It's hard not to be impressed with what O'Sullivan has done. Every recruiting class he has brought to Florida has been ranked in the top five. It has paid off in recent years with young teams that have lived on potential and talks about the future.
The talks about potential and what could be are over.
It would be tough for the hype to grow bigger around this team, but they know it only means one thing. They have the talent to make a deep run into the College World Series.
Last year, the Gators made their first trip to the College World Series since 2005. They lost their first two games, but it was clear to everyone who watched how good the team would be. Florida lost its center fielder and closer from a team that started as many as five freshmen in front of more than 20,000 people at Rosenblatt Stadium.
The expectation now is for the youth to grow and mature, while also improving on the field.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of the team, there is a major rule change taking effect this season that will change the game of college baseball. The NCAA decided to change the bats this season.
The "ping" sound that had become synonymous with the college game is now gone. Teams are still using aluminum bats, but they now produce a "thud" sound and have less pop. They are called BBCOR bats, which stands for Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution. To describe it in the most basic way, the exit velocity of the ball leaving the bat has been reduced. It has eliminated what people called "the trampoline effect" off the bat.
Coaches across the country have had different opinions since the fall. Some coaches hate them, while others love them. The Florida coaches seem indifferent, likely because they have plenty of pitching and defense to still win games.
"The guys who have power still have power," O'Sullivan said. "Whether they hit as many home runs, I don't know. They'll still get their fair share of extra base hits. It will change the game some. To say it's changed a lot, I think it has changed some, but maybe not as drastic as I expected it to be."
Don't expect the 12-10 finals very often this season. The college game is changing, putting more of a premium on pitching. However, Florida fans should rest easy with a head coach that values pitching more than most in the game.
The Lineup (with 2010 statistics): This will be the best lineup the Gators have had under O'Sullivan, and it should be the best since the 2005 team that played in the NCAA Championship Series. The main changes O'Sullivan made since becoming the head coach is adding more power to the lineup.
The Gators hit 60 home runs in his first season, and that number was bumped to 68 in his second year as head coach. Last year, the Gators hit 83 home runs. Without the change of bats this season, it's likely that the home run total would have increased yet again.
For the most part, Brian Johnson will determine this year's lineup. He pitches, plays first base and serves as the designated hitter. Which one he serves as in each game depends on the situation. Johnson will start the season as Florida'S Friday night pitcher.
Johnson says he can play first base when he isn't pitching, but there is no reason to risk it if there are other options. We don't know how his arm will handle playing the field after pitching.
The sophomore left-handed will be on the mound Friday night as Florida opens the season, but since he will only pitch once a week, the best way to do this is to project the lineup when he IS NOT pitching.
This is my opinion based on what I saw during fall and spring workouts. This is not my prediction for the lineup opening night because of Johnson's situation. Again, keep in mind, this is the lineup I expect to see when Johnson IS NOT pitching.
1.Nolan Fontana, SS, So., 5-11, 190, Bats L/Throws R, Winter Garden, Fla. (West Orange HS) - 2010: .287 batting average, 3 home runs, 23 RBI, .437 on-base percentage. Fontana's skill set is unique, but he knows how he can play the game most effectively and sticks to it. The sophomore doesn't make mistakes. He didn't make an error in the field last season until the 30th game of the year. He doesn't swing at bad pitches and he makes pitchers work.
His role in this lineup is simple. The Gators need him to get on base for the middle of the order to drive him in. His impeccable eye at the plate last season found him at the top of the lineup in almost no time. His power numbers aren't great, but that's not his job. He is supposed to find a way to get on base.
2. Josh Adams, 2B, Sr., 5-11, 205, Bats R/Throws R, Jacksonville, Fla. (Eagle's View Academy) - 2010: .224, 9, 42. Last season was a down year for Adams, and he's heard plenty about it since the 2010 season came to a close. His work ethic has never been in question, and he continued to prove why by putting in plenty of offseason work to correct the problems. He fixed a few mechanics in his swing, which helped him put together an impressive fall.
After being named as the First Team All-SEC second baseman during his freshman and sophomore seasons, the talent hasn't left. It became mental for Adams. Now with a clear mind and one more season of college baseball left, it would be an upset if the senior leader didn't go out with a bang.
3. Preston Tucker, Jr., RF, 6-0, 215, Bats L/Throws L, Tampa, Fla. (Plant HS) - 2010: .331, 11, 49. It's tough for a power hitter to have a .436 on-base percentage and call it a down season, but that was the perception on Tucker's sophomore campaign. After hitting 15 home runs and setting the school record with 85 RBIs during his freshman season, Tucker was pitched around the entire season. That helped Austin Maddox burst onto the scene, but it limited Tucker's ability to drive in runs.
