Baseball notes: 1/22

The Gators start practice on Friday just three weeks away from the start of the season on February 14. The roster doesn't have a senior on it, but Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan is pleased with the leadership from younger players. There are still plenty of decisions to be made before the 2014 season gets started.

The most important part is health. Karsten Whitson has no limitations this spring and is on the same track as the other pitchers in the team throwing program. There's no reason he won't be ready for the first weekend of the season, unless something unexpected comes up. He threw well during the team's workout on Tuesday.

Sophomore Eric Hanhold seems like the most likely choice to join Whitson in the weekend rotation, with the two filling the Friday and Saturday spots in the rotation in some order. The third spot is wide open with multiple talented, young arms. This spot likely won't be filled no matter who the Gators use in the opening weekend since they'll want to try multiple arms throughout the early part of the season.

The goal is to get a Sunday starter and midweek starter settled after the first few weeks of the season, likely by conference play. That will also allow the players who don't earn one of those two spots to find roles and strengthen the Florida bullpen. The bullpen has plenty of experienced arms that could close, including Ryan Harris, Keenan Kish and Justin Shafer.

If I'm picking the most likely offensive MVP at this point, it's Harrison Bader. I expect him to hit in the middle of the order and have a strong season after leading the team with a .312 batting average last year as a freshman. He has added weight and will play center field this season.

Richie Martin played at around 170 pounds last season, but he's heading into his sophomore season between 185-190 pounds. Martin now has some power to drive the ball in the gaps and use his speed. If things go ideally for the Florida staff, Martin will become a nightmare for opponents at the top of the batting order. He has the speed to steal 30+ bases and create runs with his legs.

Josh Tobias hit .320 during the fall and had a strong campaign. His preparation continues to show that he's ready for a big role, but the key is his health. During his freshman year, Tobias fractured his hamate, turning it into a wasted season. Last year, he struggled running because of a large bunion on his foot. Health was on his side with a big fall. Nothing is set in stone, but Tobias seems like the favorite for the third base job to start the season.

The freshmen will be a key story this season. Florida has youth that will be in the lineup and play a big role on how the season goes. A.J. Puk and Pete Alonso will see time at first base after Alonso actually led the Gators in batting average during the fall. Even if Tobias wins the third base job, freshman John Sternagel will also see some time at the position.

The freshmen outfielders will be fun to watch this year. Bader seems locked into center field with Justin Shafer in right field, but the left field spot remains open. There are non-freshman options such as moving Tobias to left field and backup catcher Braden Mattson also seeing time in the outfield.

However, the freshmen seem likely to have the first chance to be the third outfielder. Ryan Larson and Buddy Reed will both see time in the outfield. Reed broke his thumb during the fall but is now fully healthy. He's 6-4 and runs with ease with a solid swing mechanically. The issue that the coaches were unsure about was his ability to make consistent contact, but even that has impressed in workouts so far. He'll make an impact on the Gators this year.

Larson will also see time. He doesn't have the physical characteristics that Reed does, but he's an instinctual player that does the little things the Florida coaches love.

One surprise addition to me on the 35-man roster was freshman right-hander Frank Rubio. The coaches lowered his arm angle after it was straight over the top, limiting his velocity. He's mostly 87-88 mph and touches 90 every once in a while, but he gets plenty of ground balls with his sinker. He wasn't a highly-regarded member of the 2013 recruiting class, but Rubio made the roster and could serve in a mop up duty to start the year.

There are still plenty of things to be decided in the three weeks of practice before the start of the season, but the young roster has plenty of talent.

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