2012 Florida Gators baseball: Just win, baby.

Though basketball has national title aspirations and both softball and lacrosse are getting started on what should be a pair of exciting campaigns, no squad is more hyped entering this season than the unanimously top-ranked Florida Gators baseball team.

Florida went all the way to the 2011 College World Series championship series a year ago before falling to South Carolina, a team they will go back-and-forth with throughout the 2012 Southeastern Conference slate. With so many starters returning to the team and an exceptional freshman class signed to fill in the gaps, the Gators have only one true goal in 2012 – win a national championship.


KEY DEPARTURES

Second baseman Josh Adams: Manning the middle of the infield for all four years he was on the team, Adams is finally out of the starting lineup and off to the majors. He not only impacted Florida with his bat as a .323 hitter with 43 RBIs and 34 runs in 2011 but also on the field with a sterling .983 fielding percentage. The Gators do not have a veteran to replace Adams full-time and will instead likely rely on a youngster to take over.

Veteran pitchers: Florida’s rotation will remain intact but that does not mean that losing throwers Anthony DeSclafani, Nick Maronde, Alex Panteliodis and Tommy Toledo will not hurt the Gators. Panteliodis (6-2), an occasional starter for Florida last year, was a reliable arm that UF could turn to in a pinch. Maronde (2.09 ERA) was arguably even more important out of the Gators’ bullpen, striking out 55 batters in tossing 43.0 innings of relief work. Finding out which mid-week starters and relievers can be reliable and trusted will be an important early-season task for UF’s coaching staff.

Outfielder Bryson Smith: Though not an every day starter, Smith saw action in 51 games a year ago, starting 46 of them in the outfield. When he was in the lineup, he hit .328 and fielded .981 and found a way to get on base with 17 walks and got hit by a pitch a team-high 16 times. His 22 RBIs and 57 hits were the most any of Florida’s reserves.

KEY PLAYERS RETURNING

Junior catcher Mike Zunino: He may not have been eligible for the MLB Draft, but Zunino returning to the team is still immensely important. The 2011 SEC Player of the Year, Zunino led the Gators in homers (19), hits (98), batting average (.371), slugging (.675) and on base percentage (.442). He also fielded .995 from behind the plate and proved he is not only one of the best catchers but also one of the best players in collegiate baseball.

Senior right fielder Preston Tucker: Unlike Zunino, Tucker had the opportunity to become a pro but chose to stay for his senior season, fight for a title and hopefully improve his draft stock for 2012. Joining Zunino as an offensive powerhouse for Florida, Tucker hit 15 home runs and knocked in a team-high 74 RBIs a year ago while slugging .545, earning 28 walks and fielding at a .990 clip.

Starting rotation: The reason the Gators are so highly ranked heading into the season, Florida’s trio of primary starters is considered by many to be the best in the country. It all starts with junior right-hander and staff ace Hudson Randall (11-3, 2.17 ERA), an efficient and controlled player who threw a team-high 124.1 innings, posting two complete games and only walking 13 of 458 batters he faced last season. He will start off each weekend by pitching on Friday for the Gators. Sophomore RHP Karsten Whitson (8-1, 2.40 ERA), a fireballer who burst onto the scene last year, follows him on Saturdays. Whitson was second on the team with 97.1 innings pitched but struck out a team-high 92 batters though he will try to work on his control (28 walks a year ago). Junior left-hander Brian Johnson (8-3, 3.62 ERA) will be UF’s Sunday starter, a move that allows him to concentrate at the plate on consecutive days (he is a designated hitter and first baseman who hit .307 with five homers and 29 RBIs in 2011). Johnson’s versatility (he throws three pitches well) is important for Florida at the end of the rotation.

