By Andrew Olson – OGGOA Contributor
Florida Gators head coach Kevin O’Sullivan has his work cut out for him in his sixth season in Gainesville, FL. Ranked No. 13, No. 17 and No. 24 in the various preseason top 25 polls, the Gators are looking up at anywhere from four to six Southeastern Conference foes listed ahead of them.
Right now, the core of the team that achieved three consecutive College World Series appearances is focused on MLB spring training instead of its spring semester at Florida. There are a few returning faces spread out across the diamond, but the Gators will have to find at least multiple new starting pitchers, a new closer and a new way to produce runs without relying so much on the long ball.
O’Sullivan has proven he knows how to identify some of the best young talent in the country. On a Florida team loaded with freshmen and sophomores, he has to develop that talent fast to fill the void left by the nine Gators selected in the 2012 MLB Draft.
Florida opens its 2013 campaign on Friday when it starts a three-game home series against Duke at McKethan Stadium.
Catcher Mike Zunino: To the delight of SEC pitchers, UF’s best hitter (.322 average, 19 home runs, 67 RBI) will no longer be sending baseballs to the left-field bleachers at McKethan Stadium. Zunino, drafted No. 3 overall by the Seattle Mariners, made significant additions to his personal trophy case in his junior season, winning the Golden Spikes (best amateur player), Dick Hauser (player of the year) and Johnny Bench (best catcher) awards in 2012.
Pitcher/first baseman Brian Johnson: Florida’s No. 2 starter opted to forego his senior season when the Boston Red Sox selected the hard-throwing lefty with the No. 31 pick. Johnson went 8-5 in 2012, posting a 3.90 ERA. At the plate, Johnson hit .307 with six home runs and 41 RBI.
Right fielder Preston Tucker: One of O’Sullivan’s first recruits, Tucker will be missed in Gainesville. His impressive run at UF came to a close in 2012, and the slugger went out in style. Tucker left the Gators as the program’s all-time leader in at-bats (1,035), hits (341), RBI (258) and doubles (70) and second in home runs (57). He was drafted by the Houston Astros in the seventh round.
Shortstop Nolan Fontana: As a junior, Fontana served his purpose as leadoff man with a team-leading .406 on-base percentage and 48 walks. He was the anchor of Florida’s infield with a .974 fielding percentage. Fontana was picked by the Houston Astros in the second round.
Pitcher Hudson Randall: Randall was not the hardest thrower on the Gators’ pitching staff, but he was a master of locating his pitches. His 2.59 ERA, the lowest of Florida starters, helped UF kick off many weekend series with a Friday night win. The Detroit Tigers drafted Randall in the seventh round.
Pitcher/closer Austin Maddox: Maddox reprised his role as closer for the 2012 season, maintaining a 2.44 ERA and notching 12 saves, one shy of UF’s single-season record. The Red Sox selected Maddox in the third round.
Pitcher/reliever Steven Rodriguez: When the Gators were in a jam, Rodriguez was the go-to man out of the bullpen. The lefty tossed 62 innings over 34 appearances, sporting a 2.18 ERA. He was picked by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the second round and called up to the major leagues in September.
Pitcher/reliever Greg Larson: Larson posted a team-low ERA of 1.33, pitching 54.1 innings out of the bullpen as a senior. The Red Sox drafted Larson in the 20th round.
Outfielder Daniel Pigott: Pigott started 66 of 67 games for Florida, hitting .318 with eight home runs and 41 RBI in his senior season. The Cincinnati Reds selected Pigott in the ninth round.
Outfielder Tyler Thompson: In January, UF announced that Thompson would not return for his redshirt senior season. Thompson tore his ACL for the second time in last season’s SEC opener against Vanderbilt.
KEY PLAYERS RETURNING
Junior starting pitcher Jonathon Crawford: O’Sullivan recently announced Crawford (6-2, 3.13 ERA) would enter the season as his Friday night starter. The righty’s impressive work on the mound in 2012 earned him the game-one start in the NCAA Gainesville Regional; he promptly threw a no-hitter against Bethune-Cookman in Florida’s 4-0 win. Crawford was named a preseason All-American by Baseball America and Perfect Game after spending the summer pitching for USA Baseball. He received the organization’s International Performance of the Year award on Saturday.
Sophomore second baseman Casey Turgeon: Turgeon dazzled with his glove from the get-go in 2012 and got his bat going in postseason play, hitting .357 in the SEC Tournament and .429 in the NCAA Tournament. He will likely stay at second base for 2013 and man the position the entire year.
