Saturday, February 09, 2008

2008 BTH Preview: Illinois

Illinois
Head Coach
: Dan Hartleb
2007 record: 31-27 overall; 16-14 in Big Ten (lost in conference tournament)
2007 RPI: 145
Projected 2008 Big Ten Finish:
Collegiate Baseball - 6th
Rivals.com - 7th

At The Plate: Coach Hartleb returns a number of veteran faces on offense. Ryan Hastings is coming off a year where he had career highs in batting average (.330), runs (38), homeruns (6) and slugging percentage (.487). Hastings will be in the lineup, but where is the question. The senior could see time at second base, first base, outfield or designated hitter in 2008. One reason Hastings could move from his more familiar second base slot is the emergence of Joe Bonadonna. Bonadonna hit .318 (with a .427 on base percentage) in just 85 at bats last year, but had a terrific summer where he set a Northwoods League record for stolen bases (45) and won a gold glove for his play at Duluth.

The other half of the Illini’s keystone combination is Brandon Wikoff. The sophomore will be making the move from third base to shortstop this year. In his first year with Illinois, Wikoff hit .286 with a .358 OBP. Like Bonadonna, Wikoff had a good summer in the Northwoods League. He was considered one of the top 25 pro prospects in the NWL and one scout suggested he might be the most exciting player in that league.

The rest of Illinois infield is up for grabs. Trying to fill the considerable shoes of Big Ten Player of the year Lars Davis behind the plate are Michael Giller and Aaron Johnson. Both are also vying for the first base job along with Hastings. Thirdbase is a battle between Dominic Altobelli and transfer John Schlichter.

Centerfielder Kyle Hudson continues his two-sport Illini career. In addition to being a receiver for Illinois’ Rose Bowl squad, Hudson hit .351 with a .428 on base percentage and stole sixteen bases in ‘07 for the diamond Illini. DH/OF Daniel Webb was a third team All-Big Ten selection last year. Webb hit .332 with a .416 slugging percentage. Also figuring into the outfield mix will be Nick Stockwell and freshman Casey McMurray. Expectations are high for McMurray, who may open the year as the starting leftfielder. That would leave Stockwell and Webb most likely seeing time in right. Expect Craig Lutes to fill in when Hudson is called off to pigskin responsibilities or needs a break.

On The Mound: Illinois lost ace Tanner Roark just before January closed due to grades. One would presume that pushes either Mike Stankiewicz (4-6, 7.25) or Scott Shaw (5-4, 6.42) into the Friday starter’s role. The other should be the first starter on Saturday. I would give an edge to Aaron Martin (3-3, 8.41), who is coming off a solid Coastal Plains League summer session, for the other Saturday start. The fourth starter position is up for grabs. Ben Reeser, perhaps? Billy Barrett? Or, maybe, freshman Nick Chmielewski? The highly touted Chmielewski was a high school standout who appeared destined for the bullpen, perhaps, even the closer spot. The unexpected pre-season shuffle might give the first year player more innings than originally anticipated.

The Schedule: The non-conference portion of the ‘08 schedule provides solid competition. A game with nationally ranked Baylor and three at Texas Tech are the marquee match-ups before the Big Ten season opens. The Illini get Michigan, Penn State, Purdue at Northwestern in Champaign, while traveling to Michigan State (to open the year), Indiana, Minnesota and Ohio State.

Bottom Line: The Illini lose four regulars, their Friday starter and closer from a team that qualified for the conference tournament on the final day of the season a year ago. Without them, it’s difficult to enter this campaign with too lofty an expectation. The good thing for Illinois is that outside of Michigan, the remainder of the conference appears to be very close. The hunch here is the Illini finish in the middle of the pack in 2008. However, if McMurray and Chmielewski explode onto the Big Ten scene, all bets are off.