Three more Gators – juniors Austin Maddox, shortstop Nolan Fontana and LHP Steven Rodriguez – will play key roles for Florida in 2012. Maddox tries to do it all for UF and will enter this season as the team’s primary closer even though he Rodriguez (the team’s ERA leader from 2011) breathing down his neck for the job. He will also move between first base and designated hitter in the lineup (sharing both roles with Johnson) but must improve his power stroke, which he found as a freshman but lost as a sophomore. Fontana, one of two returning speedsters, is UF’s leadoff hitter and a stable in the middle of the infield. He gets on base at a .414 clip and posted 49 RBIs in 2011, a solid number for a player hitting at the top of the lineup.

KEY NEWCOMERS

Florida’s loaded freshman class will have a lot to do with how successful the Gators wind up being in 2012 but as in most cases the year will have to unfold to determine who will be able to contribute the most and in what capacity.

Three youngsters in particular will be counted on from the start of the season. Casey Turgeon, who chose to play for UF instead of becoming a professional, will start at second base for Florida. A .400 hitter who has flashed some power, has a good eye at the plate and boasts a bit of speed as well, Turgeon is also strong defensively and should fill in nicely for Adams in the infield.

He will be joined by Josh Tobias, who is expected to compete for the starting jobs at second and third for the Gators but will probably split time with junior Cody Dent at the latter position. Like Turgeon, Tobias has some good power but he is the faster of the two players and could give Florida some much needed help in the stolen bases department.

The versatility of Justin Shafer should also help the Gators immensely as he can pitch as a right hander, play infield and roam the outfield as well. Shafer hit .535 and posted a 1.98 ERA during his senior season and also provides some speed on the base paths.

BIG QUESTIONS FOR 2012

Which player(s) will step up and become real difference maker(s)?
One of the positives heading into the season is that the Gators know exactly what they’re going to get from guys like Zunino, Tucker, Fontana, Randall, Whitson, Johnson and Rodriguez. This is a group of players that are not only impactful but also reliable and provide a solid core for what Florida is trying to accomplish in 2012.

However that same group, while impressive one year ago, did not take the final step and simply could not get over the hump to win the school’s first national title. That means that at least one but probably two or three other players on the roster are going to have to step up big-time for the Gators.

Could it be Maddox who will have seemingly endless opportunities to impact the game both in the box and on the mound? Will a freshman like Turgeon or Tobias negate the departure of Adams and ensure there is not a hole in the lineup or on the field? Perhaps senior Tyler Thompson’s confidence and production will grow now that he is the everyday center fielder for Florida.

Who will replace the potent middle relievers and effective midweek starters?
If there is something the Gators should be concerned about it is what exactly will happen when the starters are done and head coach Kevin O’Sullivan is not ready to go to Rodriguez and Maddox to close out the game. Who will come in to throw those important innings now that guys like Maronde are gone? Senior RHP Greg Larson is one answer, but he will need plenty of help and the sophomore relievers have not really proven that they can be fully trusted.

Florida also has to preserve its starting trio for the weekends meaning that the Gators will need pitchers to fill-in as midweek starters now that Panteliodis (12), Toledo (3) and DeSclafani (2) are gone. It remains to be seen who will wind up stepping up in that area but two early candidates are Larson and sophomore RHP Jonathan Crawford.

Can Florida rise above the hype?
Experience is the Gators’ biggest strength and even though Florida is not entering 2012 as defending champions, the team is beginning the season with similar acclaim. The attention and press surrounding the team can sometimes lead to overconfidence, something O’Sullivan will have to make sure his players avoid throughout the season.

UF’s junior class will likely be raided by the MLB Draft after year’s end and there will be plenty of attention on these Gators from a national perspective. Dozens of scouts will be out watching the team, there will be plenty of interview requests, and Zunino may very well be in contention for national player of the year.

Will Florida live up to its billing and not crumble under the pressure? Can the Gators put it all together and win the first national title in school history? If they keep their collective head on straight and focus on the main prize, this could very well be the best team that Florida has ever put together even though two others (2005, 2011) were just a few wins away from the promised land.

Photo Credits: The News-Press, John Korduner/Icon SMI

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