By Andrew Olson – OnlyGators.com Contributor
The unanimously top 25-ranked Florida Gators are hoping to bounce back from a disastrous 2013 campaign that saw the team go 29-27 in the regular season and get bounced out of both league and national postseason play without winning a single game.
UF also lost five players to the 2014 MLB Draft – including three top pitchers – and enters 2014 with a young but talented roster filled with up-and-coming prospects.
In the offseason, seventh-year head coach Kevin O’Sullivan signed a top-notch 2014 recruiting class ranked No. 1 nationally by Baseball America, Collegiate Baseball and Perfect Game. The 15-member class makes up 43 percent of Florida’s roster, which features two fourth-year players (redshirt juniors) but not a single senior.
One year ago, the departures of nine MLB draft selections loomed large on opening night. This Friday, when UF begins the 2014 campaign with a three-game home series against Maryland, the most notable absence from the lineup card will be a current Gators outfielder in sophomore Harrison Bader. Bader was indefinitely suspended after police suspected alcohol played a role in a Feb. 2 scooter accident. Without him, Florida lacks its best hitter (.312) and one of only four designated outfielders.
Here’s what O’Sullivan (252-132) has to work with as the Gators open the 2014 campaign looking to bounce back from last season’s disappointments and begin moving in the right direction toward another College World Series berth.
Right-handed pitcher Jonathan Crawford: After a stellar sophomore season (6-2, 3.13 ERA) that included a postseason no-hitter, Crawford earned the No. 1 starter job for 2013 as a junior. His third year was a bit of a letdown from a wins-and-losses perspective (3-6, 3.84 ERA), but he led the team in strikeouts (69) and innings pitched (86.2). The Detroit Tigers grabbed Crawford with the No. 20 overall pick in the first round of the draft, and he decided to turn pro.
Right-handed pitcher Johnny Magliozzi: Holding down the role of closer last season, Magliozzi delivered with 12 saves – one shy of the UF record. As the rest of the staff struggled and battled injuries, Magliozzi found himself being used in a number of non-save situations and even made four starts, totaling 67.1 innings on the year. The sophomore hurler posted a team-best 2.67 ERA and left after being selected by the New York Mets in the 17th round of the draft.
Infielder Cody Dent: While Dent was never going to make a difference offensively (.176 career batting average), his talent and versatility on defense allowed O’Sullivan to experiment with the lineup. Dent had a team-high 10 sacrifice hits in 2013 and fielded at a .971 rate. The senior was selected by the Washington Nations in the 22nd round.
First baseman Vickash Ramjit: Starting 58 of 59 games in 2013, Ramjit was expected to play both first base and outfield but wound up seeing most of his time in the infield. He hit .277 in 213 at-bats and fielded his position exceptionally well (.989) and could often be counted on to deliver a big hit (or sacrifice fly) when needed offensively.
KEY PLAYERS RETURNING
Redshirt junior right-handed pitcher Karsten Whitson: Nobody expected Whitson to still be in Gainesville, FL for the 2014 season. After his much-discussed 2010 decision to sign with UF despite being selected as the No. 9 overall pick by the San Diego Padres, it was a foregone conclusion Whitson would leave after the 2013 season when he would be draft-eligible again. But the injury bug has gotten the best of Whitson, limiting him in 2012 and sidelining him for all of 2013 after he decided to have offseason shoulder surgery. The Washington Nationals drafted Whitson in the 37th round this past summer, but he opted to stay at Florida and try to improve his draft stock. The Gators are hoping the hard-throwing right-hander returns to his freshman form when he went 8-1 in 19 starts with 92 strikeouts in 97.1 innings as the No. 3 pitcher.
Sophomore shortstop Richie Martin: Florida’s top returning player might just be the man who leads things off all season. As a freshman, Martin took over top-of-the-order duties and hit .300, spending most of his time in center field (26 of 41 starts). He shined defensively, fielding .975 on the season, despite being unable to play the field for a full month with a broken finger.
