By Andrew Olson – OnlyGators.com Contributor
Florida Gators baseball opens its 2015 campaign against Rhode Island on Friday evening at McKethan Stadium in Gainesville, Florida.
Projected to be in the thick of the national championship picture this season, the Gators have opened ranked anywhere from No. 2 to No. 6 in various preseason polls.
In his eighth season, head coach Kevin O’Sullivan (292-155) will manage a squad that returned 22 lettermen and added a highly-touted class of 10 new freshmen, plus one transfer.
Sky-high expectations have become a February tradition in Gainesville during the O’Sullivan era, and back-to-back first-round exits from the NCAA Tournament are not about to deter experts and fans alike from expecting to see the Florida in Omaha for the College World Series.
The Gators return a majority of their 2014 starters in the field and a deep pitching staff, but as always, there are a few areas of uncertainty to be addressed: three incoming freshmen have big shoes to fill behind the plate, starters at second and third base are not yet set in stone, the starting first baseman is sidelined with an injury and one of Florida’s hurlers must establish himself as the No. 3 weekend starter.
Catcher Taylor Gushue: In order to get on the board, the Gators will need a big bat to step up in wake of Gushue leaving the program. The junior catcher led Florida in both total bases (105) and RBIs (49) during the 2014 campaign, subsequently being selected by the Pittsburg Pirates in the fourth round of the MLB Draft.
Second baseman Casey Turgeon: Choosing to forgo his senior season after being picked by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 24th round of the draft, Turgeon leaves the Gators with a hole up the middle defensively after fielding .990 last season.
KEY PLAYERS RETURNING
Sophomore right-handed pitcher Logan Shore: Establishing himself as the ace of the Gators pitching staff with a stellar rookie season (7-4, 2.16 ERA over 95.2 IP), Shore was named the 2014 SEC Freshman of the Year honors. If Shore can repeat his first-year success, Florida is in good shape at least one night per week.
Sophomore left-handed pitcher/first baseman A.J. Puk: A two-way player, Puk is expected to continue to contribute both on the mound and at the plate in 2015. The lefty hurler earned himself the No. 2 starting spot by going 5-2 with a 3.19 ERA in 20 appearances (seven starts) last year. Puk is also expected to see action at designated hitter and first base.
Junior outfielder Harrison Bader: An off-the-field issue forced Bader to get a late start in 2014, but upon his return, he provided a much-needed spark to a struggling offense, posting a team-leading .337 batting average and a career-high 24 RBIs. This year, Bader’s Vaders should have plenty to cheer about at the Mac from the get-go.
Junior shortstop Richie Martin: As a third-year starter up the middle, Martin is not only the anchor in the infield but also a team leader. The Gators will be looking for top-of-the-order consistency out of Martin, who hit an impressive .364 with the Bourne Braves in the Cape Cod League this past summer.
Senior infielder Josh Tobias: The lone senior in the field and one of only two remaining players with experience from UF’s last Omaha run in 2012 (senior pitcher Bobby Poyner, the other), Tobias is coming off a season in which he hit .305. Expect him to work his way into the lineup more often than not.
Freshman C JJ Schwarz: A signature piece of the 2014 recruiting class who turned down an offer from the Milwaukee Brewers, Schwarz is the most likely candidate to see action behind the plate in Gushue’s stead. Freshmen Mark Koloszvary and Mike Rivera will also be in the mix to fill the void.
Freshman 2B Dalton Guthrie: The likely candidate to be Turgeon’s replacement in the field, Guthrie was chosen in the 40th round of the 2014 draft. Tobias is another option at second base but has seen more time at third base and designated hitter, making the spot Guthrie’s to lose.
Freshman LHP/OF Logan Browning: Bader and sophomore OF Buddy Reed are penciled in to start in center field and left field, with Browning likely to see action in right field.
THREE BIG QUESTIONS
How big of an impact will the injury to sophomore 1B Peter Alonso have on the team?
Alonso suffered a broken foot earlier this week and won’t be back any time soon. The good news is that O’Sullivan has some options he can plug in at first base on a trial-and-error basis. The bad news is that Alonso was supposed to inject some power into the Gators’ offense. In the Northwood Leagues this summer, he was named Most Valuable Player after hitting .354 with 18 home runs and 53 RBIs.
Florida has not had an established three-man rotation before the season opener since 2012. Should that be a concern entering 2015?
In 2014, it sometimes felt like O’Sullivan outcoached Florida’s opponents more so than the Gators outplayed them. Aside from Shore, the weekend rotation constantly changed, and O’Sullivan made some weekend conference games look like midweek bullpen games by constantly adjusting pitchers and playing for matchups. This year, Shore and Puk enter the season as the top two starters. While spot No. 3 is wide open, the Gators return five more hurlers who started at least five games last season. Knowing O’Sullivan, it’s safe to expect multiple pitchers will get a shot in the early going, hoping the competition leads to one player distancing himself from the rest of the pack before conference play starts March 13 when Tennessee comes to town.
The last time Florida made it to Omaha (2012), it had one of the best junior classes in school history. Will this junior class have what it takes to finally get over the hump?
Martin, Bader and a plethora of pitchers signed on the heels of UF’s third-consecutive College World Series appearance. They certainly expected to be carrying on the tradition of annual trips to Omaha. Since many juniors leave after they’re drafted in June (contract leverage), this season is likely their last shot at a College World Series berth. Tobias and Poyner are the only players on the roster who know what it’s like to make it out of the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. The Gators lacked consistency both on the mound and at the plate in 2014, and still managed to win college baseball’s toughest conference. With a strong veteran core, there’s no excuse for consistency issues in 2015.
Photo Credit: William A. England/The Alligator