He struggled over the summer in the Cape Cod League, but Tucker can erase that from the memory of scouts by putting together a big junior year. He will also switch positions by moving to right field this year. He wasn't great during some work there last season, but Tucker has worked in the outfield all season and has come a long way.
4. Austin Maddox, So., 3B, 6-3, 225, Bats R/Throws R, Jacksonville, Fla. (Eagle's View Academy) - 2010: .333, 17, 72. The importance to this lineup is Austin Maddox's ability to play third base, and he will have a shot to do that this season. He looks completely different this year after working hard to drop weight, and he has reshaped his body to better handle the long season. Keep in mind what happened last year. Maddox stepped in to playing third base last year with only a few days of practice at the position. He put in plenty of work this offseason to stay at the position he prefers.
Oh yeah, he can hit a little bit, too. Maddox was the SEC Freshman of the Year last season. He will get the same treatment Tucker saw last year, as opposing teams will pitch around Maddox. The challenge will come in making him accept walks, after he only received seven times in 284 plate appearances last year.
5. Brian Johnson, So., 1B, 6-3, 225, Bats L/Throws L, Cocoa Beach, Fla. (Cocoa Beach HS) - 2010: .405, 4, 21. The Florida lineup looked like it received a midseason acquisition through the trade market last year when Johnson was thrown into the lineup. He hit from the beginning and didn't stop. He boasted a .631 slugging percentage and is the perfect protection for Maddox. However, Johnson will hit plenty of times with runners on base and often in scoring position.
The difficult part will come in the field. Johnson playing first base allows an extra bat to get in the lineup as the designated hitter. He played first base in high school and picked it up again easily in the fall. There probably won't be a concrete answer to how he will handle first base until the middle of the season.
6. Mike Zunino, So., C, 6-2, 215, Bats R/Throws R, Cape Coral, Fla. (Mariner HS) - 2010: .267, 9, 41. Anything Zunino gives the team on offense is a bonus because of how good he is behind the plate. He took charge of the pitching staff last season as a freshman and was an extension of head coach Kevin O'Sullivan on the field. He knows what pitches to call at the right time for each pitcher, and he is only coming into this season as a sophomore.
Zunino's bat struggled early in conference play last season, but he got hot and was a clutch player throughout the year. He had three walk-off hits, including the Sunday of the opening weekend series of the year. I would be surprised if he didn't hit for a higher average this season.
7. Ben McMahan, Jr., DH, 6-0, 200, Bats R/Throws R, Windermere, Fla. (Bishop Moore HS) - 2010: .325, 2, 11. The Gators tried to find a way to get McMahan consistent at bats last season, but it didn't happen. This looks to be the year he is an every day player, even if most of the reps come as the designated hitter. He also provides a veteran backup catcher the coaches trust if Zunino were to go down or just needed a day off.
His bat has always produced when given a chance. McMahan hit .323 with six doubles, two home runs and ten RBIs over the summer in the Cape Cod League, the best summer ball wood bat league in the country. He has proven ready for a chance, and this will be the year the Gators find a way to get his bat in the lineup.
8. Daniel Pigott, Jr., LF, 6-2, 205, Ormond Beach, Fla. (Seabreeze HS) - 2010: .268, 1, 22. Pigott is likely to be in a platoon situation, just like he was in left field with Tyler Thompson for most of last year. Thompson has a nagging injury that will keep him out for a small period of time, and he should be fine. The Gators aren't going to rush it. Expect Pigott to get a majority of the playing time in left field until he returns, but Bryson Smith should also see the field.
Everyone has been waiting on the season that Pigott puts it all together, and it hasn't happened yet. He has more power than his one home run makes it look like, and he has speed for his size. These speed-power combination players are often tough to find, and Pigott could set himself up for a nice draft selection if he can put it together this year. O'Sullivan has loved Pigott since he was in high school because of the way he plays the game. It's rare to see him end the game with a clean jersey, and you will never catch him walking on the field.
9. Kamm Washington, So., CF, 5-10, 180, Bats L/Throws L, Boynton Beach, Fla. (Park Vista HS) - 2010: .308, 1, 6. Washington was putting together a solid freshman campaign when he dove into a fence at Tennessee, suffering a hamstring injury that pulled the muscle off the bone. He has the tough task of replacing Matt den Dekker, but the most important part of his game will be defense. There is plenty of offense in this lineup, but they need him to patrol the deep portions of center field at McKethan Stadium.
He had a .416 on-base percentage, which would be more than ideal for the last spot in the order. There won't be any pressure on him at the bottom of the order, but Washington still has plenty of pop to get a big hit or speed to steal a base. His speed is something that is unique in this lineup. That's the one knock that I have on this lineup is that there aren't many guys who are threats to steal a base.
