Versatility and Depth for Gator Baseball

When Kevin O'Sullivan took the job at Florida three years ago, he didn't waste time talking about his ideal scenario. He wanted options at every position with players on the roster who were versatile enough to play multiple positions. It only took him three seasons to recruit a team capable of that in the field and on the mound.

There are options all over the infield that will allow the Gators to find the best possible defensive infield while not giving up any offense. It's a process that has already started, although it's still too early for O'Sullivan to have answers.

Austin Maddox and freshman Zack Powers are working at third base this fall. There is also a chance Josh Adams could play third base if Cody Dent's bat can improve enough for him to be in the lineup and play second base.

Maddox, Preston Tucker, Ben McMahan and Brian Johnson are taking reps at first base. Tucker can play the outfield as well.

On the mound, the depth is among the best O'Sullivan has ever had in his coaching tenure. Options in the field are one thing, but options out of the bullpen late in games give the Gators a chance to match up with any team.

"The biggest thing is that we probably have more depth on the mound than we even had last year," O'Sullivan said. "It's not very often you get back three weekend starters, as you usually lose one or two to the draft. We've got all three coming back and we added some good pitchers. Hopefully the thing that separates this staff is the depth we have on the left side, where we have five guys with power arms."

The arms have been the story of the fall. O'Sullivan knew his team would have depth, but he didn't know how his returning pitchers would respond. The pitchers are ahead of the hitters right now, but that is by design in the fall.

"They're facing really good arms, and they're using wood bats," O'Sullivan said. "It's the way it's been every fall that we've been here. The pitching is ahead of the hitting a little bit.

WHITSON TO CAMPUS: The Gators return seven of eight starters in the field and all three weekend starting pitchers from a team that went to the College World Series last year, but the biggest storyline this fall is freshman Karsten Whitson. He was the No. 9 overall pick in the 2010 MLB Draft by the San Diego Padres, but he decided to come to turn down over $2 million and pitch for Florida.

The deadline to sign was August 16 at midnight, and it was a time O'Sullivan won't soon forget. He sat by his phone after the midnight deadline scrolled by, waiting to hear from Whitson either way. His phone rang at 12:15 a.m. when Whitson told him he would be a Gator.

O'Sullivan was still skeptical, and sarcastically asked for Whitson to put his dad on the phone to confirm. The Florida head coach didn't sleep at all that night.

"Unexpected," O'Sullivan said of Whitson coming to campus. "You have to let them do what you want to do. If you don't, the player isn't going to be as good as you want them to be. It was unexpected. We didn't know how it was going to go. In those situations, they tend to go the other way."

Whitson's 6-4, 195-pound frame is already the most impressive on the Florida pitching staff. His mid-90s fastball is difficult enough to hit, but his low-80s slider was ranked by multiple services as the best slider in high school baseball last year.

"He's got a chance to be a special player for us," O'Sullivan said. "The players in the locker room know how talented he is. He's got a special arm."

POSITION BATTLES: The coaching staff would like to settle the infield this fall, but they realize it may not be possible. Third base is the key position that must be figured out before they look at the others.

"We've got some options," O'Sullivan said. "Maddox improved an awful lot. Powers is very capable of winning the job. The other option is Dent at second and Adams at third."

Dent's bat wasn't strong last year, as he only hit .233. It's his defense that made his valuable to the team as a late-inning replacement. His bat has improved enough this summer where the Florida coaches believe he has a chance to start.

Adams and shortstop Nolan Fontana had great double play chemistry last year, but O'Sullivan has confidence Fontana and Dent could maintain the same effectiveness if needed this year.

"If we made a move like that, it would be for the betterment of the team and not just up the middle," O'Sullivan said. "It would be so many benefits in different areas. They take ground balls together all the day, so I don't think the adjustment would be that big."

The other key position battle is in left field. Daniel Pigott and Tyler Thompson were a platoon last year at the position, but the coaches are hoping that doesn't happen again. They would prefer for one player to step up.

"It's still early right now, but they've both improved," O'Sullivan said. "Ultimately, I'd like to have one guy to lean on. But if we platoon it again, we platoon it again. It's totally up to them."

STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE: The Gators released their schedule recently, and it won't be an easy one. The team is likely to be ranked in the top two of preseason polls, so the target will be on their back every game. Of the 56 games on the schedule, 27 are against teams that made the NCAA Tournament last season. Of those 27, 19 games will be against teams that played in Super Regionals last year.

"It's really challenging," O'Sullivan said. "If you want to be one of those teams standing in Omaha, you have to challenge yourself. We wouldn't do it any other way. We want to play the best teams in state and the SEC speaks for itself. It's not going to be easy, but I like our pitching depth."

LOOKING FOR LEADERS: The past two seasons have given the Gators a senior leader who took the reigns of the team. If it's one senior that takes over this year, it's likely to be Josh Adams. However, he won't have to lead on his own.

A majority of the sophomore class saw playing time last year as freshmen, and the coaches already expect them to be veterans.

"We've talked to the sophomores, and those guys played all last year," O'Sullivan said. "There's no reason they can't accept some of that leadership as well. They had success last year. Why can't they step up and be leaders? You don't have to be a senior to be a leader. We're going to lean on those guys a lot."
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