The change worked.
O'Sullivan led the Gators to an NCAA Regional in 2008, and then they hosted a Regional and Super Regional in 2009 before they were upset by Southern Miss to steal a berth in the College World Series.
Florida made its first trip to Omaha under O'Sullivan in 2010, but the Gators were eliminated after losing their first two games.
Florida returned to the College World Series and made it to the championship series before dropping two games to South Carolina.
The constant progress points to the final step. Florida's first step to winning the program's first national championship begins Friday night when Cal State Fullerton comes to Gainesville.
The Position Players (with 2011 statistics):The Gators were second in the SEC last season with a .307 batting average, and that shouldn't drop much with all that returns to Florida. The key contributor that needs to be replaced is senior second baseman Josh Adams. He rewrote the record book in his career, earning records for most games started and played in at Florida. He's also tied with Major League second baseman Mark Ellis with 941 career at-bats.
The lineup this year has plenty of familiar names in it and some much needed speed. While other teams tried to steal bases and create runs with speed in a big ballpark like TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., or Regions Park in Hoover, Ala., the Gators simply didn't have enough guys who could run.
There are plenty of power bats in the middle of the order that can drive in runs. The Gators need the two freshmen to get on base and use their speed to create havoc while the veterans continue to do what they have been throughout their career.
Mike Zunino, Jr., C, 6-2, 220 pounds, Bats R/Throws R, Cape Coral, Fla. (Mariner HS)- 2011: .371 batting average, .442 on-base percentage, 19 home runs, 67 RBI, 75 runs scored. It's hard to put into words how good Mike Zunino was last season. He showed signs at the end of his freshman year when he got hot and carried the Florida offense at times. No matter how good he looked down the stretch, there's no way anyone could have predicted what he did as a sophomore.
Zunino hit 19 home runs, which was the most since LaPorta hit 20 home runs in 2007. However, keep in mind that LaPorta did those with the old bats and Zunino hit 19 with the new bats that have less juice. Zunino had a .371 batting average and drove in 67 runs with a slugging percentage of .674 and on-base percentage of .442.
Zunino's value at the plate was unmatched, but his importance behind the plate is just as high. His offensive numbers as a freshman weren't impressive because of what Zunino was learning about being a catcher. He had to learn about every pitcher on staff—their strengths, weaknesses, go-to pitches, etc.
He is as good as any catcher in college baseball at knowing his staff. Zunino puts in extra hours in the fall and early spring to get to know the newcomers and find out as much as he can about them. That extra effort is what makes him special and likely an early first-round pick in the MLB Draft this summer.
Taylor Gushue, Fr., C, 6-2, 190 pounds, Boca Raton, Fla. (Calvary Christian High School)- 2011: n/a. Gushue is part of a unique trend starting in college baseball. He enrolled at Florida in early January, skipping his senior season of high school baseball. Gushue took a few extra courses at his high school during the fall to make the move happen, and he gives the Gators more depth behind the plate.Gushue is a switch hitter with a line drive swing from both sides. The left-handed swing has more lift to it and should provide more power, but he should also hit for plenty of pop from the right side. The power in both swings should increase as he gets stronger in a college weightlifting program, but Gushue is already built well. He looks like he should be able to carry 15-20 more pounds that would help him go through the tedious college baseball schedule.
He hit four home runs to tie with Tucker to lead the team in home runs during the spring. It's remarkable to think about what he is doing. He has been on campus for just over a month and is dealing with the normal parts freshmen deal with, like being away from home for the first time. Gushue is handling the adjustment with ease.
Behind the plate, Gushue is a good athlete that moves well. His footwork is solid and his arm strength is enough to be successful at the college level, but it wouldn't hurt if it got a little stronger. His athleticism helps him on balls in the dirt, as Gushue is able to throw his body in front of balls in the dirt. He could also see time at first base when Zunino catches or get some starts behind the plate during midweek games to give the All-American a rest.
Remember me saying this— do not be surprised if Gushue works his way into the lineup much earlier than expected.
Brandon Sedell, Fr., C/1B, 6-1, 225 pounds, Davie, Fla. (America Heritage High School)- 2011: n/a. Sedell is an important power bat in this freshman class. He's a big body that generates plenty of power at the plate. He started out slow over the fall, but he came on at the end and showed what he could do. His stance is slightly open and he has quick hands that give him a lot of bat speed.
In the spring, Sedell's bat hasn't backed off. He'll have off days like most freshmen, but he has shown flashes that show the potential he has. He hit a solo home run off Brian Johnson in the spring that got out of McKethan Stadium in a hurry. When his swing stays short and quick, the ball jumps off his bat.His body is deceptive. Physically, Sedell doesn't look like he can handle the defensive part of catching if you don't watch him play, but he looked like he can stay there during the fall. He spent time working with former Florida catcher Buddy Munroe during workouts. Sedell moves well behind the plate whether receiving or blocking a pitch in the dirt. The freshman is an exciting player.
Mike Fahrman (Tampa, Fla./Alonso High School) and Todd Haskel (Palm Harbor, Fla./Dunedin High School) are both catchers that will provide depth this season.
Brian Johnson, Jr., DH/1B, 6-3, 235 pounds, Bats L/Throws L, Cocoa Beach, Fla. (Cocoa Beach HS)- 2011: .307 batting average, .381 on-base percentage, five home runs, 29 RBI, 26 runs scored. There are plenty of questions about where Johnson's future in professional baseball is—on the mound or at the plate. This spring, he'll continue to do both for the Gators. Johnson's power decreased in his sophomore season, but his bat came on strong near the end of the season.In what was billed as a down season, Johnson still managed to hit .307. The most impressive part of the season was his patience. Fontana, Tucker and Zunino were the only three players to draw more walks than Johnson. After posting eye-popping statistics as a freshman, Johnson knew that opposing pitchers would be careful with him. He was smart and drew 21 walks in 192 at-bats.
Scouts who saw Johnson play in the Cape Cod League over the summer thought he could project into a 20-25 home run hitter in the big leagues. He can show big time power, and after hitting just five home runs last season, this could be the year he hits double-digit home runs.
Johnson has also improved his glove this offseason. On days when he wasn't pitching, he still participated in scrimmages and played plenty of innings at first base. Johnson played the position in high school and some last season.
The expectation to start is the season is for Johnson to start at first base on Friday nights while serving as the designated hitter on Saturdays. He will then pitch and hit on Sundays. O'Sullivan wanted to do this because it gives Johnson the ability to focus on only hitting the first two games in a weekend before pitching on Sunday. He also won't have to deal with the usual soreness that follows pitching on a day where he is trying to hit.
In games that Johnson starts on the mound in his career, he is hitting .521 (25-48) with 13 runs scored and eight runs driven in. In games where Johnson pitches and is in the lineup as a hitter, his career ERA was 0.26 lower than when he just pitches. The benefits for Florida happen in both parts of his game.
