Illinois Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2021
After losing a number of key pieces from a team that reached a regional in 2019, the 2020 season was always going to feature some re-tooling for Illinois, but due to the season cancellation, the Fighting Illini may not have gotten all the answers they sought going into the campaign.
They’ll carry over some of those same questions into 2021, to be sure, but at the same time, they have a talented team that could find itself in the postseason come June.
Here are five pressing questions for Illinois coming out of the fall.
Who is competing for spots in the weekend rotation?
Going into last season, after the departures of experienced starters like Andy Fisher, Cyrillo Watson and Quinn Snarskis, the only real certainty in the weekend rotation was veteran righthander Ty Weber.
Now, Weber has moved on, signing as a free agent with the Giants, and Illinois has a real competition on its hands for those spots.
The most experienced option is also the one with the highest ceiling, and that’s third-year sophomore righthander Aidan Maldonado. His stuff, including a fastball that can push into the mid 90s at its best, makes him a prospect for the 2021 draft, but he hasn’t put it all together with the Illini just yet. As a freshman, he had a 6.58 ERA in a swingman role, and last year, he had a 5.82 ERA in four appearances, three of which were weekend starts. If he does break out in 2021, it undoubtedly raises the ceiling for what you can expect from the Illini rotation.
Two second-year freshmen, lefthander Cole Kirschsieper and righthander Ty Rybarczyk, will also be back in the mix after starting two games each last season. The former was extremely effective, putting up a 1.35 ERA in 20 innings. As pitchers who throw a ton of strikes with fastballs that don’t often crack 90 mph, both of those pitchers fit the mold that Illinois has used effectively in the rotation in the past with guys like Weber and Snarskis.
Third-year sophomore lefthander Nathan Lavender is another contender with high-end upside. He missed all of last season, but as a freshman two seasons ago, he struck out 37 batters and held opponents to a .202 batting average in 28.2 innings.
Junior college transfer Andrew Hoffmann, the top recruit in the Illini’s newest class, will also have something to say about how the competition shakes out. The 6-foot-5 righthander used a low-90s fastball with a slider and changeup to dominate to the tune of 46 strikeouts in 26 innings last season at junior college power John A. (Ill). Logan.
Wide-open competition for rotation spots can mean a couple of things. It can mean that the club isn’t really certain about any of the options it has available or that it likes so many of the available options that it has and will keep the competition as open as possible. Illinois coach Dan Hartleb is confident this rotation competition is more the latter.
“Sometimes you talk about ‘I don’t know who our pitching staff is or who the starters are going to be’ and it’s a negative thing and you’re concerned about it, (but) I’m just the opposite," Hartleb said. "I don’t know who they’re going to be and I’m really happy about it because we’ve got a number of guys that are doing a lot of really good things."
Who replaces Garrett Acton?
With Acton, Illinois has had one of the most effective closers in the country over the last two seasons, but he signed as a free agent with the Athletics after the draft, creating a hole at the back of the bullpen.
As an aside, Illinois has had a pretty impressive run of closers going. Acton was preceded by Joey Gerber, who broke into the big leagues with the Mariners this year, and with all due respect to Nick Blackburn, who closed games effectively in 2016 for the Illini, Gerber’s spiritual predecessor in the closer’s role is Tyler Jay, who was drafted sixth overall in 2015. All of that is to say that the next man up has quite the legacy to live up to.
The eventual closer could very likely come out of the group of pitchers that doesn't win starting roles.
Because of his stuff, Maldonado is an intriguing name to consider, and some scouts believe his professional future is in the bullpen as well, but it’s safe to assume that Illinois would like to maximize his usage and give him a shot to start games if he proves to be up to the task.
At least based on stats alone, Lavender would also seem like a good fit, given that he showed an ability to dominate back in 2019, but he also struggled with walks two seasons ago and would likely need to get a handle on his control to be effective in the role. But again, if he ends up taking a big step forward, is he best used in a role where he can be stretched out instead?
