A couple of quick questions come from IBR reader Mark. He asks:
What does the pitching staff look like for 2018? What is the projected rotation pre opening?
Before I answer, I will say this… Nothing is sure when it comes to college baseball. I have asked Coach Hartleb similar questions every year and the answer usually comes down to “We’ll see how things shake out in the early season”.
Coach’s response may be seen as a diplomatic one but it is reasonable. Other than two games in the fall, these boys haven’t played competitive baseball since the summer and he will want to see how every player (including the pitchers) responds to a live game.
That said, here is my answer to Mark’s question…
In 2017, we had a very young pitching squad. VERY young. Most of those arms are coming back and they have one more year of experience. I can guarantee that the 2018 Illini team will have a formidable pitching staff.
Each year, I hesitate to make predictions on this team. I will only provide my observations.
Ty Weber has to be on Hartleb’s short list for the rotation. Weber who was chosen by the Reds in the 2016 MLB draft, was a workhorse for the Illini in 2017 pitching 78 1/3 innings. He led the team in strikeouts with 53. He’ll need some support in 2018 as he went 2-7 last year.
Cyrillo Watson is a prime candidate for the weekend rotation. Next to Weber, he had the second most starts in 2017 with 10. There were times last year when Watson was really on his game. Perhaps that one more year’s of experience I was talking about will help him in 2018.
There are a few candidates for the last weekend spot that I like:
Luke Shilling probably has the best raw talent among all of the Illini pitchers. Unfortunately, Luke didn’t put it together in an injury-shortened 2017 (1-2, 7.14 ERA). He’ll need to prove to Hartleb that he is ready.
Quinten Sefcik really came on in 2017! He only started two games but could be a possible option. Also, a few of his relief stints were quite long pointing to that possibility. Sefcik may have surprised a few fans with his second-best 4.53 ERA in 43 2/3 innings.
Ryan Thompson also didn’t start much last year (just one game) but like Sefcik he responded well with a team third-best 4.89 ERA.
I’m not even considering the new transfers or freshmen (see below). They may factor in here as well.
Looking at the bullpen
Joey Gerber made a name for himself as the closer for the Illini. I don’t see that changing. All eight of his saves came after March 30th. Gerber had a 4.36 ERA, the best on the team. He also struck out 43 batters in 33 innings.
Guess who had the most wins on the Illinois squad? Weber? Watson? Nope. It was Ryan Schmitt with a 5-2 record. I’m sure he’ll play a role in bullpen this year.
Lefty Zack Jones got some valuable experience out of the pen and will work to improve his 7.85 ERA in short relief.
Hopefully, Zak Devermann and Jackson Douglas will both be getting more innings this year than last. Both spent most of 2017 riding the pines. According to Zak’s bio he “found a home for a stray cat after it tried to live in the bullpen in October 2017”. Nice work Zak!
What about the new guys?
Sean Leland isn’t really new. He’s been on the roster for a year now. His performance in the 2016 Orange and Blue World Series was pretty decent but he didn’t play in 2017 due to NCAA rules.
I remember seeing Ryan Kutt’s scouting report when he was first recruited and thinking “I can’t wait for this guy”. At Brother Rice, he could hit and pitch. It looks like Coach Hartleb is going to see what Kutt’s arm can do for the Illini. If the 2017 Orange and Blue World Series is any indication, we’re in for four great years from him.
Andy Fisher put in his time during the 2017 O&B WS too. He’s a transfer from Eastern Illinois with two years left. He was third on the team in strikeouts out of the bullpen.
Junior hurler Quinn Snarskis is another pitcher from the All-Chicago Catholic League. We will get two years from him as well.
Even better news?
Again, these are all my uninformed opinions from the outside.
There is one thing I can say with some certainty. As good as the outlook is for 2018, Illinois’ pitching can only improve for 2019. The roster shows that only two players (Mark Skonieczny and Jackson Douglas) are slated to graduate after this season. Barring a mass exodus of junior draft picks, I foresee a fantastic pitching staff for the 2019 season.