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2019 MLB Draft Prep: Cheer Local-NIU/SIU

A couple more Illinois state schools for you to look at.

Itchy Jones Stadium, home of the SIU Salukis
Southern Illinois University

The drive from DeKalb, Illinois to Carbondale is a rather lengthy one. By a cursory look online, the trip by car takes about 5½ hours. That’s not only over half a work day, it’s also about the length necessary to jump two rungs in the college baseball world, all things being equal. Today, I look at both teams’ prospects for success in 2019.

Northern Illinois University has an enrollment of a bit over 13,000. Southern’s has dropped to a bit below 13,000. As such, numbers-wise, they are rather similar. The Missouri Valley is a far more legitimate baseball conference because their schools are much more southern than the Mid-American Conference’s. As I’m writing this, the Akron Zips are announcing they have poached former MLB player Chris Sabo from Florida’s IMG Academy to reboot their baseball program, starting in 2020. Recruiting talent for college baseball in the north is very complicated.

My hunch is that if SIU were located five hours more south driving, they would not only have to change their name, but they could be a much better baseball school. College baseball teams are limited to 11.7 scholarships.

As noted in the article, staying “in state” is quite important in college baseball. With recruiting budgets limited, it’s likely an Illinois prep near Carbondale will go there, more likely than DeKalb. As such, Northern recruits from... where? A look at the Northern roster shows a few names from the Chicago suburbs, a handful from the upper Midwest, and the oddity from Kansas, California and Virginia.

Another problem the Huskies have is talent retention. Tanner Foster started 11 games as a pitcher for the Huskies in 2018. If you’re being very diligent in your research, he isn’t listed on the 2019 roster. He transferred to the University of Tampa, presumably for more playable baseball weather, and more looks from scouts.

Northern finished with a 20-35 record last season. As a team, they hit .251 with an OPS of .675. A top pitcher and hitter both left for independent ball after the season. No Northern hitter had any more than three homers in 2018. Their top returning hitter appears to be Tommy Szczasny, who had three homers and an OPS of .719. None that return are better. Their top returning pitcher seems to be Michael Lasiewicz, who fanned 82 hitters as a freshman in 82.1 innings.

SIU finished 28-30 overall, 10-11 in conference. It’s amazing what a five hour drive south can do. Two Salukis were drafted, and three played in affiliated ball in 2018. Connor Kopach was a regular for the Everett Aquasox in the Northwest League (where the Cubs affiliate in Eugene plays), after his time in Carbondale. It’s entirely reasonable that the 25th rounder of the Mariners plays full-season ball in 2019. (Kopach had a .946 OPS in the MVC. If an infielder with some flexibility and pop puts up those numbers in the MVC, he’ll get an affiliated look, somewhere, usually.)

SIU hit .268 (OPS .749 with 41 homers in 58 games), but was felled by a 5.00 team ERA. Southern returns two weekend starters, and they might well lag a bit in The Valley. However, they’ll have Alex Lyon (29 steals) and Nicola Vasic (21 steals) returning. They appear to be the top returning hitters, as well. Both would make for entirely logical senior signs if the represent well. Or, they might get the non-drafted free agent status, as well.

On the plus side, the Salukis look to audio stream their games. As such, you can easily enough listen to a game in February or March, if they are your selection. Northern doesn’t look to stream their baseball games.

The Salukis start their season (you should know this part by now) on February 15 in Thibodeau, Louisiana against Nicholls State. The next weekend, they visit Memphis, before a three-weekend Play Local streak against Western Illinois, NIU, and Illinois. Northern jumps with a four-game set against Cal Baptist, who developed current Cubs pitching prospect Tyson Miller.

Being in a mid-major in any sport leads to difficulties. The sport being baseball adds to the baggage, and the further north, the worse. If you live withing twenty minutes of a campus, you might want to watch a game in person to support the entire “tapestry of the game”. This grows exponentially for those irked by the contracts players sign. College kids are playing baseball for a partial college scholarship, and the name on the front of the shirt..

If you’re still trying to figure out which program to devote time to between now and the draft, it takes a special sort of odd duck to select a “cold weather side” unlikely to qualify for the tournament. Perhaps your homework efforts would be better rewarded elsewhere. However, the Huskies and Salukis would appreciate any support you can offer.