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Iowa Baseball Preview: The Infield

Team captain Tyler Cropley will lead a new-look infield in 2018.

Alex Kroeze/Daily Iowan

While the Iowa Baseball squad gets ready to begin their 2018 campaign in Kissimmee, FL this weekend, we here at Black Heart Gold Pants are also getting gearing up for the start of college baseball. Yesterday, we ran a piece on Iowa’s 2018 schedule. Our season preview continues with a look at the infield.

Rick Heller has a difficult job to do in 2018. The most popular topic of conversation this offseason has been about how Iowa will need to replace their entire starting rotation. It’s a huge deal - Iowa won 39 games on their way to being crowned Big Ten Tournament Champions last year, largely off the strength of their stellar pitching staff. While Heller has gone about organizing a new pitching staff for this year, he’s also quietly revamping his entire infield.

Key Departures

  • 1B Jake Adams: 61/61 GP/GS - .335 BA, 82 H, 14 2B, 29 HR, 72 RBI. .991 Fielding Percentage.
  • SS Mason McCoy: 61/60 GP/GS - .328 BA, 83 H, 18 2B, 5 HR, 34 RBI. .974 Fielding Percentage.

Of course, no one has really forgotten that Iowa will be without Jake Adams and Mason McCoy in 2018. How could you, when they combined for a .331 batting average, 34 home runs, and 106 RBI last season? Not only were they productive at the plate, but they also set the table for the rest of the lineup - they tied for the team lead with 55 runs scored apiece (although it’s probably important to note that Adams drove himself in 29/55 times). Their departures, as well as an injury to starting left fielder Chris Whelan, have forced the Hawkeyes to make some major adjustments on the infield.

With all the major roster changes coming off an impressive season, Heller will have to be creative in order to replace their production in the lineup. The World University Games gave him a chance to experiment with players at different positions. Will he move his infielders around early and stick with a lineup? Go with committees to fill the vacancies all season? He has some intriguing combinations to work with.

Catcher

#5 Tyler Cropley (SR)
2017: 61/59 GP/GS - .268 BA, 55 H, 8 2B, 9 HR, 36 RBI. .990 Fielding Percentage.
University Games: 7/7 GP/GS - .273 BA, 6 H, 2 R, 4 RBI.

Cropley comes into the 2018 season as a team captain and the incumbent starter at catcher. Even while he scuffled a bit at the plate for the first half of the season, he was a terrific defensive catcher - he rarely made mistakes and he helped lead a pitching staff that was utterly dominant for the majority of the season. With an entirely new pitching rotation this year, expect the senior to catch more often than not. Pair his defensive abilities with a bat that caught fire in the second half of 2017, and he should be a fixture in the middle of the lineup for the Hawkeyes in 2018.

#20 Austin Guzzo (SR)
2017: 32/22 GP/GS - .225 BA, 16 H, 1 2B, 2 HR, 10 RBI. 1.000 Fielding Percentage.
WUG: DNP

Guzzo saw a decent amount of action in 2017, but only four of his starts came behind the plate. The majority of his appearances came as Iowa’s DH. He’ll likely see limited action again in 2018 in the same role, particularly in games where Cropley starts in left or grabs some bench.

#32 Brett McCleary (FR)
2017 (HS): Iowa Newspaper Association all-state; .331 BA, 6 HR, 47 RBI
WUG: 6/6 GP/GS - .292 BA, 7 H, 2 R, 2 RBI.

#13 Matt Berst (FR)
2017 (HS): Iowa Newspaper Association all-state; .416 BA, 9 2B, 6 HR, .491 OBP

These two are likely to see very limited action in 2018 unless they can hop Guzzo on the depth chart. McCleary would be the favorite to do so after performing well in the World University Games, but redshirts appear likely here.

First Base

#3 Matt Hoeg (JR)
2017: 60/56 GP/GS - .277 BA, 54 H, 16 2B, 5 HR, 38 RBI. .962 Fielding Percentage.
WUG: 7/6 GP/GS - 3 starts at first base

Hoeg seemed primed to take over for Jake Adams at first base this season before LF Chris Whelan went down with a UCL injury that required Tommy John surgery. He’s still likely to see plenty of action at first base this season, but will likely see time in the outfield in certain games as well. No matter where he plays this year, Iowa will want a reliable bat like his in the lineup as often as they can get it.

#7 Grant Judkins (SO)
2017: 43/33 GP/GS - .270 BA, 30 H, 1 2B, 2 HR, 16 RBI. 1.000 Fielding Percentage.
WUG: 7/5 GP/GS - 4 starts at first base, one on the mound

Grant Judkins figures to be an even bigger piece of Iowa’s puzzle in 2018 with his versatility. When Hoeg isn’t at first base, you can figure to see the sophomore from Pella, IA manning the position. The biggest factor in Judkins’ availability is how Rick Heller chooses to utilize him on the mound - he could consistently be Iowa’s midweek starter, freeing him up to play first more often on the weekends without being forced to make subs. He will likely DH games that Hoeg plays first as well.