Austin Maddox, Jr., DH/1B, 6-3, 235 pounds, Bats R/Throws R, Jacksonville, Fla. (Eagle's View Academy)- 2011: .280 batting average, .327 on-base percentage, six home runs, 35 RBI, 30 runs scored. Maddox needs a bounce back year, and he hasn't hesitated to admit that. If you're looking for a player on the team most ready to start a fresh season, Maddox is the one. After winning SEC Freshman of the Year in 2010 when he hit .333 with 17 home runs, those statistics fell off last season. Maddox and the coaches aren't sure why it happened, but he was pitched differently last season after having a big freshman year.The pitches Maddox got to hit weren't nearly as good as his first year in the league. Opponents didn't know much about him in 2010, so their scouting reports expanded as they faced Maddox. Last year, they were careful with him. Maddox's aggressive approach was used against him by opposing teams. He swings early in the count often, and opponents mixed in off-speed pitches in the dirt to see if he would change that approach.
This season, it will be interesting to watch how Maddox reacts. There was a scrimmage this fall where he had four groundouts after seeing one pitch in each at-bat. That can't happen if he is going to rebound this season. Maddox has walked just 21 times in 524 career plate appearances. Part of it is just the approach that has made him successful in high school and his freshman year, but teams have caught on and Maddox needs to change the approach this season.
He has shown signs of it during spring practice. Maddox's swing looks controlled, and he isn't swinging at as many off-speed pitches early in the count as he did last season. If he can keep that going through the season and give the Gators something close to what he did in 2010, the Florida offense could be even better than what many expect.
Those issues at the plate have scouts wondering whether his future in baseball will be on the mound or at the plate. Maddox's success as the closer last year has increased the talk of his future on the mound. His big arm on the mound touches the mid 90s, but we'll talk about Maddox as a pitcher later on. A good season at the plate could have teams drafting Maddox as a two-way player at the next level because his raw power at the plate is undeniable.
Vickash Ramjit, Jr., 1B, 6-3, 215 pounds, Miami, Fla. (Christopher Columbus High School)- 2011: .382 batting average, .427 on-base percentage, one home run, seven RBI, 17 runs scored. Over the course of last season, Ramjit went from the team's biggest cheerleader to the team's starting first baseman. Maddox's foot injury in the first game of the NCAA Tournament forced Ramjit into the starting lineup, and he took advantage of the opportunity to produce.
He is a solid defensive first baseman and would start for most teams, but he's in an unfortunate situation where Florida will use Johnson, Maddox and Gushue at first base and designated hitter in some combination throughout the season. However, no one expected Ramjit to play a big role in last season and he still was a contributor when the season was on the line.
He could force his way into the lineup. Ramjit has been hitting the ball well this spring and could find his way in. O'Sullivan said last week that he is fully comfortable with Ramjit in the outfield, but there are guys ahead of him defensively at third base. If there is an injury to the lineup, Ramjit could be the one that gets the call.
Casey Turgeon, Fr., 2B, 5-9, 165 pounds, Bats L/Throws R, Palm Harbor, Fla. (Dunedin High School)- 2011: n/a. When you first see Turgeon, it's a little confusing. The bill on him coming out of high school was a middle infielder that provided some power from the left side of the plate, but Turgeon certainly doesn't look like a power hitter. Then you watch him take batting practice, and it all makes sense. The ball jumps off his bat.Before fall practice even started, I watched Turgeon during individual workouts as he launched ball after ball over the 375-foot sign in right-center field and into the opponent's bullpen. His swing is short and generates surprising power for his size.
Turgeon was slowed in the fall when he was involved in a scooter accident that caused him to miss all of fall workouts. He was ready to go when spring practice started, and he didn't skip a beat.
In the field, he can provide solid defense, as he has enough range to play shortstop if he had to. It would be hard to fill the shoes of four-year starter Josh Adams, but the Gators don't need Turgeon to replace what Adams did by himself. Turgeon has quick feet that allow him to get in position to field the ball, and his quick release allows the ball to get to first in a hurry.
Cody Dent, Jr., INF, 5-11, 190 pounds, Boynton Beach, Fla. (Park Vista HS)- 2011: .207 batting average, .343 on-base percentage, no home runs, seven RBI, 11 runs scored. Dent showed at the end of last season that he is capable of holding his own at the top level of college baseball.
The Gators rotated third basemen in over the course of the season, but for a team that didn't need much more offense, Dent was the best fit because of his glove.He can play any position on the infield and is an ideal candidate to be a utility infielder if he doesn't start. Dent's bat needs to improve for him to get consistent starts, but he showed patience and advanced knowledge of the strike zone last season that still made him a weapon at the bottom of the lineup. His skill set makes him a perfect utility infielder and late-game defensive replacement if Florida has the need for one.
Jeff Moyer, Sr., 2B/3B, 5-11, 190 pounds, Winter Springs, Fla. (Santa Fe College)- 2011: .246 batting average, .313 on-base percentage, two home runs, 11 RBI, eight runs scored. Moyer was mostly used as a pinch hitter last season, and as long as Florida infielders stay healthy this season, that should be Moyer's role again. It was role that he performed well in last season.
Nolan Fontana, Jr., SS, 5-11, 190 pounds, Bats L/Throws R, Winter Garden, Fla. (West Orange HS)- 2011: .289 batting average, .414 on-base percentage, five home runs, 49 RBI, 57 runs scored. Fontana has been a fixture at the top of the Florida lineup since his freshman year. His eye at the plate has been as valuable a weapon for the Florida offense as any bat. Baseball is taking a turn back to players who have the ability to get on base, and Fontana is the best on the team at that skill. He's a smart baseball player who understands the game and has the intangibles that will help him successful at the next level.
His glove is as consistent as any infielder in college baseball. O'Sullivan preached about building defense by having strong defenders up the middle, and Fontana helps with that. He makes all of the routine plays and some of the extraordinary plays. He also has a plus arm from deep in the hole at shortstop. Fontana has the internal clock that helps him gather himself after fielding a ball, knowing just how much time he has before a runner will get to first.
After he signed with Florida out of high school, O'Sullivan told me that Fontana is the type of shortstop that leads a team to Omaha. He's 2-for-2 so far.
Josh Tobias, Fr., 3B, 5-9, 205 pounds, Bats S/Throws R, Greensboro, N.C (Southeast Guilford High School)- 2011: n/a. The freshman brings the Gators something they desperately needed last season—speed. Tobias has plenty of it. He ran a 6.35 60-yard dash at the Perfect Game National Showcase the summer before his senior year. His speed had most projecting him as an outfielder in college, but an all-senior outfield this season has the Gators using him at third base.That's another benefit he brings. Tobias is as versatile as any player on the team. He could play every position on the field but pitcher and catcher and be just fine. His infield defense isn't pretty. His fielding and throwing motions aren't smooth, but all you have to do is look at the final result. He fields the ball and hits the first baseman in the chest with his throws. He has quick hands that allow him to make difficult plays on in-between hops.
On scout day in the fall, Tobias made a back-handed play down the third base line where he fielded the ball and threw to second base to start a double play in one motion. His fielding motions aren't perfect, but he's as efficient as you could expect. Whether it's at the plate or with the glove, there's always that one play from Tobias that you remember after you leave the field.
At the plate, Tobias is a switch hitter with line drive swings from both sides. His left-handed swing is quicker and shorter, but the right-handed swing produces more power. Don't let his size fool you, either. Tobias can hit for power in the SEC. At the same Perfect Game National Showcase where he ran a 6.35, Tobias also won the home run derby (while hitting right-handed) over some of the top power hitters in the country. The comparison that seems most accurate form what I've seen is to former Chicago White Sox and San Francisco Giants second baseman Ray Durham.
