Today we begin our 2021 Indiana baseball preview series with a look at the infielders on the roster. Over the next week, we’ll also cover the outfielders, starting rotation, bullpen and what the Big Ten picture looks like coming into the season. You’ll be able to find all installments of this series here.
It’s been about a full year, but at long last we’re finally gearing up for Big Ten baseball again. Last season ended abruptly, with the Hoosiers posting a 9-6 record. Since that final game — a 6-2 win over Cincinnati in Bloomington on March 11, 2020 — the world and, more specifically, this program have changed quite a bit.
There were some key players who departed — guys like Elijah Dunham, Cal Krueger and Grant Sloan, among others — but there were also a ton of players who chose to take their extra year of eligibility and use it in Bloomington. That’s led to quite the situation for Hoosier skipper Jeff Mercer.
This will likely become a recurring theme over the course of not just these previews, but the season as well — this IU ballclub is deep as all get-out. That’s really in all regards, but the infield, specifically, may feature at least two — perhaps three — legitimate options that would deserve playing time in a normal season.
Cole Barr should probably be getting ready for his first full professional season of baseball, but with the 2020 MLB Draft shortened significantly, he went undrafted and returned for a second shot at a junior season. He should be planted firmly into the middle of IU’s lineup and he’ll also lock down the hot corner, as well. As a sophomore back in 2019, he broke through as a two-way force, hitting 17 home runs and developing into a plus-defender over the course of the season.
The big question he didn’t get to answer last spring, though, is whether or not he can still hit for that kind of power without racking up strikeouts Adam Dunn-style. In his 269 (nice) plate appearances he struck out 87 times, roughly a 32 percent rate. To put it simply, about once every three plate appearances he was sent back to the bench on strikes. If he can cut down on that he should be one of the premier players in the conference (he’ll be one of the premier sluggers either way) and his draft stock should rise.
Saddling up next to Barr on the left side of the infield for seemingly the millionth year in a row should be Jeremy Houston. The Chicago native has been a regular in the IU lineup since his freshman year back in 2017, making him a likely five-year starter for the Hoosiers. Truthfully I’ve done absolutely no research on this, but it genuinely feels like there aren’t many players in program history who have played in as many games as Houston (or will have by the end of this season). At this point, he’s seen it all.
Houston should once again be the owner of one of the Big Ten’s best gloves. He’s been masterful as a defender since he arrived in Bloomington and one would expect that to continue. He should also be plugged into the back end of the order because as good as he’s been defensively, he’s certainly struggled at the plate. Yet despite the weaker offensive numbers, he’s become a very pesky hitter in his older age, often drawing out at-bats and giving pitchers a handful before returning to the bench, which, frankly, is about as much as this team needs out of him most of the time given the big bats that regularly surround him.
Joining Houston up the middle should be Grant Macciochi. The former Kentucky transfer and two-way player was IU’s starter at the keystone for all of a half-hour or so last season, getting the nod in the season-opener and then promptly getting injured after his first at-bat in the cream and crimson. After that injury, we saw Cooper Trinkle and Drew Ashley split time at second base, but over the offseason the former transferred out, heading to Division II Saint Leo, and the latter is a bit of a special case (more on that later), though he’ll likely see time at second base over the course of the season.
First base seemed like it could be up in the air for a while, then Jordan Fucci decided he’d return for another year in Bloomington. He was previously a grad transfer from Samford and claimed the starting gig last season. He ended the shortened season with a .283 batting average and 14 runs batted in, the second-highest total on the team. Obviously, with him getting just 15 games in last season we didn’t get to see a whole lot of him, but my initial first impression was that he kind of had a Scotty Bradley vibe to him; a very solid first baseman who barrels up balls and should be a reliable option in the five-hole or so.
Wrapping up our assumed starters we’ll look behind the dish to Collin Hopkins, another former transfer who staked his claim to a starting gig with IU last season. The former Western Kentucky Hilltopper entered the preseason in a battle with fellow transfer Hunter Combs and well-regarded incoming freshman Brant Voth to take over for longtime backstop Ryan Fineman, who’d graduated the year prior. Hopkins seemingly won that competition in a landslide as not only was he the opening-day starter, he ate up most of the innings behind the dish for the Hoosiers. In fact, Voth and Combs rarely played in IU’s 15 games, and over the offseason they each transferred — Voth heading to John A. Logan College, a midwestern junior college that produces more than its fair share of talent, and Combs moving on to Kentucky Wesleyan.