#28 Chris Whelan (RS JR)
2017: 57/57 GP/GS - .309 BA, 64 H, 11 2B, 7 HR, 25 RBI. .956 Fielding Percentage.
WUG: 7/7 GP/GS - .308 BA, 8 H, 11 RBI

This is a bit of a long shot, honestly. In an interview with HawkCentral, Whelan notes that he expects to return to the lineup in mid-March from elbow surgery, but that he won’t play the outfield this season. He’s most likely going to DH when he returns, but he did mention the possibility he plays some at first. We’ll see...

#30 Connor McCaffery (FR)
2017 (HS): .386 BA, 11 2B, 6 HR, 49 RBI, 31 BB
#36 Connor Lindaman (RS FR)
2017: redshirted

In the aforementioned Hawk Central piece, Heller says that McCaffery is still regaining his strength from his illnesses that have kept him off the basketball court, and that he’s not likely to see the field in 2018. Lindaman could see limited action, although there’s a long line in front of him at first this season.

Second Base

#4 Mitchell Boe (JR)
2017: 61/59 GP/GS - .244 BA, 48 H, 10 2B, 26 RBI. .981 Fielding Percentage.
WUG: 7/7 GP/GS - 7 starts at 2B; 3 RBI, 6 BB

This position is the most certain Iowa has on the infield other than catcher. Second base is Boe’s and he’ll start most of Iowa’s games here, if not all of them. The junior showed a knack for timely hits over and over again in 2017, and showcased the most dependable glove on the field for the Hawkeyes. The batting average isn’t quite where you’d want it to be, but a patient approach at the plate allows him to draw his walks (26 in ‘17, 6 at the University Games). If he can improve even more at the plate in 2018, Iowa should have a deep lineup once again.

Third Base

#1 Lorenzo Elion (SO)
2017 (Kirkwood): .347 BA, 63 H, 11 2B, 3 3B, 6 HR, 45 RBI, 14 SB
WUG: 6/5 GP/GS - .364 BA, 2 2B, 4 R - five starts at third

With Matt Hoeg taking on the role as Iowa’s super-utility player in 2018, that leaves another big hole at third base. To start the season, Heller has announced that Lorenzo Elion, a sophomore transfer, will get the first opportunity to play third. Elion’s stat line from his time at Kirkwood and in the University Games shows that he has some serious pop in his bat. While he hasn’t developed as a home run hitter thus far in his career, it’ll be nice to see someone who can drive the ball to the gaps step in to help fill the void of Mason McCoy on the left side of the infield.

The biggest question on Elion is how dependable his glove will be at third - coaches have mentioned that he has natural defensive abilities, but that he’s taken the offseason to work on shoring up his fundamentals. If he’s able to play a clean third base, Elion looks like he’ll have really solid upside for the Hawks.

Shortstop

#23 Kyle Crowl (SO)
2017: 20/6 GP/GS - .066 BA, 2 H, 1 2B, 1 HR, 4 RBI. .900 Fielding Percentage.
WUG: 7 starts at SS; .333 BA, 5 R, 5 BB

Kyle Crowl started off the 2017 season with a bang - quite literally, as his first collegiate hit was a 2-run home run to defeat South Florida in Iowa’s first win of the season. After that, things went south in a hurry. This year, he looks to turn the page as Rick Heller has tabbed him as Iowa’s starting shortstop.

It’ll be interesting to see how Crowl adjusts to life as the everyday shortstop - five of his starts came at third base last season, while only one came at the position he’ll be playing this year. His fielding percentage wasn’t great in 2017, but that could potentially be chalked up to a loss of confidence when his bat disappeared. After spending the entire offseason preparing to play short, he should be ready. If not...

#16 Tanner Wetrich (JR)
2017 (Mineral Area CC): .356 BA, 56 H, 12 2B, 6 HR, 29 RBI
WUG: .333 BA, 2 hits in six appearances

... then Tanner Wetrich will be next in line for playing time. Like Lorenzo Elion, Wetrich comes to the Hawkeyes after tearing the cover off the ball in community college. The home run power isn’t there, but he hits for average and has a bit of pop in his bat to go with it. If he doesn’t get the job here, he’ll likely be the primary backup at second and third base.

#14 Zion Pettigrew (FR)
2017 (HS): .404 BA, 8 HR, 52 RBI

Barring injury or ineffectiveness elsewhere on the infield, Pettigrew will probably redshirt in 2018.