Zack Powers, So., 3B, 6-3, 205, Seffner, Fla. (Armwood HS)- 2011: .250 batting average, .314 on-base percentage, no home runs, seven RBI, eight runs scored. Powers began last season as the starting third baseman during his freshman year. He started slow and the Gators tried a few players in that position throughout the year. Powers had a knee injury at Georgia and after trying to come back too early a month later, he shut it down for the season.Powers has been dripping with potential since he got to campus. He could still use some extra weight to provide more power, but his glove is solid at third base. His .836 fielding percentage might suggest otherwise, but that number is skewed because Powers made three errors in the game he tried to come back in against Kentucky. He injured his right shoulder last week during practice, and his status for the opening weekend is up in the air.
Daniel Pigott, Sr., LF, 6-2, 205 pounds, Ormond Beach, Fla. (Seabreeze HS)- 2011: .331 batting average, .375 on-base percentage, five home runs, 40 RBI, 44 runs scored. Pigott has been in and out of the lineup over the past few seasons based on a platoon with Tyler Thompson, but this season, he will have an opportunity to be in the lineup every day. When Thompson had a hamstring injury to start last season, Pigott proved he could handle both left-handed and right-handed pitching.
Pigott has gap-to-gap power that produces plenty of extra base hits. He was third on the team with 21 doubles last season, just two behind Tucker and Zunino. He is also one of the best bunters on the team and has enough bat control to be a good candidate to hit-and-run. Pigott was also the only Florida player to have double-digit stolen bases last season, as he went 15-for-19 on the base paths.
The senior might be the best overall athlete on the team. He doesn't always read the ball well off the bat on defense, but his speed and quickness allow him to make up for it most of the time.
Justin Shafer, Fr., 3B/LF, 6-2, 200 pounds, Lake Wales, Fla. (Lake Wales High School)- 2011: n/a. Shafer will get his at-bats this season, but I predict him to have a big 2013 season when he's a sophomore. His bat is really impressive. He has a line drive swing that will produce more power as he gets stronger. If the Gators needed him to, Shafer is capable of hitting well as a freshman.Most times I saw Shafer hit, the ball was hit on the barrel. O'Sullivan complimented his "barrel awareness," and it's easy to see why. Shafer has power, can hit to the opposite field and has power to all fields. Also keep in mind that he was a high school quarterback with Division One offers, so he hasn't focused solely on baseball until getting to college. His best days are ahead of him.
The only issue comes in his position. I would expect Shafer to play most likely corner outfield in college, but he doesn't look very smooth at either one. His quarterback arm strength wouldn't be a problem for him. I'm guessing Shafer takes over for Pigott in left field in 2013.
To his credit, almost every time I watched the team take batting practice in the offseason, Shafer was at third base or in left field working. I would expect him to be at least competent next season as the left field job will be open.
Tyler Thompson, Sr., CF, 6-1, 190 pounds, Bats L/Throws R, Tequesta, Fla. (Jupiter HS)- 2011: .264 batting average, .331 on-base percentage, one home run, 17 RBI, 15 runs scored (in only 67 at-bats). The hope for Thompson this spring is that he'll be able to stay healthy and put together a full season. He was slowed at the beginning of last season with a hamstring injury, and the coaches are excited to see what he can do if he's in the lineup most games for a full season.During spring scrimmages, Thompson has been one of the most impressive hitters on the team. He is hitting the ball hard and to all fields. Coming back for his senior season could pay off in a big way if Thompson can put up a consistent season.
He wasn't consistently in the lineup during previous years, as Thompson and Pigott have been in a platoon in left field. Thompson saw some time in center field last season when Bryson Smith was suspended after an arrest for DUI, so it'll be an adjustment he's capable of making.
Thompson doesn't have elite speed, but he reads the ball off the bat well and takes great routes to fly balls. That will help him play center field in McKethan Stadium, where the gaps have plenty of space. Thompson also strengthened his arm in the offseason to handle the longer throw to home plate from center field.
The issue at the plate has always been strikeouts. Thompson has struck out in 33% of his 324 career at-bats. When Thompson puts the ball in play, he has a career batting average of .410. Thompson has eight career home runs, with six coming in his sophomore season when he was healthy for most of the year. If he stays healthy, Thompson has potential to put together a senior season to remember.
Cory Reid, Fr., CF, 6-2, 195 pounds, Port St. Lucie, Fla. (Port St. Lucie High School). 2011: n/a. If Reid can get his bat going, he can be a solid player for the Gators. Reid joins Tobias as the two fastest players on the team. He covers plenty of ground in center field and has a good arm in the outfield. His best chance to get on the field this season could come as a late-game pinch runner. Reid is a long strider that doesn't take long to get from base-to-base. He's as fluid of a runner as you will see this season.The issue is with his bat. Reid struck out quite a bit during the fall, and when he did make contact, he didn't make a lot of hard contact. Still, he's an interesting player to watch. There's no immediate need for him to play this season, so the Florida coaches can spend the year working with him and getting him ready for the 2013 season. O'Sullivan said it best this spring about Reid—"If the bat comes, he's got a chance to be special." I do like the look of his swing. He has made more consistent contact as fall and spring practice progressed.
Preston Tucker, Sr., RF, 6-0, 220 pounds, Bats L/Throws L, Tampa, Fla. (Plant HS)- 2011: .308 batting average, .381 on-base percentage, 15 home runs, 74 RBI, 55 runs scored. While writing last year's On-Deck Report, I thought I was putting Tucker in the lineup for his final season in Gainesville. Now he comes back to Gainesville on the verge of breaking plenty of school records. Tucker is six RBIs away from breaking Brad Wilkerson's career RBI record. In three seasons, Tucker has more than the 208 RBIs Matt LaPorta recorded in four seasons.If Tucker hits 14 home runs this year, he will tie Wilkerson for second with 55 career home runs. With 62 hits, Tucker will have the most hits in a Florida career. The fewest hits he has recorded in a season so far is 81, so he looks on pace to make that happen. Tucker can set the school doubles award in a career with just eight in his senior season. The school records for games played and games started are also in reach if Tucker stays healthy.
All of that to say, Tucker could go down as one of the best, if not the best, players in Florida history. It doesn't make sense for a player this good to come back to school for his senior season, but word started to come out in the second half of last season that Tucker would be a tough sign for the professional team that drafted him. That came when the Colorado Rockies took Tucker in the 16th round of the MLB Draft last season. They wouldn't meet his demands, which were rumored to be $500,000, and Tucker chose to return for his senior season. He also said this spring that if Florida would've won the College World Series, the decision could've been different.
There's also a chance Tucker slides back to play first base more often this season.
Connor Mitchell, RFr., OF, 6-0, 185 pounds, Tampa, Fla. (Plant HS)- 2011: n/a. Mitchell provides outfield depth and should have an opportunity at more playing time in 2013. With three seniors starting in the outfield this season, Mitchell gives the Gators a left-handed bat that produces line drives.