Sophomore third baseman Josh Tobias: After some typical freshman growing pains, Tobias started to look more and more comfortable as the everyday third baseman. As he became a steadier fielder, his bat also picked up. Tobias hit .261 in league play, slightly above his .252 average for the season. He will play most games at third base but has taken reps in the outfield in case he is needed.
Senior first baseman Vickash Ramjit: After two seasons as a backup, pinch hitter and spot starter, Ramjit has earned a permanent spot in the starting lineup but will likely split time between first base and the outfield. He hit .273 in 128 at bats last season with six doubles, five homers and 20 RBI.
Sophomore outfielder/pitcher Justin Shafer: Shafer has found a spot in the opening weekend rotation (more on that below) and is scheduled to pitch on Sunday in the final game of the series against Duke. He saw very limited action on the mound as a freshman, tossing only six innings in six appearances with a 4.50 ERA; he spent most of his time in the outfield and hit .284 with eight doubles and 27 RBI. When Shafer is not on the mound, he will likely be starting in the outfield.
Sophomore catcher Taylor Gushue: With Zunino now in the majors, Gushue is in line to take over behind the plate. He was used as a designated hitter and first baseman last season but cooled off significantly after a red-hot start to the season. Gushue ended the year with a .206 average with just five home runs and 21 RBI in 141 at bats.
The roles of other returning pitchers who saw action in 2012 remain to be seen. Junior RHP Karsten Whitson’s shoulder fatigue has him sidelined indefinitely (more on that below in the final “big question for 2013″).
Though O’Sullivan lost many of his top commitments to the MLB Draft, he still netted a 2012 recruiting class ranked No. 7 by Collegiate Baseball. Many freshmen will have the opportunity, especially in the first half of the season, to see the field.
Two names guaranteed to stand out are RHP Tucker Simpson and SS Richie Martin. Simpson, a first-team Louisville Slugger All-American, will take the mound Saturday against Duke; the hope is that he will be a fixture in the weekend rotation. Martin, one of the top high school infielders in the country in 2012, has the tall task of taking over for Fontana but has already impressed coaches and teammates during practice.
Also keep an eye out for OF Harrison Bader, who should see some time in center and has the speed to be an effective pinch runner for the Gators.
BIG QUESTIONS FOR 2013
How will Florida fare after losing so many big-time sluggers?
After two seasons of relying heavily on moon shots from Zunino and Tucker among others, this Gators roster features more speedsters and contact hitters than sluggers. Florida looks to utilize that speed while being more creative in how it puts runs on the board. “Our personnel is different; it is what it is, but it certainly could be as successful. We just have to do it a different way,” O’Sullivan recently told the media.
Which version of Gushue will show up this year in the batter’s box?
Gushue made a grand entrance as a freshman in 2012 with a home run in his first plate appearance. He tore the cover off the ball in the early half of the season and the media marveled as a “high school senior” (he graduated high school early) had such an impact on a top-ranked team.
It did not last. Gushue especially struggled in SEC play, hitting only .143 in 56 at bats. By the end of the season, his average was down to .206.
Gushue now says he feels more comfortable and better prepared heading into his sophomore season than he was a year ago. He described last season’s struggles as being “burned out” mentally and physically. The Gators hope his increased preparedness translates to a more relaxed approach at the plate and a return to the production he has shown he is capable of exhibiting.
What is a reasonable expectation for this year’s team after Florida lost so much game-changing talent to the professional ranks?
One thing is for sure this season: The Gators will not have the proverbial target on their collective back that the last two teams had weighting them down.
Heading into the 2013 season, it looked like Florida’s deep pitching staff could keep them competitive in a very tough SEC. However, Whitson’s health is now a major concern after Wednesday’s announcement from UF that he will be sidelined indefinitely due to shoulder fatigue.
With a healthy Crawford and Whitson, the Gators would have a solid chance at a winning record against SEC teams. If Whitson is out for a significant period of time, which seems likely at this point, Florida might not have the weekend rotation necessary to keep up in a conference with five top-10 teams. For now, the Gators will look to their young pitchers to step up in Whitson’s absence.
Expect the non-conference half of the season to serve as a trial-and-error period for UF to look at various lineups. Florida will not be blowing through the competition like it has in the past. However, if the Gators can find a productive lineup and a reliable rotation, there’s no reason to think that this cannot be another Omaha-bound team.
Photo Credit: Dave Martin/Associated Press