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2019 MLB Draft Prep: Cheer local for the Fighting Illini

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Second baseman Michael Massey is one of the top players on a top area college team.

Michael Massey
University of Illinois Baseball

A tenet of social activism is to “Think Global/Act Local”. The premise is that concerns are often similar in different regions. However, if you find a specific organization in your neighborhood serving others, you can keep a closer eye on the specifics, and interface with local activism and recipients. This isn’t an article about civics, though, but baseball. For a great many people, regionalism is important in deciding which team to follow. In case that applies for you, I’ll spend a few articles noting local baseball programs: at least, if you live in the Chicago/Illinois range.

My choice for the best baseball squad in the state for 2019 will be the Fighting Illini from Champaign/Urbana. A number of other squads will jockey for the spot as well, but Illinois seems a bit better than the rest. As such, they’ll fly first in the “Cheer Local” section.

Last season, Illinois’ Bren Spillane was on beast mode most of the season. His slugging average of .903 was as absurd as it looks. He parlayed it into a third-round selection (Reds), and was one of five Illini drafted last June. They just missed the 64-team field, after getting beaten twice in the Big Ten Tournament by Minnesota.

Plenty of talent remains for the Illini. It starts, though by no means finishes, with second baseman Michael Massey. Sometimes, writers say a player is good defensively. In the YouTube generation, we can show it. When his glove is paired with being considered the best hitting prospect in the Big Ten, he’s legitimate.

They return quite a bit from last season, despite Spillane, closer Joey Gerber, and outfielder Doran Turchin heading to pro ball through the draft. Massey’s partner-in-crime up the middle, Ben Troike, also returns. Troike hit .299, and is respected defensively as well. Center fielder Zac Taylor returns after being drafted by the Twins, but not signing. As “up the middle” counts in college, as well, starting catcher Jeff Korte returns for his senior season. As with last season, he figures to call his own pitches, which is atypical in the college game.

Before I leave the catching spot, this Illini squad has a degree of a Cubs tie-in. Among their top recruits (they were ranked 22nd and 24th in their recruiting class) for the 2019 season is catcher Jacob Campbell, from Wisconsin’s Janesville Craig High School. While it’s uncertain if it will be Korte, Campbell, or a timeshare this season, Illinois looks to have some catching depth this season.

In college, it boils to pitching. Almost every time. The top four in terms of games started on the mound return. So does pure fireman Ryan Thompson, who earned the win in eight of 24 games, despite not starting any of them. While the Big Ten gets more competitive as time goes on, the Illini might be a valid field of 64 option in 2019. The Fighting Illini open their schedule in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on February 15th against Georgetown who figures to open with realistic draft option Brent Killam.

This “college thing” isn’t a passing fancy for me. Most are far more comfortable talking about the Cubs signing a veteran free-agent or four this off-season. Whether big names or more complementary pieces, that’s not even close to a preference for me. Free agency contracts explode on the team far too often. These lead to “cost-cutting” trades that surrender talent in other fashions.

I’m more interested in knowing which college players are worth adding for their initial contracts. A team that consistently drafts and develops talent above the league average gets a benefit in quality on those early season inexpensive seasons. You’e welcome to argue “Harper or Machado.” I’m more intrigued by players who will run through the Cubs pipeline.

Drafting good talent in the college game is about finding the good talent in the college game, and there’s plenty of it. While that is a scouting concern, fans are permitted to seek it out in baseball, as with football or basketball. I’m much more likely to be fascinated by a player in the Cubs pipeline that I’ve followed through the pipeline, which often means through the college ranks.

I’m a bit old school, in that I have a sheet of paper for many schools already. I’m watching 2018 games on YouTube this month. After all, the pipeline and the draft are what I do. Let me know which teams you want a capsule on. They’ll normally be tacked on the backside of a Draft Prep piece. Among the Illinois schools I’ll look at are Illinois-Chicago, Northern Illinois, Northwestern, SIU Carbondale, SIU Edwardsville, Illinois State, Bradley, Western Illinois, Eastern Illinois, and anyone you holler at me about forgetting. Notre Dame probably deserves a full piece, as well.

Consider tracking a college baseball team for 2019 if you enjoy baseball. A basic commitment starts with an on-line search of the school, and a glance at some stories, and the roster. Illini head coach Dan Hartleb’s squad is worth paying attention to, after a 33-20 season in 2018. Massey figures to be drafted in June, possibly before the third day begins. Drew Dickinson has been improving the pitching staff, and they recruited well again this cycle.

Choose to track whichever side you want. Or to not pay attention. However, the February and March games in the college spectrum are much more hotly contested than Spring Training games. Many of the quality MLB talent will filter from the college ranks.

As following local teams is a default for many, consider Illinois to be your squad to follow. With Massey and the rest, your efforts should be rewarded if you do. Especially if you live in the WDWS frequency range, as they cover most Illini games. If you are “cheering locally,” swing by Illinois Field for a game. Parking should be less stressful than at Wrigley, and the food is likely cheaper. Go Illini, and Go Cubs.