Illinois State Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2021
Illinois State fell one win short of the program’s first super regional appearance in 2019, and in 2020, it was in the midst of battling through an extremely difficult stretch of its schedule when the season was canceled.
In 2021, assuming the season structure is something close to normal, the Redbirds will once again embark on a challenging slate that will set them up for an at-large bid if they can knock off some big names here and there along the way, like they did against Vanderbilt in 2019 and had already done against Oklahoma and Arkansas in 2020.
That’s always a tough ask from year to year at the mid-major level, but ISU has a mix of experience all over the roster and high-end talent in key positions that suggests it can pull it off again.
What kind of advantage will ISU’s experience provide?
Thanks to blanket eligibility relief for all players on 2020 rosters, most teams in college baseball are going to be older than usual in 2021, but Illinois State is an extreme example.
The Redbirds will have 11 players on the field in 2021 who have been in college baseball for at least five seasons, including a seventh-year player in first baseman/outfielder Ryan Hutchinson. Just about every one of those 11 players were a part of the 2019 regional team.
That might not be a leg up against everyone they play because Illinois State won’t be the only extraordinarily old team out there, but come June, if the Redbirds find themselves in a regional once again, it could be an advantage over a major conference team that dealt with a more normal amount of turnover after the 2020 season or a fellow mid-major team that doesn’t have the big-game experience that they do.
Coach Steve Holm and his staff couldn’t have predicted the circumstances that would allow for this level of experience on the team, but getting to a point where this kind of veteran presence exists was the goal, not just within the context of this year but moving forward.
“When this (pandemic) happened, we sat down as a coaching staff and said ‘Okay, how can we take advantage of the cards we’re dealt?’ And at a school like this, your goal is to get as old as possible,” Holm said.
Which fifth-year returning player will have the most impact?
There are a few candidates here, including center fielder Joe Butler, who played shortstop for the club in 2020, but lefthander Colton Johnson has to be the choice.
It wasn’t always a sure thing that Johnson would be back in an ISU uniform in 2021. During the draft, he began receiving phone calls from interested organizations in the fourth round, and while he didn’t end up getting selected, the opportunity to sign as a free agent after the draft was very much available to him. Johnson wasn’t all that interested in that option, however, because of concerns about how difficult it would be for him to develop without the benefit of a minor league season until at least 2021.
“He just said ‘Look, during this time, if you take me in the top five rounds, I’ll sign. If not, I don’t know how I’m going to develop on my own,’ ” Holm said.
Now, Johnson gives the Redbirds a workhorse Friday starter that could be as good as any in the Missouri Valley Conference. His fastball was up to 96 mph during the 2020 season, complemented well by a low-80s breaking ball. With experiences such as starting in an elimination game in a regional against Louisville in 2019 and closing out a road win over Arkansas last year, he’s also not likely to be intimidated by any situation he’s put in.
Behind Johnson, third-year freshman lefthander Sean Sinisko is back to reprise his role in the weekend rotation, and the most intriguing option to fill the third spot is true freshman righthander Mason Burns, a local Bloomington product who has been up to 95 mph this fall.
One wild card in the rotation competition is junior college transfer Jordan Lussier, a Winnipeg, Manitoba, native who Holm remembers evaluating for the first time when he was on staff at Purdue and Lussier was in high school. A two-way player in junior college, the righthander is a good athlete on the mound and has shown excellent pitchability as he’s come on strong late in the fall.
What can we expect from Hayden Jones?
Simply put, lefthanded-hitting catchers with big-time power, plus throwing arms and first-round upside don’t land at mid-major programs all that often. To be fair, third-year sophomore Hayden Jones began his career at Mississippi State, but he’s at Illinois State now and poised to have a big impact.
In the lineup, he’s projected to hit in the middle of the order and be a run producer. He’s certainly capable of being an impact power bat not unlike third baseman Joe Aeilts, who was the player of the year in the MVC in 2019 or outfielder John Rave, who was a fifth-round pick at the end of that season.
Behind the plate, his arm is a weapon, and while some of his defensive skills weren’t as far along as the fall got underway, he’s shown marked improvement in that department since getting back on campus. Having a coach in Holm who was a catcher in the big leagues himself can only help in his defensive development.
ISU has platooned backstops a decent amount over the last few years, and occasional days off from the position will always be on the table for catchers, but it seems extremely unlikely that Jones splits much time with anyone next season.
Where are the positional logjams?
Two-thirds of the outfield is fairly well settled. In left field will be Gunner Peterson, a third-year sophomore who hit .364/.462/.636 in 2020. In center is Joe Butler, a good athlete who has experience at just about every position on the field.
Right field is more up in the air, and that battle will have a ripple effect for other positions.
The best defensive outfielder for the job would be fifth-year senior Jeremy Gaines, who is also a .309 career hitter. There’s also fifth-year senior Jack Butler, who hit .304 with 15 doubles in 2019, and Hutchinson, the seventh-year senior.
If Gaines earns the most time there, Butler and Hutchinson could be in the mix at first base, where they would be competing with fourth-year sophomore Jake McCaw. Those who don’t earn playing time there could find at-bats at DH, where they would battle with incumbent fifth-year senior Jordan Libman and fourth-year junior catcher Tyson Hays, who will look to earn at-bats when he’s not spelling Jones behind the plate.
Some of those players have experience at third base, and that could be a landing spot in a pinch, but full-time at-bats at that position will go to second-year freshman Ryan Cermak, who might have the highest ceiling of any position player on the roster. Holm thinks that he could be an MVC player of the year-type of talent by the time his days are done at ISU.
The right field/first base/DH logjam showcases the veteran depth that the Redbirds have accumulated over the last couple of years. There are six players involved that ideally would get regular at-bats, but there just won’t always be enough to go around.
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Who closes games?
After going with something of a committee approach to closing out games in 2020, this is righthander Derek Salata’s job in 2021 as it stands now. Last season, he threw 10.1 scoreless innings with 11 strikeouts and just one walk, and his performance this fall has only reaffirmed that he’s the best guy for the role.
“Last year, (Salata) was really coming on where (it’s) like ‘This kid’s going to be pretty good’ and the mentality had changed,” Holm said. “This fall, he completely separated himself from everybody else, so he would be the closer on day one.”
There’s depth behind him in the bullpen, however. Fourth-year junior righthander Connor Peplow, who allowed just one earned run in 8.2 innings last season, has been up to 96 mph and will help bridge the gap to Salata.
Others to watch include second-year freshman righthander Erik Kubiatowicz, who returns after enjoying success right out of the gate last season, and junior college transfer Jared Hart, who adds some balance as a lefthander.