as of March 16, 2020 when the world stopped, then there's been no way for an NCAA Division I coach to lay eyes on you since then outside of video.
For some of these young men, that didn't matter. Head Coach Dan Hartleb started putting together this recruiting class as early as the Fall of 2018, when most of these young men were still on the verge of getting their drivers' licenses. But for nearly half of them, they were still uncommitted when the baseball world shut down.
"(Recruiting Coordinator Adam Christ) and (Pitching Coach Mark Allen) have done a great job of watching video, live stream of games, and you rely on people you trust in the scouting community and rely on people who have given you good information in the past," Hartleb said. "If we all go to the ballpark, we can all see who the best ballplayer is. But you don't get to see how they treat their parents, how they treat their teammates."
"Heck, there's times I show up an hour early to the ballpark and just sit in my car and watch how a kid shows up to the ballpark and prepares."
Still the Illini's 2021 class did have needs coming into the "Covid" Summer, namely arms. And Hartleb's coaching staff did their due digital diligence to make sure the Illini keep building toward national prominence. Here's the eight players who signed their National Letters of Intent on Wednesday, plus one young man who has already committed to walking on.
Gavin Bennett, C, Libertyville
No. 82 in the state of Illinois, No. 10 catcher
There's a good chance that both catchers, Jacob Campbell and Ryan Hampe, could be be gone via the draft come June. That means Hartleb has to have some guys ready to go. Personally, I see Bennett as a Kellen Sarver type. Can catch, but the bat could also earn him time at DH or a corner infield spot once Sarver moves on. Catching wise, his dad Gary spent 12 years in the big leagues, most notably winning a World Series with the Cardinals. He's everything you would think a defense-first catcher should be. He receives very well -- the kind of receiver that pitchers love throwing to. Very quiet, which umpires love. The only thing I could see Hartleb stressing might be strengthening the arm, Do that and he can consistently produce pop times in the capable of shutting down Big 10 running games, it will be enough to keep the bat in the lineup.
Here's a look at Bennett's bat:
Pair of good swings from Gavin Bennett (Libertyville/Slammers Illinois). Was quick and accurate behind the plate as well. Fighting Illini commit. pic.twitter.com/HY8byuAuTl— Chicago Scouts Assoc (@ChiScoutsAssoc) August 5, 2020
Jared Comia, OF, Hanover Central
No. 18 overall prospect in Indiana, No. 4 outfielder
Recognize the last name? Of course you do! It's current Illini shortstop Branden Comia's younger cousin! Like his cousin, Jared comes from one of the Illini's best talent pipelines, the Cangelosi Sparks. When Comia gets on campus with fellow signee Ryan Moerman, Cangelosi alums will make up nearly a quarter of the Illinois roster. To put it in more familiar terms, this is like Brad Underwood getting the top two guys off the Mac Irvin Fire every year. (Technically, Comia family might count as its own pipeline as Branden's younger brother, Jayden, is a Class of 2022 commit. He's also a Cangelosi product, one of three Hartleb has hauled in the Class of 2022!)
Jared comes from the TALL side of the Comia clan, checking at 6-foot-3 to his cousin's 5-foot-11. The younger Comia has a chance to be truly special. The left-handed swing works and he's athletic. He kind of reminds me of Jack Yalowitz, who wrapped up an up-and-down career with a solid senior season and a 10th-round selection by the Colorado Rockies. Comia's swing is short and lethally quick. Also very graceful in the outfield and runs a respectable 6.8 60-yard dash. Could see him holding down right field once Danny Doligale moves on.
Here's the take of Prep Baseball Report's National Director, Nathan Rode:
I'm a fan of 2021 OF Jared Comia (IN). Illinois recruit, cousin to SS Branden Comia. Runs well, glides in CF. Quick hands and barrel control from the left side. Two doubles and two runs in this game. @PBRIndiana pic.twitter.com/ePX3L4duRN— Nathan Rode (@NathanRode) September 15, 2019
Holt Geltmaker, OF, Illinois Valley Central
No. 43 overall prospect in Illinois, No. 7 shortstop
This one developed a little later than the rest of the bunch. Up until January 2019, Geltmaker had hoop dreams. And just a month later, it looked like that choice was solidified as he dropped 40 points on Peoria powerhouse Manual in a regional-championship game loss. But unbeknownst to the baseball world, Geltmaker had also picked up his bat and glove again and 3 months later he ran a 6.6 60-yard dash at Prep Baseball Report's Underclass Trials and he was no longer a basketball player moonlighting on the baseball field. He was a ballplayer. Obviously, it's raw and missing an entire season of high-school ball didn't help. But he did manage to get 70-some games in with the Central Illinois Outlaws over the last 2 summers. While not on the same level as the Cangelosi squad, the Outlaws have a long tradition of sending talent to the Orange and Blue. The program has sent him players like former All-Americans Josh and Justin Parr, all-Big 10 starting pitcher Drasen Johnson and current Illini Andrew Pogue and Nathan Lavender.
Like Comia, Geltmaker glides when he runs and he's probably still got room to shave a tenth or two off that 60 time, putting him in truly elite territory. The arm needs to get stronger, but he makes up for it by covering a lot of ground. I could also see him returning to his infield roots by spending time at third base. Once hitting coach Adam Christ refines the swing, Geltmaker has potential to be similar to Zac Taylor, the 25th-round pick of the Cubs 2019.