Sean Trent, Fr., 3B/OF, 6-1, 205 pounds, Maitland, Fla. (Bishop Moore High School)- 2011: n/a. Trent joined Magliozzi, Tobias and Sedell in the Aflac All-American Game last summer. He is a solid line drive hitter that can drive the ball in the gap and hit the ball to the opposite field with authority.Similar to Shafer, it'll be interesting to see where Trent ends up defensively. He came in as a third baseman and that isn't out of the question. He also practiced in the outfield some, too. Trent isn't the smoothest athlete and sometimes looks mechanical in the field. If he can get those issues ironed out, he can be productive at Florida. He is strong but also seems like a good athlete for his build.
DESIGNATED HITTER:There are plenty of options here. Gushue, Johnson, Shafer, Maddox and Ramjit should all be involved early, and that list could easily grow as the season goes on. There is plenty of flexibility within this lineup.
The Weekend Rotation (with 2011 statistics):Head coach Kevin O'Sullivan has a rare experience this spring. He brings back his entire weekend rotation. The truth is, it's actually the second straight year that has happened, but Alex Panteliodis was slowed last season because of a hip injury and fell out of the rotation. When teams have prepared for Florida in the past two years, there hasn't been much doubt about the pitchers they'll face. It's the same again this season.
The junior class that makes up a large part of the Florida offense holds two spots in the weekend rotation, too. The National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association named Johnson and Whitson Preseason All-Americans, but Randall was actually the one who had the best statistics last season. If that doesn't show the true depth of this staff, nothing will. By the way, Randall picked up multiple Preseason All-American honors from other publications.
The ideal way to build a rotation is to do it with guys that have spent a year in the bullpen or serving as the team's midweek starter. That wasn't the case with these guys. Randall was the only one who had made a midweek start, and it wasn't long before he proved he deserved to be in the rotation. This group is battle tested and they've all thrown in the College World Series. There's no atmosphere that should be overwhelming for this veteran group.
Friday- Hudson Randall, Jr., RHP, 6-3, 180 pounds, Atlanta, Ga. (Dunwoody HS)- 2011: 11-3, 2.17 ERA, 124.1 IP, 13 walks, 73 strikeouts, .227 batting average against. Watching Randall pitch is like watching an artist at work. When he's on, it's tough to leave the stadium and not be impressed. He was the ace of the staff in 2011, and O'Sullivan knew what he was going to get out of Randall every time he stepped on the mound. The right-hander had just one bad start, when he lasted just 2.1 innings and gave up six runs. He kept his team in the game every other trip to the mound.Randall won't throw in the 90s very often. He can reach back for it when he needs it, but the junior is mostly 88-89 with his fastball. He will use a curveball and slider to get outs and show the pitch to give hitters something else to think about. He mostly uses the curveball backdoor to left-handed hitters, while the slider is a sharper, two-plane pitch. His best off-speed pitch is the changeup. It's a plus pitch that gives hitters fits.
Opponents' scouting reports on Randall will need to be updated before this season because of the addition of a cutter. Randall messed with the pitch at the beginning of fall practice after learning it from teammate and roommate Steven Rodriguez, whose cutter has turned him into one of the best relievers in the SEC. The pitch will mostly be used to get in on the hands of left-handed hitters. Randall used the changeup and would try to backdoor his breaking ball to left-handers before, but he now has a more firm off-speed pitch to use against them.
Randall used it in fall practices against the Gators' left-handed hitters like Fontana and Tucker, and the hitters spoke all fall about how tough the pitch was to keep fair. Just what the crafty right-hander needed—another pitch he can command.
Randall doesn't use any pitch that he can't command. He throws five different pitches, so that should tell you something. He walked just 13 hitters in 124.1 innings last season or less than one per nine innings. Hitters come to the plate aggressive, knowing they're going to get strikes, but Randall uses their aggressiveness against them with his off-speed stuff.
Saturday- Karsten Whitson, So., RHP, 6-4, 225 pounds, Chipley, Fla. (Chipley HS)- 2011: 8-1, 2.40 ERA, 97.1 IP, 28 walks, 92 strikeouts, .235 batting average against. The expectations were out of control for Whitson last year, but he managed to deal with them and have a very productive season. The San Diego Padres selected Whitson as the No. 9 overall pick in the 2010 MLB Draft, and it seemed like there was no chance he would see Gainesville. Despite promising Whitson more money, the Padres wouldn't go past $2.1 million and the right-hander made it to Gainesville last season.He was immediately thrown into the Sunday spot in the rotation and threw well. Whitson's fastball is good enough to get outs if that's all he threw. It's routinely in the mid-90s, and he can even reach back to get it in the upper 90s. It's a heavy fastball that hitters rarely make solid contact against. When he locates it, the sink to the fastball produces ground balls.
His slider is the knockout pitch where most of his strikeouts come from. The pitch looks like a fastball out of his hand but the sharp bite to it. The slider was ranked by Baseball America as the top high school slider in his draft class. The movement on the slider is late, and it sits in the low 80s.
The third pitch is where Whitson will determine how good he is going to be. He survived in his freshman year basically throwing just a fastball and slider with a handful of changeups each time out. If the changeup gets more consistent, his third pitch could elevate him into the elite group of pitchers in college baseball. The lack of an effective changeup hurt him in starts last season when he couldn't locate the slider, but a go-to changeup would solve that issue.
The big problem for Whitson as a freshman was his inability to go deep into starts. He was usually taken out of the game in the sixth inning before O'Sullivan handed the ball to his deep bullpen. The bullpen isn't as deep this year, which means Whitson will be leaned on to go deeper into games. If he has confidence in the changeup, it would go a long way during his third time through opposing lineups, when he was hit hard last season.
Sunday- Brian Johnson, Jr., LHP, 6-3, 235 pounds, Cocoa Beach, Fla. (Cocoa Beach HS)- 2011: 8-3, 3.62 ERA, 79.2 IP, 15 walks, 72 strikeouts, .253 batting average against. It would've been tough to script the way Johnson's sophomore season on the mound came to an end. He was hit in the back of the head by a throw from catcher Mike Zunino to second base at the SEC Tournament. Johnson had a concussion and didn't return to the mound until Florida's last game of the season.When the year was over, he was used as a two-way player for Team USA and on the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox in the Cape Cod League. Because he threw for both teams over the summer, O'Sullivan and Johnson decided to keep his innings down this fall. There wasn't anything he needed to prove, and it would be smart to give his arm a break from the drain of a long season.
Johnson won't change much this year. He's a left-hander that pounds the strike zone with all of his pitches. The fastball is 88-92 mph, but he can reach back and get a few extra miles per hour when he needs to. He excels at locating the fastball. Often with two strikes, instead of going to an off-speed pitch, Johnson will pound right-handed hitters on the inside part of the plate to get strike three locating. He trusts his fastball.
He'll use a curveball and slider that both can miss bats. The curveball improved throughout his sophomore season and will be a trusted pitch this season. Since coming to campus, it's the changeup that has made the most progress. He came to Gainesville without much trust in the changeup, but he teamed with O'Sullivan to make the pitch a trusted one by the start of his freshman season.
I originally expected Johnson to pitch on Saturday because O'Sullivan likes to have a left-hander to break up the two righties. However, in this case, there is a big enough difference between the power pitcher that Whitson is and the finesse pitcher that Randall is. Johnson can now start at first base on Fridays, be the designated hitter on Saturdays and then pitch and hit on Sundays.