This competition might be even more wide open than the one to start games on the weekends, given that anyone who can get outs and has the mentality for the job can find their way into the role. And for Hartleb, the mentality piece is vitally important. He’s not only looking for someone who won’t let the pressure of the ninth inning get to him, but also someone who is motivated, not spooked, but the recent lineage of Illinois closers.
“I hope (we) have that guy that’s just like ‘you know what, I’m going to be the next one,’ ” Hartleb said.
What’s next for Branden Comia?
In short, Illinois hopes what’s next for Comia, a third-year sophomore, is a repeat of 2020 that will allow him to be appreciated nationally for the kind of player that he is. Because of the season cancellation, Comia’s breakout performance, and the recognition that comes with it, were cut short.
Handling shortstop full-time after filling in there and at second base as a freshman in 2019, Comia was off to a scalding-hot start at the plate, hitting .426/.526/.702 through four weeks. He had just one hitless game last season, an 0-for-2 performance against Wake Forest when he still managed to reach base twice on a walk and hit by pitch.
There are still reasonable questions to be asked about what we can expect from Illinois offensively after it hit just .236 as a team last season, but it can go into 2020 confident that Comia has what it takes to make the lineup go. He’ll be one of the best position players in the Big Ten and an intriguing prospect for the 2021 draft.
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How will time be split at catcher?
Third-year sophomore Jacob Campbell, alongside Maldonado and Comia, was part of a standout recruiting class for the Illini a few years ago. He’ll go into the season as the incumbent at catcher.
To this point of his career, his bat has yet to come around, as he’s hitting .197/.303/.280 through two seasons, and while there should be confidence that he’ll improve upon those numbers in 2021, it’s also important to note that he provides value beyond what he does at the plate. He’s also a very good defensive backstop who used a strong arm to throw out three of seven baserunners attempting to steal in 2020.
As talented as Campbell is, though, he’ll be pushed by incoming junior college transfer Ryan Hampe. Hampe began his career by hitting .351/.401/.524 and earning all-conference honors at Illinois-Chicago before transferring to John A. Logan, where he hit over .400 in 24 games last season. Even if Campbell still does the lion’s share of the catching, it’s easy to see Hartleb and his staff working to find a way to get Hampe’s bat in the lineup more often than not.
It’s also easy to see why Hartleb would be excited about this particular position group.
“Both of those guys are extremely talented and there's a lot of things that they bring to the table that complement each other,” Hartleb said. “I’m excited to have both of them where we can keep both guys fresh, do some matchup-type things. I think if both of them are doing things they’re capable of doing, if one’s not catching, then the other guy may have an opportunity to DH.”
It’s also worth mentioning that fourth-year sophomore Kellen Sarver, who has mostly played first base for the Illini in his career in deference to more established catchers in the program, will also provide depth at the position. With the possibility that the 2021 college baseball season will include an increased number of doubleheaders and the fact that players missing games due to COVID-19 positives or contact tracing is a distinct possibility, it’s never been more important to have depth at the position.
Who, besides Comia, will make the Illinois offense go?
You have to imagine that the outfield duo of second-year freshman Danny Doligale and fourth-year junior Taylor Jackson will be a part of the equation for the Illini.
Last season, Jackson hit leadoff in all 13 games. Doligale joined him at the top of the order and hit second for the last four games of the season.
Jackson, a righthanded hitter, ended the season hitting .296/.350/.370 with three stolen bases. He’s not a true burner, but he’s got good enough speed and instincts on the bases to make things happen. Doligale, who bats from the left side, hit .316/.422/.395 and used his plus speed to go 6-for-6 in stolen base attempts. Over a full season, it’s not hard to see him finishing among the Big Ten leaders in steals.
“The thing I like (is) you have a lefthanded hitter and a righthanded hitter, they can both run, they’ve got playability with their speed,” Hartleb said. “There are so many things that I think are good about those guys and they did a great job for us to start the year last year.”
To be an improved offense, Illinois will look to get contributions from others, but a lineup topped by Jackson and Doligale and anchored by Comia is a really good start.