Don't be surprised if center field also turns into a platoon situation. Washington could get the starts against right-handed pitchers, while senior Bryson Smith could get most of the starts against left-handed pitchers.
WHEN BRIAN JOHNSON PITCHES: This is where things get interesting. When Johnson is on the mound, there are three players to expect to get playing time at first base and third base. They are Austin Maddox, Ben McMahan and Zack Powers. Powers can play third base, McMahan can play first base, and Maddox can play both.
From there, it becomes playing the hot bat and matchup. Powers is a freshman, but he has impressed a lot of people so far. Maddox put in a lot of hard work at third base, but he is also ahead of McMahan defensively at first base after Maddox spent time playing the position last season.
When Johnson pitches, he will also hit, which eliminates the designated hitter spot in the lineup. This means there is only room for two of Maddox, McMahan and Powers in the lineup. Expect those two to change throughout the year.
The Bench (alphabetically, with 2010 statistics):
There is a lot of depth on this team. The coaches have recruited a lot of versatility, which will allow multiple lineup possibilities if some players struggle.
Cody Dent, So., INF, 5-11, 185, Boynton Beach, Fla. (Park Vista HS) - 2010: .233, 0, 2. Dent will be the team's utility infielder. The son of Bucky Dent can play second base, third base and shortstop. Last season, O'Sullivan chose to substitute Jerico Weitzel in at third base for Austin Maddox when the Gators had a lead. Weitzel transferred in the offseason, but Dent could fill that role this season of a late game defensive substitution. His glove will never be a problem at any level. The issue is his bat. It's unsure if Dent would be able to hit consistently enough to stay in the lineup every day.
Alex Freedman, Fr., INF, 5-10, 185, Davie, Fla. (University HS) - Freedman is also a utility infielder, but he spent most of his time in the fall and spring at second base. Prospectwire.com ranked Freedman as the third best second baseman in Florida during his senior year. He is a switch hitter whose bat stays in the strike zone for a long time during his swing. He has a line drive swing with good speed to go with it.
Connor Mitchell, Fr., OF, 6-0, 175, Tampa, Fla. (Plant HS) - Mitchell was a late addition to this year's group of freshmen, but he will provide depth in the outfield for a group that could lose four of the five outfielders expected to contribute the most. It's unlikely that will happen, but Mitchell brings a solid bat that can bring depth off the bench. He hit .369 last year at one of the best baseball programs in the state.
Jeff Moyer, Jr., 2B/3B, 5-11, 185, Winter Springs, Fla. (Santa Fe College) - Moyer brings a left-handed bat that could provide pop from the left side of the plate late in games. He could find his way into the starting lineup if Maddox has issues on defense at third base. However, Moyer isn't the slickest fielding player on the team either. He will likely provide a bat off the bench this season and compete for the second base job next year after Adams leaves.
Tyler Palmer, Fr., SS, 5-11, 190, Pembroke Pines, Fla. (University HS) - Outside of Karsten Whitson, Palmer was the newcomer who impressed me the most during the fall. I saw him hit three home runs with wooden bats, and two were hit well over the fence. He has good power. The issue might be whether or not he can stay at shortstop. If not, he could easily slide to third base or a corner outfield position. Either way, I like Palmer's bat a lot.
Zack Powers, Fr., 3B, 6-3, 200, Seffner, Fla. (Armwood HS) - Powers should be the newcomer who has the most impressive season with the bat. The most important thing he can do this season is to add weight. He has a tall, lean frame and the power should improve as he adds weight. The ball jumps off his bat. He will likely be a hitter who will drive the ball in the gap early in his career, but those could turn into home runs as he gets stronger. He looks good defensively at third base, and his arm is more than enough to stay at third base.
Bryson Smith, Sr., OF/3B, 6-2, 195, Watkinsville, Ga. (Young Harris College) - 2010: .255, 3, 22. Smith went through an adjustment last season when he transferred in from junior college. His glove was known to be an issue at third base, and it didn't get better during the year. With the lack of depth in the outfield, Smith will spend this season there. He will get plenty of time in the lineup in center field, likely when the opposing team starts a left-handed pitcher. It will be tough to make up for Matt den Dekker's loss in center field, but Smith will be one of the players who will try it.
Tyler Thompson, Jr., OF, 6-1, 190, Bats L/Throws R, Tequesta, Fla. (Jupiter HS) - 2010: .301, 6, 28. It would be a surprise if left field weren't a platoon situation again this year. Coach O'Sullivan said last year that he would prefer for one play to take the job and not use the platoon, but it hasn't happened yet. Thompson got hot to end last season, including a three home run performance against Florida Atlantic to clinch the Gainesville Regional. The strikeouts were an issue all year. He was punched out 53 times in 146 at-bats last year. He cannot do that if he wants to earn significant playing time this year.