The Midweek Rotation (with 2011 statistics):Here are my best guesses for weeks when the Gators play two midweek games:
John Magliozzi, Fr., RHP, 5-10, 195 pounds, East Milton, Mass. (Dexter School)- 2011: n/a. Brian Johnson referred to Magliozzi as the "Boston Bulldog" in an interview in the fall, and as much as he was trying to poke fun at his friend, it might actually make sense. Magliozzi is undersized, but fans will enjoy watching him pitch. He's animated on the mound and gets his toughness from his time playing hockey while growing up.Magliozzi has a big arm. His fastball was 90-94 during outings in fall workouts. His fastball comes out of a three-quarters arm slot but doesn't produce a lot of movement. However, during the fall, Magliozzi struggled with locating the fastball and had some bad outings because of it. Walks were sometimes an issue, while other times it was just falling behind in the count and being forced to throw a fastball or leaving the pitch over the heart of the plate.
He throws a lot of off-speed pitches to keep hitters off balance. The changeup is his best off-speed pitch and is a true plus pitch when he locates it. It has good depth to it, and the changeup dives down and in on right-handed hitters. It's a solid pitch that should continue to get better under O'Sullivan, who specializes in teaching the changeup.
Magliozzi also has a 12-6 curveball that O'Sullivan described to me as "a hammer." The curveball has plenty of drop to it, but it isn't loopy at all. It's a sharp bite that is a good pitch for his number three. He just needs to work on the consistency of locating the pitch. Sometimes he struggled with finding the correct release point to throw it for a strike, and he would leave it too high and out of the strike zone or bounce it short of home plate.
This role as midweek starter may seem like it's only important for the three games the Gators face Florida State, but it's a good opportunity for Magliozzi to develop. He's a unique scenario because he will be MLB Draft eligible after his freshman year. If he elects to come back for his sophomore year, he will most likely be counted on to be Florida's number two pitcher behind Karsten Whitson. Getting his feet wet as the midweek pitcher will allow him to learn while watching Randall, Johnson and Whitson on the weekends but also continue to improve.
In 2010, Hudson Randall started out his career as Florida's midweek starter before it was obvious he needed to be a part of the weekend rotation. In 2011, Alex Panteliodis used the role to come back from hip surgery, and he was a key piece of the team after Brian Johnson missed multiple postseason starts.
Jonathon Crawford, So., RHP, 6-1, 205 pounds, Okeechobee, Fla. (Okeechobee HS)- 2011: 0-0, 4.91 ERA, 3.2 IP, one walk, four strikeouts, .316 batting average against. Crawford's time on the mound was limited last season, but he got extended innings in fall workouts and didn't disappoint in scrimmages. He walked just three batters in at least 15 innings over the fall and had control of three pitches.The increased productivity came from a simple adjustment. O'Sullivan moved Crawford's arm slot from over the top to three quarters. His lower release point causes his fastball to sink on its way to the plate, giving him some room for error. O'Sullivan told me after Crawford signed out of high school that the right-hander had potential to be one of the hardest throwing pitchers he'd ever coached, and he showed why, sitting at 91-95 mph with his fastball during the fall.
O'Sullivan also has Crawford using a slider and changeup this season. The slider will serve as his go-to strikeout pitch, but the changeup showed progress through the fall.
The biggest thing with Crawford is the mental side of the game. If he can relax and just pitch, he has the arm capable of being a weekend starter as soon as 2013. Crawford's struggles have come when he thinks too much and tries to be too fine with his pitches, causing him to lose control of the strike zone.
Of the scrimmages I saw him pitch in this offseason that only happened in his last outing of the spring. His control wasn't sharp for the first inning, but even after that, he focused in and was dominant. I really like his ceiling. As the offseason went on, the buzz about the sophomore from scouts in attendance grew.
The Bullpen (alphabetically, with 2011 statistics):The Gators lost just 32.8% of the team's innings pitched last season. Alex Panteliodis, who is no longer on the team, started only four weekend or postseason games last season.
A majority of the 211 innings lost from the pitching staff came from the bullpen. O'Sullivan had the luxury to play matchups late in the game because of the abundance of left-handed and right-handed relievers the Gators had stacked up for the late innings.
Proof of the talent came in the MLB Draft. Relievers Nick Maronde (3rd round/L.A. of Anaheim), Anthony DeSclafani (6th round/Toronto), Alex Panteliodis (9th round/New York Mets), Tommy Toledo (11th round/Milwaukee) and Matt Campbell (24th round/Philadelphia) were all taken out of Florida's bullpen last season.
This is where the biggest question for this year's team is found. The Gators have a solid trio of Greg Larson, Austin Maddox and Steven Rodriguez at the back end of the bullpen that most teams in college baseball would be envious of, but they need to develop more depth. Freshmen and sophomores have to emerge as trustworthy arms for O'Sullivan to bring in during the pressure-packed situations of the middle innings.
Daniel Gibson, So., LHP, 6-3, 220 pounds, Lutz, Fla. (Jesuit HS)- 2011: 1-0, 13.06 ERA, 10.1 IP, three walks, ten strikeouts, .442 batting average against. The numbers from last year aren't pretty. Gibson chalked it up to being his first year in college and needing to get adjusted. He was often thrown into mop-up duty of blowout games, whether the Gators were winning or losing by double-digit runs.Florida needs him to be its second best left-handed reliever behind Rodriguez. I expected Gibson to have a big role as a freshman after he dominated in fall workouts two falls ago. Instead, he got hit hard during the year. His fastball has good sink, which could turn him into a ground ball specialist in the middle innings for the Gators. In order for that to happen, the fastball has to stay out of the heart of the strike zone, something it didn't do very often last season.
He is also working on his changeup. That would be his third pitch along with the fastball and curveball. If he can get those three pitches down and have a productive 2012 campaign, Gibson could be fighting for a starting rotation spot in 2013.
Ryan Harris, Fr., RHP, 6-2, 200 pounds, Jupiter, Fla. (Jupiter High School)- 2011: n/a. The biggest attribute Harris brings is deception. He uses a low three-quarters arm slot and a delivery with plenty of movement and effort to deceive the hitter, making it difficult to find the ball until it's already on the hitter. His fastball generates a lot of sink and should produce ground balls when Florida needs one this season.He might not throw as many innings, but Harris could have a role similar to what Larson had during his freshman year, coming in during the middle innings with runners on base to try to produce a double play to get out of a jam.
Keenan Kish, So., RHP, 6-3, 205 pounds, Worcester, Pa. (Germanton Academy)- 2011: 0-0, 0.63 ERA, 14.1 IP, seven walks, 12 strikeouts, .212 batting average against. Kish only got into games last year when the score wasn't in doubt, but he handled that role well. The only issue was his control. As a freshman, Kish allowed a walk every two innings. That has to improve if he wants his role to expand this season, and O'Sullivan won't use him very much if that doesn't get better.When Kish is throwing strikes, he's hard to hit. He throws on a downward plane that provides natural sink and an easy arm action. His changeup has improved since coming to campus.
Kish is actually my x-factor for this bullpen. If he can be steady, he could be the go-to middle reliever before giving the ball to Larson, Maddox and Rodriguez.
