Illini Season Preview Part 2: Position Players
Feb. 10, 2012
Note: This is the second of a two-part season preview leading into the Illini's season-opener against Notre Dame on Friday, Feb. 17. For an in-depth look at the pitching staff, click here.
As Illinois looks to build on the success of the 2011 campaign that finished with a share of the Big Ten regular-season title, a Big Ten Tournament championship and a trip to the NCAA Fullerton Regional that ended in the regional title game, the Fighting Illini bring back some familiar faces but will have to plug some holes created by graduation and the Major League Baseball draft.
Of the 12 players lost from last season's team, five were starters in the field. Pete Cappetta, Adam Davis, Matt Dittman, Casey McMurray and Josh Parr started 678 games in an Illini uniform and provided steady leadership in 2011.
But despite those losses, Illinois returns nearly half its hits from last season (265 of 554, 47.8 percent) and 42.7 percent of its runs (140 of 328). The Illini also bring back 42.6 percent of their extra-base hits (63 of 148) and 38.7 percent of their stolen bases (38 of 98).
Leading the charge into 2012 will be the four returning starters from a year ago: senior center fielder Willie Argo, junior right fielder Davis Hendrickson, junior third baseman Brandon Hohl and junior Justin Parr, who likely will move from designated hitter to left field. Those four combined to start 220 out of a possible 228 games in 2011 and led the team in hits (Parr), RBIs (Hohl), steals (Argo) and walks (Argo).
In the outfield, Argo and Hendrickson will return in center and right fields, respectively. Parr is the projected starter in left field, where he brings athleticism and good arm strength, after winning the 2011 Big Ten batting title with a .411 average in conference play. Argo enters the season poised to make a run at a number of career record lists, most notably stolen bases. He brings 76 steals into the year, eight shy of breaking Todd Schmitke's 30-year-old record of 83. Hendrickson proved to be steady both at the plate and in the field last year, with such highlights as the game-winning hit in Illinois' dramatic 5-4 comeback win over Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament and his full-extension diving catch at the foul line in the Illini's comeback win over No. 11 Cal State Fullerton in the NCAA Tournament.
Redshirt-junior Bill Charvat and freshmen Chase Hainline and Will Krug will serve as Illinois' backup outfielders, with Charvat more likely to see time at a corner spot and Hainline and Krug able to play all three positions.
Hohl is Illinois' only returning infield starter after being one of the most consistent players in the Illini lineup in 2011. He hit .311, led the team with 39 RBIs, ranked second with five home runs, 13 doubles and 27 walks, and was third with 60 hits. He also made only 11 errors at the hot corner, proving to be one of the best third basemen in the Midwest. Sophomore Thomas Lindauer, redshirt-sophomore Jordan Parr and freshman Michael Hurwitz also could see time at third base.
Jordan Parr, who transferred from Parkland College in the summer, is the leading candidate to start at first base but is being challenged by redshirt-junior Thomas Shelton and freshman Josh Ferry. Parr hit .355 with 32 RBIs and 50 runs for the Cobras in 2011. Shelton has moved to first base from catcher and has started 19 games at designated hitter the past two years, compiling a .258 career average. Ferry, who also is in the mix for the starting rotation as a right-handed pitcher, is a switch-hitter who was a two-way player in high school. He drove in 31 runs and stole a Lemont High School-record 20 bases in 2010.
Three young players are battling for the job at second base, as redshirt-freshman Reid Roper and true-freshmen Michael Hurwitz and David Kerian are going head-to-head. Roper redshirted the 2011 campaign after suffering a knee injury during fall practice in 2010. He was a 29th-round draft pick by the Atlanta Braves in 2010 and was ranked the No. 2 defensive infielder and No. 6 hitter in the state of Illinois in the class of 2010 by Prep Baseball Report. The switch-hitting Hurwitz was PBR's No. 58 overall prospect in the class of 2011 after hitting .355 with a .512 on-base percentage in 2011 and.438 with 27 steals in 2010. He was an All-State selection both seasons. Kerian, who comes to Illinois from Dakota Dunes, S.D., also is a switch-hitter and was selected by the Washington Nationals in the 42nd round of the 2011 MLB Draft. He hit .508 with 14 home runs and 44 RBIs in 2011 while leading Bishop Heelan Catholic High School to the Iowa substate championship game.
At shortstop, sophomore Thomas Lindauer is the leading candidate to replace two-year starter Josh Parr. Lindauer was named to the All-Big Ten Freshman team in 2011 after playing in 27 games and starting 19. He showed great versatility, starting nine games at second base, seven at shortstop and three at third base, and committed only three errors in 100 chances. Hohl or Roper also could see time at shortstop.
But what might be the tightest competition on the squad is behind the plate, where four players are competing for the starting catcher spot. Redshirt-sophomore Alex Lincoln, who appeared in five games last season, and redshirt-freshman Kelly Norris-Jones, who has spent time with the Canadian Junior National Team in his career, are in the mix along with sophomore Ryan Arrick and junior Brent Kuper. Arrick played in 12 games and started three last season as Adam Davis' backup, posting a .278 average. Kuper transferred from Parkland College prior to the fall semester after hitting .247 with only five errors for the Cobras.
The final spot in the lineup, designated hitter, could be filled by a number of Illini, depending on a number of factors such as matchups with opposing pitchers or who is swinging the hottest bat. Shelton, Kerian, Hurwitz, Ferry, Roper, Jordan Parr and Charvat all are in the mix at DH.
Illinois opens the season in one week when it faces Notre Dame at noon CT on Feb. 17 at the Walter Fuller Complex in St. Petersburg, Fla., as part of the third-annual Big Ten/Big East Challenge. The Illini then face Louisville, which is ranked No. 25 in the preseason NCBWA poll, on Feb. 18 and No. 27 St. John's on Feb. 19.