Offensive Lineup will Dictate Gator Infield

The Gators didn't lose a starter from their infield last season, but that doesn't mean there won't be some new starters. Defensive changes and searching for the best offensive lineup will find players making position switches once the season begins in February.

Catcher: Mike Zunino returns after serving as the team's primary catcher in 2010 as a freshman. He was named to Baseball America's Freshman All-America Team and the SEC All-Freshman Team. Zunino started 51 games behind the plate and hit .267 with nine home runs and 41 RBIs. He also brought surprising base-stealing ability, going 8-for-11 on the base paths.

However, his true value comes behind the plate. Zunino threw out 14-of-38 (37%) base stealers and managed the pitching staff to be one of the best units in the country. Head coach Kevin O'Sullivan even refers to Zunino as "an extension of myself" behind the plate in the way he leads the team.

Backup Ben McMahan could start at most programs in the country. He started ten games behind the plate in 2010, hitting .325 (25-for-77) and driving in eleven runs. His big moment came on an extra innings walk-off home run against Georgia near the end of SEC play. This summer, McMahan caught for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox in the Cape Cod League, which is regarded as the highest level of summer ball. He hit .323 (21-for-65) with two homers, six doubles and ten RBIs.

O'Sullivan knows he has to get McMahan in the lineup for more this season. That could come as the designated hitter, but it will depend on how other positions turn out. He will see spot starts to rest Zunino and be the first bat off the bench if he doesn't start as the designated hitter.

First Base: Preston Tucker will move to the right field this spring, opening first base to two main candidates. Austin Maddox and Brian Johnson are expected to see a majority of time at first base this year. The primary first baseman will likely be Johnson. He became a fixture in the lineup near the midway point of last season and never looked back. Johnson ended the year hitting .405 (34-for 84) with four home runs, two that were grand slams, and 21 RBIs.

Johnson will also serve as a weekend starter for the team. When he pitches, Maddox could slide over from third base and play first. O'Sullivan will always be cautious with Johnson to avoid risking injury to one of the best pitchers on the team, but the impact he had on the lineup last season can't be ignored. He needs to be in the middle of the lineup for every important game, and he will be.

Second Base: There is a strong argument that can be made that Josh Adams is the key to this offense. If he is able to bounce back from a down junior season, this offense can be scary. Adams was First Team All-SEC as a freshman and sophomore, hitting .330 and .342 respectively. The batting average dipped to .224 in 2010.

If the fall that Adams had is any indication, he looks ready to end his career with a bang. Coach O'Sullivan said midway through the fall that the most improved player since the beginning of the summer was Adams. His swing was shorter and more balanced, with his head staying on the ball longer.

He could find himself hitting second in the lineup to start the season. Adams has struck out over 50 times in each of the last two seasons, which doesn't make him an ideal candidate to hit second. However, he still has good bat control and the ability to move runners up with a bunt or hitting the ball to the opposite field.

Cody Dent will be a utility infielder and likely the primary backup at second base. Jerico Weitzel transferred to Clarion University in Pennsylvania, leaving Dent to take over his role as the defender that can play multiple positions.

Shortstop: There won't be a position battle at shortstop for the next two years. Nolan Fontana locked the position up during the fall before his freshman season, and he doesn't show any signs of giving it up now. Fontana was the starting shortstop Collegiate Team USA over the summer, where he and Johnson were the only two freshmen on the team.

Fontana's eye at the plate is well beyond his years, leading the team with a .437 on-base percentage as a freshman. His glove was above all expectations, as he made four errors last season to boast a .986 fielding percentage. When Fontana signed, Coach O'Sullivan said he "is the kind of shortstop that will lead you to Omaha." Fontana has already done it once, and the Gators are an early favorite to make it happen again in 2011.

He will be backed up by two freshmen. Jacob Tillotson and Tyler Palmer split time at shortstop in the fall. Tillotson looks like the better defender while Palmer has more power in his bat.

Third base: If Adams' bat is the one that will make the offense take the next step, it's Maddox's glove that could make the defense work. He led the team with 12 errors last season, although the coaches realize he was forced into an unfortunate situation. He worked all offseason before his freshman year at catcher and first base, but the expectation was for him to be the team's designated hitter. Midway through the season, Maddox jumped in at third base without working at the position for more than week. It wasn't pretty, but he didn't embarrass himself.

Now, Maddox has put in a full offseason in Gainesville working with the coaches on his fielding mechanics. His body has been reshaped and more prepared to deal with the long college season.

If Maddox can stick at third base, it allows Johnson to play first base and McMahan to be the designated hitter. If Maddox has to move to first base, Johnson is forced to be the designated hitter, leaving McMahan's bat out of the lineup and an inferior bat at third base.

The backups here are Dent and two newcomers. Freshman Zack Powers had an up-and-down fall, but he made some adjustments to his swing later in the fall that got his offense going. Santa Fe College transfer Jeff Moyer will also fight for playing time.
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