Those moves would, in theory, create a bit of a concerning lack of depth at catcher and perhaps for a moment it did, but that’s no longer the case. While those two left, the Hoosiers brought in a pair of other options. Jacob Southern transferred to IU from Jacksonville, a solid A-SUN program with a cool mascot (go Dolphins!), and figures to be a solid bench piece for the Hoosiers — and perhaps a DH candidate, as well. As a senior at JU, he started 17 games, managing to build his batting average up to the .213 mark after opening the season 0-18, meaning he hit .317 over his last 13 games as a Dolphin. He also hit a couple of dingers, had six doubles, six walks and seven RBI. During Fall workouts he showed the ability to hit absolute ROCKETS, reportedly firing one 440 feet. That’s some serious distance!
IU’s other new face behind the plate is freshman Joe Reid. He was the third-best prospect to come out of Missouri in the class of 2020, according to Perfect Game and the 37th-best catcher nationwide. He received a grade of 9 from the publication (out of 10) which, by PG’s rating system, means he’s regarded as a “potential top 10 round draft pick and/or highest level college prospect.” Pretty good!
If all else fails, the Hoosiers can turn to Ashley to throw on some gear and go wild. They did it last season at times, even giving him starts back there. Frankly, Ashley’s a serviceable backup at every position on the field. He can do it all. Look for him to bounce around as needed, filling in here and there. His best spots are probably second base and left field, but with as much talent as this team has, don’t be surprised to see the utilityman play seemingly everywhere because his ability as a leadoff hitter is an important piece of the IU lineup. He was hitting .288 before the stoppage last season with a .451 on-base percentage. Back in 2019, he hit .284 with a .400 OBP. He should be expected to lead off again for the Hoosiers, no matter where he’s playing defensively.
Jake Skrine is another guy who could be a bat off the bench for the Hoosiers, though there’s potentially a bit of repetition with him and Southern as catcher/first base/DH-types.
Craig Yoho could also vie for playing time as a new face. He transferred from Houston during the offseason, getting a little closer to home. The Fishers HS alumnus was teammates with IU star Grant Richardson back in the day and now they’re on the same team once again. He’s likely another option at second base and could provide some depth in the outfield as well. He doesn’t have a ton of college experience, taking a medical redshirt in 2019 after playing in just eight games. He got just a single at-bat before last season’s stoppage, but should be in the mix as a bench guy.
There’s also a larger-than-normal contingency of young guys who would normally be ready to make a splash, but they may struggle for playing time with Barr, Houston, Macciochi, Fucci and Hopkins back in the fold.
There’s probably an alternate universe where COVID never happened, those guys all graduated or went pro and Paul Toetz is sizing up as IU’s starting third baseman. The now redshirt freshman was a solid get for the Hoosiers coming out of Wisconsin and played well in his first fall, but got injured in the preseason and didn’t see any playing time in 2020 because of it. During fall play all the way back in 2019, Mercer referred to him as “a tremendously talented player” and also said that ‘he’s got a chance to do some really good things in his career at Indiana” so take that for what you will.
There’s also a pair of true freshmen, Reid’s classmates, who should prove to be pretty good players.
Kip Fougerousse is kind of a local kid, hailing from Linton (Greene County stand up!), and from the looks of it, he’ll be an important piece for this program at some point — if not in 2021. He’s a big, strong kid who was ranked 8th in the state by Perfect Game and profiles as a corner infielder or corner outfielder — perhaps both — because of his mixture of strength and athleticism. When he was a junior in high school, I watched him drop an ill-fated pitch into the home bullpen at Bart Kaufman Field as the Miners took on Edgewood.
Then there’s the guy who Fougerousse helped recruit to Indiana — Tank Espalin. Espalin was a huge surprise recruit for the Hoosiers, ending up in Bloomington after going undrafted (likely due to the draft’s shortened format) and losing his scholarship to play at Southern Cal after a few Trojans unexpectedly went undrafted as well.
Espalin was nearly one of the top 200 high school prospects in the country, ranked 204th national by Perfect Game, and received a PG grade of 10 (once again out of 10) labeling him as a “potential very high draft pick and/or Elite (PG’s capitalization, not mine) level college prospect.”
The California native ran a 6.95-second 60-yard dash as measured by PG, which is the equivalent of a 4.6 40-yard dash, hits from the left side with some pop and plays up the middle defensively with soft hands. Frankly, if Espalin delivers on half of the promise he’s shown in his prep career he should be a pro in a couple of years. In the short-term, he should be right in the mix for playing time as a true freshman and could ultimately prove to be a breakout player depending on how quickly he can adjust to the college level.
All of that leaves the Hoosiers with an exciting mixture of veterans and talented youngsters in the infield, totaling roughly 13 players who could potentially have an impact this spring. Best of luck to Jeff Mercer in figuring out how to balance out the playing time, especially with no midweek games or early-season non-conference matchups to try things out.