Jacob Tillotson, Fr., SS, 6-0, 190, Lake City, Fla. (Columbia HS) - Tillotson is another candidate to be a late game defensive replacement. It's rare to get a player who has no questions about his ability to stay at shortstop on defense, but Tillotson brings that to the table. He has good range and a good arm. His bat will determine the playing time he sees in the future.
Paul Wilson, Jr., OF, 6-0, 185, Lakeland, Fla. (Lakeland HS) - Wilson will provide depth in the outfield this season. He could also be a late game pinch runner because he has speed. He struggled in the fall to get reads off the bat in the outfield, and his bat still has a little way to come.
The Pitching Rotation (with 2010 statistics):
Taking a guess at the pitching rotation is pointless, as it will likely change throughout the year. There are very few coaches in the country that wouldn't trade pitching staffs with Florida. Two off the top of my head are UCLA and TCU, but even then, I think Florida has more depth. TCU has Matt Purke and Kyle Winkler anchoring their staff while UCLA boasts Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, but they don't have five starting pitchers with the talent Florida does.
The scary part is that all three of the starting pitchers I project to start on the weekend will be back in 2012. It has almost become unnecessary to talk about how bright the future is, and that's especially the case now, because this team is young and still has the talent to win big this year.
Friday- Brian Johnson, So., LHP, 6-3, 225, Cocoa Beach, Fla. (Cocoa Beach HS) - 2010: 6-4, 4.03 ERA. If you look at the stats from last season, this might seem to be a head scratcher. However, Johnson has improved a lot this offseason. He relieved for the Collegiate Team USA last summer, and he was one of two freshmen on the entire roster. The other was Florida shortstop Nolan Fontana.
Johnson will sit around 90 mph with his fastball and has a good curveball that has gotten sharper over the offseason. The pitch that can make him elite is the changeup. He didn't use it much in high school, but it's the pitch that O'Sullivan excels at teaching. He can be a dominant presence on the mound, and the situation doesn't rattle him.
Saturday- Hudson Randall, So., RHP, 6-3, 185, Atlanta, Ga. (Dunwoody HS) - 2010: 8-4, 3.24 ERA. Randall hasn't received a lot of publicity for what he did last season, but he led the SEC in ERA during league play as a freshman. It seems like every game last season he improved, when most people expected him to fall off. His feel for pitching as a freshman was incredibly advanced.
What is more impressive was his ability to stay calm in cool situations. He was the starting pitcher when the Gators clinched the SEC Championship against South Carolina in front of record crowds in Columbia. Randall is good enough to be a Friday night guy for almost every team in the SEC, and he will win plenty of games on Saturdays in the SEC. He wants to use his curveball more this season, and that should only make him more difficult to hit.
Sunday- Karsten Whitson, Fr., RHP, 6-4, 215, Chipley, Fla. (Chipley HS) - 2010: at Chipley High School. The hype around Whitson in Gainesville is starting to build, just as it is on the national college baseball scene. What Whitson did was unprecedented. He turned down $2.1 million as the No. 9 overall pick in the MLB Draft. He wanted to get the college experience, and after growing up with parents who went the Florida, there was no doubt where Whitson wanted to do it.
His fastball has touched 96 mph since he has been on campus, but it comes out of his hand with ease. Many people ranked his slider as the top slider in the draft last year. It sits in the low 80s and sent multiple hitters wondering where the pitch went during the fall. Whitson also has a changeup that is improving.
Tuesday- Alex Panteliodis, Jr., LHP, 6-2, 230, Tampa, Fla. (Alonso HS) - 2010: 11-3, 3.51 ERA. It's ridiculous that a Preseason Second Team All-American is lined up as a midweek starter, but that's how it looks like this season will begin. Panteliodis missed the entire fall with a hip injury, but he should be fine by the time the season starts. There is no reason for the Florida coaches to rush him, though. The depth on the pitching staff will allow them to bring him along slowly.
My guess is that he will start the season in the midweek rotation, and the coaches will reevaluate the weekend rotation a few weeks in. If one of the three is struggling, I expect Panteliodis to get the first opportunity to step into the weekend. He already proved last season that he can be a big time starter. Starting Whitson over Panteliodis on Sundays has a lot to do with trying to bring the freshman along in a comfortable environment of pitching at home instead of on the road against a very talented FAU team in the first midweek game.