Greg Larson, Sr., RHP, 6-8, 235 pounds, Longwood, Fla. (Lake Brantley HS)- 2011: 1-1, 2.09 ERA, 38.2 IP, seven walks, 30 strikeouts, .248 batting average against. Larson has been solid in each of his first three seasons. He came in as a freshman with a history of back injuries in high school that kept him from working out much at Lake Brantley. His back has given him no trouble since coming to Gainesville, and that has also allowed him to get stronger and throw harder. Larson actually said this spring that he has put on around 50 pounds of muscle since coming to Florida as a freshman.Larson's best season came last year, when he was a trusted late-inning arm from the right side. This year, he will be a key cog in the bullpen again. Early in his career, Larson was a situational reliever that came in when Florida needed a ground ball. His role has grown since then, as he can give the Gators multiple innings if needed.
Larson has 87 career appearances and only three of those have come as the starting pitcher. He doesn't throw as hard as you would expect from a 6-8 pitcher, but his tall frame and high release point makes the ball sink naturally. He has also proven to produce in clutch situations. Larson is tied with Connor Falkenbach for the school record with 12 NCAA Tournament appearances with a 3.12 ERA in those games.
Austin Maddox, Jr., 6-3, 235 pounds, Jacksonville, Fla. (Eagle's View Academy)- 2011: 3-0, 0.67 ERA, 27 IP, three walks, 21 strikeouts, .198 batting average against. Maddox enters this season as the Florida closer. Last year, he was hoping to find a role in the Florida bullpen. He excelled in every outing on the mound last season, regardless of what role the Florida coaches decided to use him in.The fastball is his best pitch. Maddox actually said during the fall that he got by last season by throwing mostly fastballs. In his second time around the league, he knows there need to be adjustments this spring. That's why he worked on his off-speed pitches over the offseason. Maddox changed the grip on his slider because he felt like it allowed him to control it better, and the pitch has looked much improved in scrimmages. His changeup is also a pitch that he can throw for strikes.
The most impressive part of his sophomore season on the mound was the three walks in 27 innings pitched. Maddox has great feel for the strike zone, and when he peppers it with a mid-90s fastball that touched 94 mph on scout day, it's hard for opponents to adjust when they see an off-speed pitch.
Bobby Poyner, Fr. LHP, 6-0, 205 pounds, Wellington, Fla. (Palm Beach Central)- 2011: n/a. Poyner missed his senior season because of Tommy John surgery but he is back healthy and throwing to hitters. With all the pitching depth on this team, O'Sullivan and the coaches will be careful with him this year. Poyner is way ahead of his rehab schedule and is healthy enough to pitch immediately.
He'll pitch 87-89 mph with his fastball but his command is exceptional. I can admit to writing him off because of the depth Florida had, but don't make the mistake I did. The coaches love Poyner's competitiveness. He attacks hitters, and with his command, he can locate wherever he needs to. When he gets back to where he was before the surgery, I've been told that he is expected to be able to touch 92 mph.
He benefits from deception as his delivery hides the ball from the hitter. His curveball is a good pitch that could improve. His changeup needs some work, but O'Sullivan has shown a successful track record with that pitch. He also has a good pickoff move. His right foot lands at a 45-degree angle between first base and home plate, making it even tougher to pick up.
Poyner is reminiscent of former Florida left-hander Tony Davis. They're similar builds, left-handed and go right after hitters.
Steven Rodriguez, Jr., LHP, 6-2, 235 pounds, Miami, Fla. (Gulliver Prep)- 2011: 4-2, 1.91 ERA, 37.2 IP, 12 walks, 44 strikeouts, .228 batting average against. There is only one way to describe Rodriguez during fall workouts—unhittable. It took him facing nine hitters during scrimmages for one hitter to even put a ball in play. After Rodriguez struck out the first eight hitters he faced over two outings, the Florida coaches forced Preston Tucker to hit against him so one hitter would make contact. Even when that happened, Tucker weakly grounded out to shortstop and Florida players in the dugout erupted in sarcastic applause.
I was told during his freshman year that professional scouts called his cutter "major league ready" back then, and it sure looks that way. The pitch runs away from left-handed hitters and in on the hands of right-handed hitters. Either way, the recipe is a lot of broken bats. That's if the ball is actually put in play.
Rodriguez flashed his ability in a 4.1-inning outing where he allowed one base runner on a walk and struck out seven in a College World Series win over Vanderbilt. He can do whatever Florida needs out of the bullpen. He can close, he can come in to get a double play or he can come in to pitch multiple innings. His versatility is a coach's dream. Rodriguez is also one of the vocal leaders on the team.
Aaron Rhodes, Fr., RHP, 5-11, 190 pounds, Venice, Fla. (Venice HS)- 2011: n/a. Rhodes is my dark horse to play a role in the bullpen this year. He wasn't a well-known freshmen coming to campus, but Rhodes made his presence felt in fall workouts. He throws a Frisbee slider that is deadly against right-handed hitters. Whenever he needed an out in the fall, Rhodes started the slider at the hip of a right-handed hitter and let it come back over the plate for a strike.His fastball has above average sink to it. He's a different look from most guys in this bullpen. He could be a guy that works his way into more important innings as the season goes on.
Justin Shafer, Fr. RHP, 6-2, 200 pounds, Lake Wales, Fla. (Lake Wales High School)- 2011: n/a. During Shafer's first outing in the fall, I was wondering how long before he was only a hitter. It wasn't pretty. However, as the fall continued, Shafer settled in and improved during every outing. I wouldn't be surprised to see him produce as a middle reliever this season.He really grew on me in the spring. Shafer throws all of his pitches for strikes ad goes after hitters. The quickest way to get time on the mound under O'Sullivan is to throw plenty of strikes and don't walk hitters. Shafer is efficient on the mound. I'm really excited to watch his career develop. I'm not saying he will be as highly regarded, but you can easily see a scenario where he's the next player like Brian Johnson and used in a two-way capacity.
Shafer is 86-89 mph on the mound and throws the breaking ball and changeup for strikes.
Corey Stump, Fr., LHP, 6-5, 220 pounds, Lakeland, Fla. (Lakeland Christian High School)- 2011: n/a. To me, Stump is the most intriguing pitching prospect in this freshman group.
His frame tells you everything you need to know. He's from the same hometown as former Florida Gulf Coast and current Chicago White Sox left-hander Chris Sale, so naturally, that has been the comparison since Stump was in high school.Stump didn't have a great senior season, but he was better in his work during the fall and in the spring. His fastball can touch the low 90s. A big reason Stump chose Florida was the weight room and strength program because he wanted to add weight. When that happens, expect Stump to make the next jump. His ceiling is among the highest on this Florida staff.
Florida's SEC Opponents (in order of my division predictions):The SEC is stacked again this season. The one team that Florida misses is Alabama, and they will experience a down year. In the Gators' first seven weeks of conference play, they will face five teams ranked in the top 11 of Baseball America's preseason poll.
2. South Carolina (March 22-24)- It's hard to pick against two-time defending national champions. On paper, the Gators looked like the favorite going into the championship series in Omaha last year, but as they've done the past two seasons, the Gamecocks made all the plays and beat another good opponent.
Pitching won't be a problem for South Carolina this year. They return left-hander Michael Roth, who went 14-3 with a 1.06 ERA. The crafty left-hander allowed just 108 hits in 145 innings last season and should dominate again this year. The Gamecocks will slide Matt Price from the closer's role into the starting rotation after striking out 75 hitters in 59 innings last season. Price was a sixth round selection in the MLB Draft last year, but he returned to Columbia to prove he can be a starter and pitch on Saturdays. Colby Holmes will be used as the Sunday starting pitcher while Forrest Koumas, who beat the Gators in game one of the College World Series championship series last year, will be used as the closer to start the season.
