As we approach the 2018 NCAA Baseball season, TCR will be previewing the Illinois Fighting Illini Baseball team’s roster. From starting pitchers all the way down to bullpen catchers, we will be providing an in-depth look at what to expect from the team this season.
With two starting spots open in the infield for 2018, the Illini will look to fill both the hot corner AND first base lineup positions this season. A junior college transfer at catcher, and a bench LOADED with talent, there are a lot of promising players at Coach Dan Hartleb’s disposal. Coming off a respectable season at the plate in 2017, Illinois will be expected to show some growth. Let’s meet the infield:
Jeff Korte (Junior)
One of the biggest additions to the 2018 lineup is Jeff Korte from Eastern Florida State College. With a very young pitching rotation/bullpen that’s trying to find its identity this season, Hartleb went and found a proven security blanket behind the dish. Korte has a decent arm behind the plate, with a brisk transfer to release time of under 1.85 seconds. Throw in a powerful swing from the left side of the plate, and Korte will be a great addition to the lineup this season.
Mark Skonieczny (Senior)
Even though the senior will not be the likely starter on day one, don’t sleep on Skonieczny. He improved his batting average on balls put in play (BABIP) from .185 to .279 last season, and provided one of the most exciting home runs of 2017 with a “walk-off” against the Maryland Terrapins in early May. When Korte is out, Skonieczny is in.
David Craan (Junior)
Off the bench, Craan was a solid option for Illinois last season with a couple of breakout performances on the road, particularly when he homered twice against FAU. The junior will likely be the second option off the bench as a catcher, but we might also see him in a handful of pinch-hit/DH at bats.
Infield (Likely Starters)
Michael Michalak (Junior/1B)
A transfer from Des Moines Area Community College, Michalak will be the likely starter at first base for the Fighting Illini. Michalak comes to Champaign riding the tails of a massive season from last year. He batted .366 over 53 games with 9 home runs and 46 RBIs (17 steals to boot), which is only slightly better than the .359 average he batted in his freshman year. Expect this kind of firepower to bat near the top of the lineup this season.
Michael Massey (Sophomore/2B)
Ranked as one of the Top 10 freshmen in the Big Ten and a second-team Freshman All-American last year, Massey returns to the lineup as one of the most polarizing young players in the Illini lineup. His breakout onto the college baseball scene was justifiable, as he finished in the top 10 of the NCAA in batting average (.330) and the top two percent of hitters in strikeouts versus plate appearances (only 16Ks in 209 at bats). With a high level of durability and nothing but growth ahead of him, Massey is a player to keep your eye on.
Ben Troike (Sophomore/SS)
Speaking of young players to keep your eye on, Troike has our attention. This speedster is a player that opponents do NOT want on the base paths, ranking in the top 15 percent of NCAA stats in speed. Stealing 10 bases for the Illini last season, Troike swiped an additional 13 bases in four fewer games over summer in the Northwoods League. As long as Ben can limit his strikeouts at the plate and gain a little more power, this contact hitter makes for a great leadoff guy in 2018.
Bren Spillane (Junior/3B)
A draft pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2015, Spillane can flat-out rake at third base. Towering at 6-foot-4, Spillane has the highest power and RBI rating of the Illinois infield with numbers in the top 11 percent of college baseball. An aggressive player defensively, Spillane does a great job of picking ground balls at third base while charging into throws. We expect Spillane to play more than the 36 games he played in 2017, and there is no reason why he shouldn’t make a big impact head into this season.