Wednesday- Tommy Toledo, Jr., RHP, 6-3, 190, Tampa, Fla. (Alonso HS) - 2010: 3-2, 4.39 ERA. Toledo started last season as the Friday night pitcher, and he comes into this year as the No. 5 starter on the staff. That shows you how much these younger pitchers stepped up last year. With the injuries Toledo has gone through in his career, it's impossible not to root for him.
He struggled at the beginning of the fall after having a good summer in the Cape Cod League. He did improve with seemingly every appearance over the fall and ended with a bang during the final intrasquad. He is a great insurance piece for the rotation, and he can provide veteran leadership for this group. His strikeout numbers were up this spring in workouts. During weeks where Florida only has one midweek game, don't be surprised to see Toledo get innings out of the bullpen. He is versatile enough that he will produce from whatever role he is needed.
The Bullpen (alphabetically, with 2010 statistics):
There are plenty of talented arms in the bullpen, but the early part of the season will be used to figure out roles. The Gators lost closer Kevin Chapman and right-handed specialist Jeff Barfield from last year's bullpen, and the two need to be replaced.
This year's bullpen is capable of filling those holes, but none of them have been used in those situations before. My guess as the closer is Steven Rodriguez, and the coaches will put together the rest of the bullpen as performance dictates.
Matt Campbell, Sr., RHP, 6-2, 200, Tampa, Fla. (Freedom HS) - 2010: 0-0, 9.53 ERA. Campbell was used mostly in mop up duty last season. He walked onto the team in the fall of 2009 and earned the trust of the coaches to pitch in games. The Cincinnati Reds drafted him late last year, and I assumed he would sign and move on to the next level. However, O'Sullivan told me last year in Omaha that he expected Campbell to come back and be a more trusted part of the bullpen.
Jonathan Crawford, Fr., RHP, 6-1, 200, Okeechobee, Fla. (Okeechobee HS) - 2010: at Okeechobee HS. Crawford was the freshman pitcher who stood out to me the most besides Whitson. He flew under the radar in high school, but he has a big arm with a nasty curveball. I've heard from a few people that they believe his curveball is the best off-speed pitch on the team. It made multiple veteran hitters look clueless during the fall. I can see Crawford working his way up the ladder of the bullpen this season to where the coaches trust him later in the game as the year goes on. However, I wouldn't be surprised if he started the year as one of their go-to guys out of the bullpen.
Anthony DeSclafani, Jr., RHP, 6-2, 195, Freehold, N.J. (Colts Neck HS) - 2010: 2-3, 7.08. DeSclafani was one of the most confusing cases last season. He had a good freshman year but took steps back as a sophomore. He heads into his junior season with a chance to make a jump up draft boards. He tops out in the mid-90s with his fastball, and I've heard that O'Sullivan changed his release point this year to maximize the movement on his pitches. I think he will start the year as one of the set-up men.
Daniel Gibson, Fr., LHP, 6-3, 220, Lutz, Fla. (Jesuit HS) - 2010: at Jesuit HS. Gibson has the frame to become a weekend starter in his career. The Milwaukee Brewers selected him in the 26th round of the draft, but Gibson opted for college, turning down a late charge by the Brewers, who I was told offered him third round money. O'Sullivan loves having lefties on the team, and Gibson could be a good one with some work. He has good natural movement out of his hand. Players tell him to aim down the middle, and they laugh as the ball dives, sometimes out of the strike zone. He's also a winner and didn't lose a game as a senior in high school until the state championship game.
Michael Heller, So., RHP, 6-2, 195, Bradenton, Fla. (Cardinal Mooney HS) - 2010: 0-0, 4.15. Heller tore his ACL before the 2010 season, but he was cleared to pitch. He was an Aflac All-American out of high school and expectations were high. Heller didn't get meaningful time on the mound until late in the season. His outings during the fall and spring were feast or famine. When he looks good, he looks unhittable. It's just a matter of gaining consistency. I've heard his name as one rumored to have a shot at the closer spot since the end of last season, but he needs to prove more on the mound first. He has the arm to do it, and there is still plenty of time for him to put it all together.
Keenan Kish, Fr., RHP, 6-3, 200, Worcester, Pa. (Germanton Academy) - 2010: at Germanton Academy. Kish isn't flashy. If there's one thing I learned about him during the fall, it's that most times, you won't leave the field talking about him. However, he gets people out. He doesn't have the eye-popping fastball that Whitson does, but Kish has an advanced feel for pitching. His fastball will sit in the upper 80s, but he will change location on hitters and mix in off-speed pitches, making the fastball look even quicker. He struggled with command early in the spring, but Kish rebounded with a strong performance in Wednesday night's scrimmage.