The Gamecocks return All-American first baseman Christian Walker, who hit .358 with ten home runs and 62 RBIs last season. Outfielders Evan Marzilli (.291, 3 HR, 31 RBIs) and Adam Matthews (.264, 2, 14) are the other top returning hitters, and the two will combine with Tanner English as the starting outfield that features plenty of athleticism. The Gamecocks will have new starters at catcher, second base, shortstop and third base. All four of those are expected to be handled by newcomers to the program.
3. Vanderbilt (March 16-18)- The Commodores lost their entire pitching rotation when Sonny Gray, SEC Pitcher of the Year Grayson Garvin and Taylor Hill all went to play professional baseball, while closer Navery Moore signed with the Atlanta Braves after recording eleven saves last year.To replace the experience, Vanderbilt has plenty of talent. Kevin Ziomek is expected to start the year as the ace after going 3-0 with a 1.59 ERA in 45.1 innings pitched in 2010 as a freshman. His classmate TJ Pecoraro was expected to join him in the rotation, but Tommy John surgery will force him to miss the season. Vanderbilt hit the jackpot during the MLB Draft when No. 22 overall pick Tyler Beede spurned the Toronto Blue Jays and elected to attend Vanderbilt. He will be in the rotation immediately on Saturdays. Junior left-hander Sam Selman will start on Sundays.
Vanderbilt also had key losses in the field. First baseman Aaron Westlake (.344, 18, 56), third baseman Jason Esposito (.340, 9, 59) and catcher Curt Casali (.303, 7, 53) all moved on to professional baseball after last season. The Commodores do return shortstop Anthony Gomez (.336, 0, 48), who doesn't have much pop, but he combines with center fielder Tony Kemp (.329, 0, 34) to give Vanderbilt one of the best tops of the lineup in the SEC.
Designated hitter Conrad Gregor (.353, 3, 32) will be counted on as a middle of the order hitter. I expect center fielder Connor Harrell (.289, 9, 36) to have a breakout season. He got hot during the postseason, and if he can carry it into this spring, it would be a big boost that the Vanderbilt lineup desperately needs. Freshman catcher Chris Harvey will start after going skipping his senior year of high school and enrolling early, just as Florida catcher Taylor Gushue did.
4. Georgia (April 20-22)- The Bulldogs will be led by a veteran pitching staff. Senior right-hander Michael Palazzone returns after going 10-5 with a 3.14 ERA last season. Palazzone isn't a strikeout pitcher, recording just 78 in 120 innings in 2011, but he relies on location and movement to get outs. Redshirt sophomore Alex Wood (6-7, 4.44) needs to take a big jump for Georgia to reach their potential. Junior left-hander Blake Dieterich (3-3, 3.67) was a high school teammate of Florida shortstop Nolan Fontana, and he pitches in the high 80s but depends on location.The Georgia offense will be defined by players that need to bounce back. Colby May was a hyped player when he came to campus but hit just .222 last season. Right fielder Peter Verdin (.263, 5, 27) also has plenty of potential. The best offensive player for the Bulldogs last season was shortstop Kyle Farmer, who hit .308 with eight home runs and 58 RBIs. Freshman Hunter Cole's bat will find its way into the lineup at either third base or left field. He has the ability to make an immediate impact.
5. Kentucky (May 3-5)- The Wildcats bring back their best hitter from last season in third baseman Thomas McCarthy (.371, 7, 39). There were three other players that saw consistent playing time and hit over .300, but they are all gone. Catcher Luke Maile will be leaned on to provide power, as he hit nine home runs last season. Second baseman J.T. Riddle hit .288 with three home runs last season.On the mound, Kentucky's top pitcher actually comes in the bullpen. Trevor Gott (2-4, 3.62, two saves) gives the Wildcats stability late in games, but the issue will be getting him the ball with a lead. Friday starter Taylor Rogers (3-7, 5.14), Saturday Starter Jerad Grundy and Sunday starter Corey Littrell (6-6, 6.95) will need to improve this year for the Wildcats to stay out of the cellar in the SEC East.
Watch out for Grundy. The former Miami pitcher was considered a big draft prospect out of high school and could have a breakout season.
6. Tennessee (April 13-15)- The biggest difference for the Volunteers will come in their head coach. Tennessee got rid of Todd Raleigh after last season and made a big splash, hiring Cal State Fullerton coach Dave Serrano to take the reigns of the program. The talent may not be where it should be at a program like Tennessee, but Serrano has proven to be a winning college coach and should do well. The offense wasn't expected to be good this year and took a hit when Serrano dismissed outfielder Andrew Toles (.270, 1, 25, 21 stolen bases) in the fall.Shortstop Zach Osborne (.330, 1, 19) and catcher Ethan Bennett (.262, 7, 25) will be counted on to carry the load for this inexperienced offense.
There aren't many more answers on the mound. Right-hander Drew Steckenrider (2-0, 6.12) will be counted on to start and contribute on the mound. There is no pitcher on the Tennessee roster that made more than six starts last season.
1. Arkansas (April 27-29)- The two pitchers at the top of the Arkansas rotation can matchup with any team in the country. Junior right-hander DJ Baxendale (10-2, 1.58) doesn't flash a fastball that blows hitters away, but he knows how to use his off-speed pitches to get outs. Sophomore right-hander Ryne Stanek (4-2, 3.94) doesn't look overly impressive with his statistics, but he improved as the season went on.
The best start of his freshman season came in the SEC Tournament when he allowed one run in 7.2 innings against Alabama. Barrett Astin (5-2, 2.72), Randall Fant (3-5, 3.89) and Brandon Moore (4-1, 3.45) will provide depth on the mound.Dominic Ficociello led the Razorbacks with a .335 batting average last year during his Freshman All-American season. Up the middle, second baseman Bo Bigham (.291, 2, 20) and shortstop Tim Carver (.232, 1, 13) are two veterans that will be counted on to produce more offense. Third baseman Matt Reynolds (.243, 3, 22) also needs to produce more at the plate while the Razorbacks search to find answers in the outfield.
2. LSU (April 5-7)- It all starts on the mound for the Tigers, specifically on Friday night. Sophomore right-hander Kevin Gausman will be the ace of the staff after going 5-6 with a 3.51 ERA last season. The stats don't tell the whole story, as Gausman improved throughout the year. He struck out 86 hitters in 89.2 innings and is expected to be an early selection in this summer's MLB Draft as a draft-eligible sophomore.
Sophomore Ryan Eades (4-1, 4.81) will join the rotation after dominating summer ball and being named Cape Cod League Pitcher of the Year. He made just six starts last year. Sophomore right-hander Kurt McCune (7-3, 3.31) should see a majority of time from the third spot in the rotation.The LSU offense was hurt by the loss of outfielder Mikie Mahtook (.383, 14, 56), who signed with the Tampa Bay Rays after being selected in the first round. Six of the top seven batting aveages on the team from last year are back in Baton Rouge, with Mahtook being the only one that left. JaCoby Jones (.338, 4, 32) will move to center field to start this season. Mason Katz (.337, 4, 53) will start the year in right field but could also see time at first base while Raph Rhymes will see time in the two corner outfield spots as well.
