When the Illinois Baseball season opens in nine days, the infield will look much different than it did just a season ago. The double-play duo of Michael Massey and Ben Troike are currently with the Kansas City Royals and Tampa Bay Rays. Grant Van Scoy graduated from Illinois last May, so this year the Illini will need to fill three infield positions.
The clear and obvious choice to start in the infield so long as he is healthy is sophomore Branden Comia. Comia played second base in the early parts of last season when Michael Massey’s duties were limited to designated hitter, and when Ben Troike injured his thumb, Comia handled the reigns at shortstop. Comia batted to a .255 average with four home runs, 22 RBIs and 22 runs scored — and provided some speed near the top of the order. It seems likely that Comia will be the team’s leadoff hitter and starting shortstop.
Comia will be backed up by Xavier Watson who comes to Illinois after an extremely successful high school career in South Milwaukee. Watson was Wisconsin’s first-ranked shortstop, but is currently battling various injuries.
Second base is expected to be manned by freshman Brody Harding who comes in as Illinois’ No. 2 ranked shortstop. Harding made the transition to second base and started the team’s fall games there. Harding bats lefty with some pop which should add some variety to head coach Dan Hartleb’s lineup.
Behind Harding at second base on the depth chart is Andrew Kim. Kim is a bit bigger than Comia, Harding and Watson at six feet tall, but primarily plays second base despite being Illinois’ 11th best shortstop recruit.
First base may be the easiest position to predict since last year’s starter is returning for his second season. Kellen Sarver hit .269 with four homers and 29 RBIs as the Illini’s clean up hitter. Although Sarver played some catcher over summer and the Illini have some banged up catchers, it is likely Sarver will be playing first for Hartleb’s squad.
If not Sarver, junior Garrett McGowan seems to be next in line. McGowan transferred from Dodge City Community College to Illinois ahead of this season. Freshman Justin Janas also adds some depth at first base for the Illini.
Third base is a very complicated position. Cam McDonald is expected to be one of the team’s best players, coming off a year of hitting .281 with a team leading 34 RBIs. McDonald played some third base last season but also played outfield, so it depends on how Hartleb chooses to use him. It seems likely McDonald will be playing third. However, if McDonald ends up roaming the outfield, Alex Steinbach should be next in line to man the hot corner. Steinbach is coming off of a year hitting .343 with 10 home runs and 50 RBIs at Parkland College. He comes to Illinois with two years of eligibility left and if not at third base, will likely be the team’s designated hitter.
The infield may look different than it did a year ago, but the Illini have plenty of potential to perform both offensively and defensively.