Greg Larson, Jr., RHP, 6-8, 225, Longwood, Fla. (Lake Brantley HS) - 2010: 3-1, 5.70. After struggling with back injuries in high school, Larson has been a trusted, late-game pitcher since stepping foot on campus in Gainesville. His height produces extra leverage, which means the ball has more sink and movement on it. He throws in the 90s, but his role this season will likely be in the late innings when the team needs a ground ball. If another reliever allows a base runner with less than two outs, Larson will be the guy to come out of the bullpen to get a double play. However, he has proven more than capable to get big outs in his career.
Austin Maddox, So., 6-3, 225, Jacksonville, Fla. (Eagle's View Academy) - 2010: didn't pitch. This isn't a misprint. After putting up SEC Freshman of the Year numbers at the plate last season, Maddox will see time on the mound this year. He pitched before coming to college and has a fastball in the low 90s. I was surprised by the quality of his slider in the fall. It was his punch out pitch. He also throws a changeup for a strike, giving him three pitches he can locate. Even if he can give the team a few innings of relief during a midweek game, it would take that much more of a strain off the other arms in the bullpen. However, I would expect him to have a bigger role than that. If some closer candidates struggle, don't be surprised if he gets a chance.
Nick Maronde, Jr., 6-3, 200, Lexington, Ky. (Lexington Catholic) - 2010: 2-0, 6.15. I expected Maronde to either close or be the setup man. It sounds like his role might be a little more fluid. He could get some spot starts on the mound if there are some injuries in the starting rotation or players who struggle. Maronde was listed by Baseball America as the top draft prospect on the team. He walked 24 hitters in 26.1 innings last season, but he also recorded 37 strikeouts in that time. Maronde has the ability to be one of the best pitchers on the team. It just comes down to the mental aspect of the game. His slider has locked up left-handed hitters all offseason in scrimmages.
Justin Poovey, Jr., 6-0, 200, Granite Falls, N.C. (South Caldwell HS) - 2010: 1-0, 7.20. Poovey was a Clemson commitment out of high school and followed O'Sullivan to Florida when he was named head coach. The coaches have toyed with Poovey's mechanics and arm angle multiple times to get the best out of him. He gets natural movement on the ball, but he struggles to harness it. Poovey looked improved during the fall. However, you never know with him until the lights come on.
Steven Rodriguez, So., LHP, 6-2, 225, Miami, Fla. (Gulliver Prep) - 2010: 2-0, 2.57. Rodriguez should start the season as the team's closer. He was cool on the mound in pressure situations last year as a freshman. His go-to pitch is a cutter that gets on the hands of right-handed hitters and dives off the barrel of left-handed hitters. There were pro scouts who saw Rodriguez pitch last year who referred to his cutter as "Major League caliber." It almost resembles a slider out of his hand because of the sharp movement. When hitters start to expect it, Rodriguez will throw a four-seam fastball that doesn't have as much movement.
Florida's SEC Opponents (in order of my division predictions):
The SEC West dominated football season, but it looks like the SEC East will dominate basketball and baseball. The East boasts two teams with a chance to win a national championship, as well as the team who won the national championship last year. However, the West looks like most, if not all, teams on that side of the conference are in for rebuilding seasons.
1. Florida: I give the Gators a slight edge over Vanderbilt based on a deeper lineup and slightly deeper pitching staff. The weekend rotations are similar, but Florida has more depth into the midweek and bullpen. It would be tough to find another team in the country with five better starting pitchers. The lineup is still young, but they are in a rare situation after playing in so many meaningful situations last year.
2. Vanderbilt (May 13-15): The Commodores are led by a stacked weekend rotation. Their advantage of Florida comes on Friday nights, where Vanderbilt has a proven ace in right-hander Sonny Gray (10-5, 3.48). Jack Armstrong (7-4, 4.71) and Gray give the Commodores two possible first-round pitching prospects. Left-hander Grayson Garvin (1-1, 1.25) or Taylor Hill will be the third starter. Garvin was named the best pitcher in the Cape Cod League over the summer.
The Commodores' offense is led by first round draft prospect, third baseman Jason Esposito. He batted .359 with 12 home runs last season. First baseman/DH Aaron Westlake joins him in the middle of the lineup after hitting 14 home runs last year. Second baseman Anthony Gomez will be the table setter for a lineup that brings back the top five batting averages from last year.
3. South Carolina (March 25-27): The defending national champions took some hits to their pitching rotation, and the maturity of starting pitchers could determine their season. Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson keyed their run to a national championship last year, and they have both signed professionally. Michael Roth (2-1, 1.34) and Tyler Webb (3-2, 3.96) will anchor the rotation after having unstable seasons last year. Roth's performance in the College World Series was the biggest surprise, and now he looks to put a complete season together.