On-base machine Tyler Hanover (.311, 0, 25) will hit lead off to spark the offense after his .407 on-base percentage was third on last year's team.
3. Mississippi State (May 11-13)- The Bulldogs have some work to do with their lineup as the season goes on. Center fielder C.T. Bradford (.303, 0, 34) was the spark plug of the offense, and he'll serve that same role again this season. Bradford stole 11 bases and had a .397 on-base percentage while also bringing value on defense in center field. Senior right fielder Brent Brownlee (.279, 1, 24) will serve as a team captain this season. Second basebman Adam Frazier (.274, 0, 14), who was an SEC All-Freshman selection last year, will join Bradford and Brownlee as the only three returning starters on the team.
Ben Bracewell will get the ball on Friday nights to start the season after missing last year because of Tommy John surgery. Left-hander Nick Routt (3-3, 3.86) will start on Saturdays while head coach John Cohen leaves the Sunday spot to be announced to start the season. This leaves pitchers like Evan Mitchell (6-2, 4.62), Chris Stratton (5-7, 5.21), Luis Pollorena (7-5, 4.45) and Kendall Graveman (5-0, 3.65) as quality bullpen candidates or spot starters.
The bullpen will be anchored by 2011 Second Team All-SEC selection Caleb Reed (1-2, 1.55). Florida fans most likely remember Reed as the pitcher that allowed the three-run home run to Preston Tucker in game three of the Super Regionals, but he recorded 12 saves as a junior.
4. Ole Miss (March 30-April 1)- The Rebels will need to be carried by their offense. Senior first baseman matt snyder is back after hitting .301 with nine home runs and 39 RBIs. Second baseman Alex Yarbrough gives Ole Miss a threat at the top of the lineup, hitting .350 with seven home runs last season. Freshman Will Jamison will stat in center field, while sophomore Will Allen (.227, 4, 10), a graduate of Bucholz High School in Gainesville, will start the season as the catcher.
The pitching will need to step up for Ole Miss to be a threat in the SEC. The Rebels lost all of their starting rotation and will depend on sophomore Bobby Wahl (0-2, 4.80) as their ace. Wahl has a big arm and is seen as one of the top prospects for the 2013 MLB Draft, but there were reports out of Oxford that he had an up-and-down spring. Senior right-hander R.J. Hively (1-2, 7.85) and sophomore right-hander Mike Mayers (1-0, 5.10) will fill out the rest of the rotation. Junior reliever Brett Huber (2-1, 3.60) gives the Rebels some stability in the bullpen.
The Rebels will be tested immediately, opening the season at No. 10 TCU.
5. Auburn (May 17-19)- The Tigers lose plenty of bats, but they get Justin Bryant back after he sat out last season. In 2010, Bryant hit .323 with five home runs and 32 RBIs. Creede Simpson (.254, 3, 17) and Cullen Wacker (.287, 1, 18) will provide some offense, while I've always expected big things out of sophomore shortstop Zach Alvord.Auburn returns its two most effective pitchers from last season in seniors Derek Varnadore (6-3, 3.68) and Jon Luke Jacobs (1-5, 4.01). The experience will be there, but the Tigers will need some other arms to step in and make an impact this season.
6. Alabama (not on schedule)- The Crimson Tide will take a step back this season, but they got a big boost when center fielder Taylor Dugas (.349, 8, 33, 60 runs) decided to return for his senior year. Andrew Miller (.250, 0, 26), Austen Smith (.297, 5, 44) and Brett Booth (.257, 1, 26) need to take the next step for the offense to be productive.Alabama also lost its three starting pitchers from last season. Nathan Kilcrease (8-4, 3.12), Adam Morgan (5-7, 4.64) and Jonathan Smart (5-3, 2.50) are all gone, leaving a roster that is unproven on the mound. Junior right-hander Tucker Hawley (6-2, 3.65) is Alabama's best bet at an ace this season.
Florida's Notable Out of Conference Opponents:
Florida State (March 13, 27, April 10)- The Seminoles will be defined by their pitching this season. Florida State ace left-hander Sean Gilmartin left after he was selected in the first round by the Atlanta Braves, leaving the Seminoles searching for arms. The fear in Tallahassee is that there might not be a dominant ace capable of carrying the team and competing with opponents' aces on Friday nights. It'll be trial by fire as the Seminoles throw out a weekend rotation that combined for four innings pitched last season.
Brandon Leibrandt, the son of former Major Leaguer Charlie, will be the Friday night pitcher. Two-way right-hander Peter Miller will start on Saturday while freshman right-hander Mike Compton will start on Sunday. The most important role, as far as the Gators are concerned, is that freshman right-hander Luke Weaver will be the midweek starter and most likely throw the first game against the Gators on March 13 in Gainesville.
Gary Merians (6-2, 4.03), Hunter Scantling (3-3, 4.45) and Scott Sitz (4-2, 5.92) will play important roles out of the bullpen, with Sitz starting as the closer. Daniel Bennett (3-1, 2.29) was the best reliever and recorded 15 saves for Florida State last season, but he is gone.The Seminoles lost All-American center fielder Mike McGee (.321, 10, 58). Right fielder James Ramsey (.364, 10, 67) is the top returning bat, coming back for his senior season after turning down a substantial offer from the Minnesota Twins. An infield of third baseman Sherman Johnson (.256, 1, 40), shortstop Justin Gonzalez (.264, 8, 40) and second baseman Devon Travis (.329, 6, 33) can hit for average but doesn't provide much power. That's where first baseman Jayce Boyd (.343, 8, 60) comes in. Don't be surprised if Boyd has a monster season. Center field and left field are the positions the Seminoles will need a consistent option to emerge.
Miami (March 2-4)- The Hurricanes have plenty of arms. Miami had four players start at least 12 games last season, and they'll welcome Eric Erickson back to the team this year. The depth allows Miami to move EJ Encinosa into the closer's role, after he dominated in the bullpen two years ago and was average in the starting rotation last season. Eric Whaley (7-5, 2.70) will get the ball on Saturdays while Bryan Radziewski (9-2, 3.35) will start Sunday games to start the season. Steven Ewing (8-2, 2.66) will get the ball during midweek games. Radziewski was a Freshman All-American last season while Ewing served as the team's midweek starter. Freshman left-hander Andy Suarez is also on the team after coming to college despite the Toronto Blue Jays selecting him in the seventh round of the MLB Draft.
Miami will need to find some bats to improve this season. The Hurricanes already struggled to score runs last season, but Rony Rodriguez (.308, 13, 44) is the only returner that was in the top four of batting averages on the team last season. The big boost comes in catcher Peter O'Brien, who played the first three years of his career at Bethune-Cookman. O'Brien's waiver was approved by the NCAA in mid-January, as he moves closer to home to be with his sick mother.
Florida transfer Tyler Palmer is expected to play third base and hit at the top of the order. Michael Broad (.248, 3, 21) should be the ex-factor for the offense. When he has been healthy in Miami, he has produced, but that just hasn't happened very often. Center fielder Dale Carey (.271, 1, 24) and shortstop Stephen Perez (.263, 0, 31) have plenty of potential and could make the next step and produce on offense. The Hurricanes will need that to happen.