Leadership From the Bottom Up

The Florida baseball team could have used youth as an excuse last year. Instead, that young team made a run to the College World Series. The Gators now return eight of nine starters in the field from last season's team, and the expectations are beginning to build. Leadership will be a key part to what level of success the Gators experience this year.

What makes this team different from most is that the leadership is expected to come from underclassmen. It's not because the older players don't lead. It simply comes down to there being a larger number of younger players having than older ones who play and produce on the field.

Senior second baseman Josh Adams, outfielder Bryson Smith and relief pitcher Matt Campbell are the only three seniors on the roster. Adams will be the senior leader that the team had in Matt den Dekker and Brandon McArthur over the past two seasons, but he can't lead the entire team by himself.

For that reason, juniors and sophomores will be important to this team for much more than just their production in the field.

"You'd love for your leaders to be seniors, but the bottom line is that if you want to have a good club, your best players have to be your best leaders," Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "The guys on the field every day or pitching on the weekends, if they're not good leaders, then you're in trouble regardless of what year they are in school."

INFIELD OPTIONS: O'Sullivan admits that the team will try multiple lineups early in the season to see which one works the best. Preston Tucker will move from first base to right field this season. Brian Johnson will play first base when he isn't pitching, while Austin Maddox is slated to be the opening day third baseman.

That seems easy enough, but Johnson is expected to be a weekend starter and that will shake things up.

O'Sullivan said right now he is leaning towards moving Tucker back to first base when Johnson pitches and finding another outfielder to play right field. The other option would be moving Maddox to first base and playing freshman Zack Powers at third base.

OUTFIELD PLATOON: O'Sullivan has said since he came to Florida that he would prefer to stay away from a platoon at any position, but he does realize that it gives his team the best chance to win. Left field was split between Daniel Pigott and Tyler Thompson for a majority of last year, and that looks to be the case again this year.

"Thompson hit three home runs against FAU, and when he gets hot, he can carry you," O'Sullivan said. "Daniel Pigott has had some big moments for us as well."

The one new starter this season will be in center field after Matt den Dekker graduated and was selected in the fifth round of the MLB Draft by the New York Mets. Kamm Washington and Bryson Smith are expected to split time in the outfield unless one player steals the job.

"Kamm played great last year until he got hurt," O'Sullivan said. "With Bryson Smith, we flip on the highlight tape all the time, and he's got a big home run against Miami and a big home run against Arkansas. He's a clutch player as a senior. He's a great leader."

JUNIOR BOUNCES BACK: Nick Maronde came to Florida surrounded with hype. He put up good numbers as a freshman, but in 2010 as a sophomore, Maronde struggled. His control went out the window and he didn't pitch much down the stretch because he wasn't trusted on the mound.

He used this offseason to improve. The junior left-hander was almost unhittable during fall scrimmages, and he will be a key part of the bullpen this season. Sophomore left-hander Paco Rodriguez seems to be the favorite for the closer role, but Maronde will see plenty of meaningful innings on the mound.

"I'm proudest of Maronde of any guy in that locker room with the way he has bounced back," O'Sullivan said. "He went to the Cape in the summer and was mature about it. He never gave up. He worked his tail off and threw the ball very well this fall. For me, I don't even recognize last year. It's not even a factor in my mind. Nick is back to being what he should be, and I'm proud of him. He handled it like a man the whole time."

STARTING DEPTH: The Florida coaches don't know how the weekend rotation will set up in the early weeks of the season. Brian Johnson and Hudson Randall return after earning Freshman All-American honors last year. Alex Panteliodis was recently named a Preseason Second Team All-American, while Tommy Toledo started last year as the team's ace.

The Gators also had a surprise addition of Karsten Whitson, who turned down $2.1 million from the San Diego Padres to attend Florida. He was the No. 9 overall pick of the Padres last summer.

The pitching depth is what makes Florida an early pick as one of the top teams in the country.

"We've got five or six guys that could start," O'Sullivan said. "The tough things is we get all three (starters from last year) back, and then we added some young pitchers that are talented. I think the important thing going into it is helping the young pitchers get off to a positive start as much as possible. We'll try to put them in a situation that's more relaxed, maybe pitching at home early on. You've got to pick your spots when you're with these freshmen and try to put them in a place to succeed."

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