Uncommitted 2021 SS/CF @HGeltmaker of @ivcbaseball is hitting .432 with 3 triples and 16 RBIs! He was recently named the top IF prospect and No. 3 overall prospect at @PBRIllinois Underclass Trials and earned an invite to the @prepbaseball Futures Games in August! pic.twitter.com/KbdfpdcD7v— Central Illinois Outlaws (@cioutlaws) June 24, 2019
Camden Janik, C, Wauconda
No. 14 overall prospect in Illinois, No. 2 catcher
Janik is the second highest-rated member of the '21 recruiting class. He was the first to commit in the '21 class way back in October 2018. This kid is built like a linebacker/fullback at a Class 4A/5A school here in Illinois. Quick, athletic actions defensively and gets rid of the ball in a hurry. Every time I've seen him, I feel like he plays with an edge -- like one of those guys who lets you know that the the plate is his. Offensively, the swing can get a little big and his pre-pitch movement makes you worry a little about how he'll handle velocity.
Ryan Moerman, SS, Lockport
No. 13 overall prospect in Illinois, No. 3 shortstop
Highest-rated member of the '21 class and, as I previously mentioned, comes from the Cangelosi program. I once heard an old-school coach describe the difference in shortstop playing styles. There was the "East Coast" way which was sit back on the ball and make the sure-handed play. Or there was the "Dominican" way, which involved playing on the move and attacking the baseball. Moerman definitely comes from the latter school. Plenty of quickness and athleticism and, in watching him over the summer, he has the leadership qualities you look for in your shortstop. The only thing that might keep him from sticking on the left side of the diamond will be the arm, which is just average. But you can make up for that with a quick release and Moerman has that and the ability to get rid of of the ball from a variety of arm angles. Runs 6.7 in the 60-yard dash. Could profile as a top of the order bat as there's pop in the bat. PBR has proclaimed him as having "advanced bat-to-ball" skills, which is what you want when trying to generate offense at the top of the order.
Gavin Schmitt, RHP, Plainfield East
No. 33 overall prospect in Illinois, No. 10 right-handed pitcher
Another late bloomer. Schmitt was uncommitted coming into the PBR ProCase in July against some of the Midwest's best potential draft picks. At the event, he showed a fastball that was 88-90 mph. Even more impressive was the spin rate, which maxed out at 1,925 rpms and averaged 1,775 RPMs. When you see a pitcher with that kind of velocity and low spin rate, that means the pitcher is, to quote former Illini pitching coach Drew Dickinson "throwing bowling balls." It's going to generate hard, late movement and that's tough to barrel if you're a hitter. He's got some room to fill out at 6-foot-5, 200 pounds. Right now, I'd profile him as a reliever because the secondary pitches need some work. The slider profiles as the most likely pitch as he throws it appropriately hard (low 80s) and it just needs some tweaks to add movement.
Calvin Shepherd, RHP, Indianapolis Lawrence North
No. 16 overall prospect in Indiana, No. 6 right-handed pitcher
While the baseball world watched and waited, Hartleb and his staff were breaking down film. And the film they got on Shepherd showed a young man who was in the midst of a big velo jump. A year ago at this time, Shepherd was 82-84 and by February he was up to 86-88 and touching 89 mph. He's still got room to add more velocity (there's some Twitter chatter out there that he's been up to 93 mph lately). But the Hoosier righty uses his off-speed pitches as a calling card. The curveball is firm and shows hard, late break. Even better is the change-up,which could be slowed down just a tad, but has nice late fade. That usually means you get a disappearing act when hitters are trying to swing at it. The three-pitch mix likely profiles him as a starter eventually.
2021 @calshepherd23 (Lawrence North HS, @IlliniBaseball commit) w/ a solid 3 pitch mix, up to 88. CH w/ arm side run. Breaking ball dives away from righties. Effective against both lefties & righties. Strike thrower. #GLNatQualifier@weRtheWildcats | @IndySharksBSBL pic.twitter.com/jf0IG6Ziin— PBR Indiana (@PBRIndiana) June 26, 2020
Izaak Siefken, RHP, Broomfield (CO) Holy Family
No. 12 overall in Colorado, No. 8 right-handed pitcher
There's lots to like about this Rocky Mountain righty, starting with his four-pitch mix. It's not often you find a high-school righty with four quality pitches. The fastball has been up to 91 mph and he showcased elite spin rate. His average spin rate of 2,488 RPMs with his fastball at Perfect Game's World Wood Bat Association's (think Peach Jam for basketball) was 10th best at an event loaded with high caliber arms from across the country. A high spin rate like that can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can give the hitter the appearance the the ball is rising and can be used effectively at the top of the strike zone. On the other hand, it can mean your fastball is straighter than Main Street. Siefken's heater appears to be the former (check out the first one he throws in the tweet below).Scouting reports rave about his change-up as well and the slider and curveball profile as average or better as well.
One player Hartleb was not allowed to comment on Wednesday was local product Crayton Burnett (St. Joseph-Ogden), who will walk on. Burnett committed in late October after a standout Fall with another Illini pipeline program, Hitters Baseball out of Milwaukee. The program has provided several stellar Illini as of late including outfielder Doran Turchin (Orioles), last year's ace Ty Weber (Giants) as well as the Watson brothers, Cyrillo (Dodgers) and his brother Xavier, who's currently on the squad with another Hitters' alum, Jacob Campbell. At one point this Fall, on a loaded Hitters team, Burnett was 6-0 with five shutouts and 34 Ks to just 10 walks in 36 innings pitched while the Hitters' staff raved about his competitive drive. Prior to joining the Hitters this Fall, Burnett was a standout with another great Central Illinois squad, the Decatur Commodores.