Junior catcher Taylor Gushue: When he’s on, Gushue is a solid heart-of-the-order slugger. As a sophomore, he hit a mediocre .269 but did lead all Gators with 33 RBIs. His 13 doubles were also second on the team. This will be Gushue’s second season starting behind the plate, where he posted a .983 fielding percentage last season. It is time for him to put it all together and lead Florida the way he’s shown, at times, that he can.
Junior right fielder/pitcher Justin Shafer: With the right protection, Shafer could be primed for a big 2014. He is coming off a sophomore effort in which he hit .300 and led the Gators in doubles (17), total bases (103) and slugging percentage (.448). Shafer will be the everyday right fielder and can also pitch. He tossed 27.2 innings in 2013 with an ERA of 5.20. His tendency to throw hard for strikes makes him a potential candidate for the closer job in 2014.
Junior infielder/designated hitter Zack Powers: Powers is in his fourth year at UF, but 2013 was his first full season without a major injury (knee in 2011, shoulder in 2012). He hit .268 with 25 RBIs and will likely spend most of 2014 in the DH role.
Junior right-handed pitcher Ryan Harris: O’Sullivan’s most-used reliever in 2013, Harris appeared in games 37 times, the most since Connor Falkenbach’s school-record 51 showings in 2005. He is expected to be used in that role once again as he shined as a sophomore by registering a 3.07 ERA with 51 strikeouts in 58.2 innings.
The bright spot in O’Sullivan’s 2014 class is undoubtedly the pitching. Right-hander Brett Morales (Tampa, FL) was an early-round-caliber draft selection but scared off most clubs by proclaiming his intention to play for the Gators. He went 11-2 with a 0.58 ERA and 127 strikeouts in 85 innings during his senior year of high school. Similarly, RHP Logan Shore (Coon Rapids, MN) declined an opportunity to be drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the third round and got selected later than his talent would have yielded. The Gatorade Player of the Year out of Minnesota went 9-0 with a 0.27 ERA while hitting .429 last spring.
Lefty A.J. Puk (Cedar Rapids, IA) chose to play at Florida for the opportunity to be a two-way player seeing time at first base or at least as a designated hitter. Two freshmen virtually guaranteed to see action in the opening series are outfielders Ryan Larson (Orlando, FL) and Buddy Reed (Finksburg, MD). The pair of rookies join Shafer and the suspended Bader as the only listed outfielders on the Gators’ official roster.
THREE BIG QUESTIONs
How much does Bader’s suspension set Florida back?
Bader’s absence will be felt immediately. Building on his debut season as the team’s top hitter, he was reportedly having a great offseason and thought to be middle-of-the-order producer at the plate this year. Any production from the freshmen could help mask Bader’s absence, but it will be on the returning veterans to step up.
Will lack of leadership be an issue on a very young team?
The Gators must rely on their true juniors and mature second-year players, many of whom saw a lot of action in 2013, to step up and take leadership roles due to the aforementioned lack of seniors. The core four of Gushue, Turgeon, Tobias and Shafer have felt the highs of a trip to the College World Series and the lows of ending a sub-.500 season on a five-game losing streak. What they’ve learned from those experiences should help them guide the newcomers through the ups and downs of a 56-game regular season.
If 2013 was a rebuilding year, can 2014 be considered another? Will Florida ultimately have enough to return to Omaha?
With a No. 1 recruiting class and a solid veteran core, a trip to the College World Series not out of the realm of possibility though there are a few potential obstacles to overcome. There is no shortage of talent on this team, but before any Gator fans start looking at flights to Nebraska, they should remember that a strong weekend rotation is the proven way to win in the Southeastern Conference…and beyond Whitson, Florida’s rotation is far from decided. Even Whitson himself is somewhat of an unknown considering he has not been completely healthy since 2011. If the Gators can get that version of Whitson, it will be absolutely huge for the team in the effort to win the league ad advance deep in the postseason. Florida needs the starting pitching situation to sort itself out so the Gators can utilize their bullpen depth and veteran presence on the mound match rivals like South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
Photo Credit: Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY Sports