The offense loses its right fielder and shortstop. Adam Matthews and Evan Marzilli can play the corners in the outfield to make up for the loss of right fielder Whit Merrifield. Shortstop doesn't have an easy solution, but junior college transfer Peter Mooney, brother of former Florida shortstop Mike Mooney, will start the season at the position. Center fielder Jackie Bradley, Jr. hit .368 with 13 home runs last year, and he will anchor the lineup again this season. Sophomore first baseman Christian Walker will look to build on a freshman year that saw him drive in 51 runs. The Gamecocks got great news when catcher Brady Thomas was granted one more year of eligibility.
4. Kentucky (May 19-21): The Wildcats can put a scare into any team with their top two pitchers. Alex Meyer (5-3, 7.06) and Taylor Rogers (4-7, 6.40) won't scare the opposition with their 2010 numbers, but there is no doubt the ability is there. Meyer dealt with mono last season that cut into his ability to pitch and his productivity when he did step on the mound. His fastball can reach the upper 90s and he will be a high draft pick regardless of how he pitches this year. Rogers showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman, but this year he will need to be more consistent.
At the plate, the Wildcats are in trouble. Kentucky lost almost all of their most trusted bats and will need new players to step up this season.
5. Georgia (April 15-17): The Bulldogs lost their two top starters from last season, Justin Grimm and Jeff Walters, to pro baseball. Michael Palazzone (4-6, 8.66) didn't put up impressive stats as a freshman last season, but the right-hander took a big step in summer ball. He should be the ace of this staff. Junior left-hander Chase Hawkins and sophomore left-hander Blake Dietrich will push to be in the rotation, too. Dietrich was a teammate of Florida shortstop Nolan Fontana at West Orange High School.
The offense has one of the top prospects in the SEC in outfielder Zach Cone. Infielders Colby May and Chase Davidson need to be more stable. May put together a great freshman season before falling off the map last year. Davidson started last season out on a tear, but he cooled off as the season continued. Outfielders Jonathan Taylor and Peter Verdin bring experience to a team with a void in talent.
6. Tennessee (April 1-3): The Volunteers return only one starting pitcher from their weekend rotation in left-hander Steven Gruver (4-4, 6.21). He is expected to stay in the rotation after a successful summer league performance. Will Locante (1-1, 7.36) led the team with 26 appearances out of the bullpen as a freshman, and he could get a shot at the rotation.
The lineup has plenty of holes to fill. Left fielder PJ Polk and first baseman Cody Hawn both moved on to the professional level, but they are the only two significant losses. Third baseman Matt Duffy and left fielder Josh Liles return to anchor the lineup, but the biggest impact could come from a freshman. Tennessee got a pleasant surprise when outfielder Andrew Toles decided to come to campus instead of signing with the Florida Marlins, who drafted him in the fourth round.
1. LSU (March 18-20): The West is wide open this year. LSU lost a ton from last season, but I still think they are the best team on this side of the division. They will need to replace ace Anthony Ranaudo, but they have arms capable of doing it. The one drawback is experience. Ben Alsup (5-1, 3.88) finished strong last year and should be a weekend starter. The big recruit on campus is right-hander Kevin Gausman, a 6-4, 170-pound pitcher that is a future ace. I would expect him to be in the rotation immediately, but he will have ups and downs that all freshman do. For the third straight season, LSU's closer situation is lights out with junior Matty Ott.
An outfield of All-American Mikie Mahtook, Trey Watkins and Mason Katz wouldn't be surprising, but football signee Spencer Ware should also see time. Shortstop Austin Nola and second baseman Tyler Hanover should solidify the middle of the infield. The wildcard for LSU is their home field advantage, as they led college baseball in attendance last year while averaging 10,655 fans at each game last year.
2. Auburn (not on schedule): The Tigers have thrived without a stellar pitching staff the past few seasons and relied on out-slugging the opposition. The new bats could change that. Justin Hargett, Creede Simpson, Tony Caldwell and Justin Fradejas lead their offense. Keep an eye on freshman shortstop Zach Alvord, who was an 18th round selection by the Atlanta Braves.
On the mound, things could get rough. Junior Cory Luckie is the most experienced starting pitcher on their roster, but he is the only starter in the top three in starts who returns. Grant Dayton and Cole Nelson moved on to the next level. Expect Slade Smith to get one of the two open starting pitcher spots.
3. Alabama (April 22-24): I'm higher than most on Alabama this season, but I love their pitching staff. The Crimson Tide were able to outscore opponents last season, but this year's team could have a different look. They return Nathan Kilcrease and Adam Morgan as their top two starting pitchers, and that top two might be the best in the West.
