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Indiana's infield will have something to prove in 2020

After losing to Louisville in the 2019 regional final, IU also lost three players who combined to start 136 games in the infield last year. First baseman and team RBI leader Matt Lloyd, along with senior catcher Ryan Fineman, left for the MLB and shortstop Justin Walker transferred to Purdue.

Cole Barr fouls one off in last year's NCAA Regional game against UIC in Louisville. (Jared Rigdon/HN)

Because of this, there will be a few new faces around the infield at Bart Kaufman Field in 2020. 

Last season, third baseman Cole Barr was one of the most consistent players for the Hoosiers. Starting in all 60 games in 2019, Barr tied for the team lead in home runs with 17 and was second in RBI with 51. He turned down the Seattle Mariners after being drafted in the 37th round and is a lock to start at third base for head coach Jeff Mercer’s Hoosiers.

Mercer said during the preseason that he is looking to players such as Barr to provide a sense of leadership in the dugout and on the field. Barr has a chance to be one of the Big Ten’s best power hitters, and could propel himself to elite status if his defense is cleaned up after leading the team in errors last season with 17.

Alongside Barr, we could see senior Jeremy Houston win back the shortstop job after Walker took over at short about halfway through last season. With Walker at Purdue now, Houston is the obvious first candidate, but will need to prove to Mercer that he can hit Big Ten pitching consistently in order to win the job back.

Last season, Houston started at shortstop in 31 games and finished the season with a .210 batting average and only 10 RBIs. Houston also provides some value on the basepaths, stealing two bases last year, but will have to hold off a couple transfers for the job.

Mercer kept his John A. Logan College connection strong as infielder Cooper Trinkle joins the Hoosiers as junior this season. Trinkle, alongside senior Samford University transfer Jordan Fucci, could potentially takeover the shortstop job if Houston’s struggles at the plate continue over to this season. 

Fucci was injured for most of last season, but batted .273 with 25 RBIs in his junior season. Trinkle is more of a speedster, stealing 17 bases at John A. Logan College last season, but also showed he can handle the bat, finishing with a .368 batting average in 37 games.

Aside from Barr, the only other constant in the infield this season seems to be at second base. Last year, Drew Ashley started in 59 of 60 games and was one of the more sure-handed defensive players for Mercer, committing just four errors. Ashley isn’t going to hit the ball out of the park much, but provides good balance for an Indiana team that was second in home runs in the entire country last season.

Ashley finished the year batting .284 and led the team in hits — even beating out Matt Lloyd, who slugged a team-high .573. Ashley figures to be a consistent presence at the top of the Hoosiers' lineup this season.

Lloyd was not only a cornerstone in the Hoosiers’ lineup in 2019, but he also served as the team’s first baseman and at times the designated hitter. His departure to the MLB leaves a big hole at first base, which makes the position one of the biggest question marks heading into the season.

Mercer did not give any insight into who would fill in for Lloyd at first base and it may be too early to tell. This may be a position where the job is won by someone whose bat Mercer has to have in the lineup. Sophomore Jake Skrine appeared in 14 games last season and his 6-foot-2 frame would be a big target for the Hoosier infield, but at this point it is all speculation.

Catcher was a position that hurt Indiana at times last year. When senior Ryan Fineman went down with an injury, Wyatt Cross stepped in for the Hoosiers and struggled defensively at times, committing four errors and allowing some crucial runs from passed balls.

However, IU landed an important transfer in now-senior Collin Hopkins from Western Kentucky. Mercer said he has already seen growth from Hopkins both offensively and defensively before any games have been played. Hopkins is a 6-foot, 190-pound catcher from Nashville, Tennessee, and started 19 games for Western Kentucky last season. Hopkins struggled a bit at the plate last year for the Hilltoppers, recording a .206/.304/.221 slash line.

Mercer will have options behind the dish, though, as two other catchers have joined the program. Brant Voth is a 6-foot-2 freshman from Simi Valley, California, and was ranked as the country’s 43rd best high school catcher last year.

Mercer landed yet another John A. Logan College transfer in junior catcher Hunter Combs. Combs had an impressive sophomore season, batting .376 and driving in 48 runs. A smart hitter at the plate, Combs struck out just 13 times in 39 games last year. Drew Ashley was also mentioned by Mercer as a potential catcher this year because of his experience in high school.

Ashley is a proven second baseman in the Big Ten, but if Hopkins, Voth and Combs aren’t ready for increased competition, it could be Ashley behind the dish.

With a mixed bag of a lot of experience and little to no experience, it will be interesting to see how the IU infield plays out. For Mercer, he’s intrigued to see if any underclassmen will step in the team’s first weekend few weekend series of the year.

“Being able to be in big environments and to be able to play pressure-packed baseball really helps to shape the character of you and your toughness,” Mercer said.

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