Graduation and the MLB Draft hit the offense hard. Second baseman Ross Wilson, shortstop Josh Rutledge, first baseman Clay Jones and third baseman Jake Smith are all gone. The outfielder returns Jon Kelton and Taylor Dugas, who led the SEC in on-base percentage last year. Brock Bennett is expected to catch. Alabama will need some newcomers to step up at the plate.
4. Arkansas (May 5-7): Arkansas is similar to LSU, although they might have been hit even harder by the draft. They lost third baseman Zack Cox, center fielder Brett Eibner and first baseman Andy Wilkins, after all three hit in the middle of the order for the past two seasons. Ace left-hander Drew Smyly and key reliever Mike Bolsinger also moved on to pro baseball.
Bo Bigham and Tim Carver will lead the offense up the middle, while catcher James McCann will provide a big bat in the middle of the order. Outfielder Collin Kuhn will also provide pop from the top of the order. The rotation will be fluid. Right-hander DJ Baxendale was unhittable out of the bullpen last year, while Randall Fant is a breakout candidate in the rotation. Freshman Ryne Stanek turned down a third round selection in the MLB Draft to come to campus. He will get immediate time on the mound.
5. Ole Miss (April 29-May 1): It's hard for any rotation to bounce back from losing the No. 5 pick in the MLB Draft, but that's what the Rebels will try to do after losing Drew Pomeranz. Aaron Barrett has also moved on, taking the team's top two starting pitchers. Ole Miss will need multiple pitchers to step up, and they have plenty with potential. David Goforth, Eric Callender and Matt Crouse have potential to breakout this season, but it's hard to project this team any higher without a proven arm in the rotation.
Matt Smith and matt snyder return to anchor the Ole Miss lineup. Catcher Taylor Hightower could have a breakout year with the bat. Second baseman Alex Yarbrough will be a key cog at the top of the order.
6. Mississippi State (April 8-10): The Bulldogs will miss a big piece of their lineup as Connor Powers moved on to professional baseball. Nick Vickerson and Jaron Shepard return to provide solid bats at the top of the lineup, but they will search for a consistent power threat.
On the mound, there are pitchers with experience from last season. Sophomore right-hander Chris Stratton was the most consistent pitcher last season as a freshman. Junior left-hander Nick Routt has a successful 2009, but he wasn't able to capitalize on it last year.
Florida's Out of Conference Opponents:
Florida State (March 1, 15, 29, April 12): The Seminoles will need players to step up with the bat to make a return trip to Omaha. Tyler Holt signed with the Cleveland Indians after being a tenth round pick, and he was the spark plug at the top of the lineup that created havoc on the base paths. Shortstop Stephen Cardullo graduated, and while the Seminoles will see an improvement in the defense at shortstop, Cardullo was one of their most consistent bats.
Center fielder/closer Mike McGee is one of the best players in college baseball, and his power in the middle of the order will be a boost. The infield defense will be very good. Third baseman Sherman Johnson, shortstop Justin Gonzalez and second baseman Devon Travis are all impressive with the glove. First baseman Jayce Boyd is too, and he is poised for a breakout season with the bat.
On the mound, the Seminoles return many key arms. Ace Sean Gilmartin experienced a down year in 2010, but he was one of the most dominant freshmen pitchers in the country in 2009. The Seminoles need him to get back to that level. Junior left-hander Brian Busch is expected to start on Saturdays, but he could also come out of the bullpen. The losses of Josh Gast and Geoff Parker create holes in the bullpen. Don't be surprised if Santa Fe Community College transfer Gary Merians wins a job in their weekend rotation.
Miami (March 4-6): The Hurricanes bring back plenty of bats. Third baseman Harold Martinez will be one of the top power bats in the country. Shortstop Stephen Perez and left fielder Zeke DeVoss will bring speed and athleticism to the top of the order, while right fielder Chris Palaez was expected to bring another big bat to the middle of the order, but a shoulder injury could keep him out the entire season. The key void is at catcher, where junior David Villasuso will battle with freshmen Shane Rowland and Corey Janson.
The pitching is where Miami took a big hit. They lost there three weekend starters from last season in Chris Hernandez, David Gutierrez and Jason Santana. Sophomore Eric Whaley seems to be a lock in the rotation. Sophomore EJ Encinosa was one of their best arms last season, but he could move into the closer's role this year. Left-hander Daniel Mirana offers a good arm, but his role is yet to be determined. There are plenty of capable arms on the Miami roster. The team's success will come down to figuring out what roles are best for each player. Freshman left-hander Brad Radziewski will start the season as their Friday night pitcher.