VETTEL: Baseball Changes I'd Like To See

Pat McMahon is the fifth baseball coach at the University of Florida since I first attended a game in the spring of 1979. In that time I have seen all manner of Gator teams built in a variety of ways. I've seen Gator teams that were great defensively and some that were mediocre at best. I've seen Gator teams that hit a lot of homers and others that didn't go deep much at all.

And I've seen teams with excellent starting pitching and other that never found a third starter, let alone a fourth.

Each of the five men I have seen running the UF baseball program has had significant success, and major disappointment. Jay Bergman coached the Gators for six years, posting an average record of 36-19. After a losing first season he won four SEC Eastern division titles, but just one conference crown and never got to Omaha. Jack Rhine lasted just two years. He won the SEC his first year, but went two and out in the NCAA Tournament and two-and-out in the SEC tourney the next year.

Enter Joe Arnold who lasted eleven seasons. Joe led the Gators to Omaha for the first two times in school history but won only two SEC titles in eleven seasons and his final two teams were a combined 63-48. Andy Lopez made it to Omaha twice in his seven campaigns but his last three teams averaged 25 losses.

Pat McMahon is the first Gator coach to go to the NCAA Tournament is his first four years, winning two regionals and one super regional. Last year he led the Gators to the NCAA Tournament finals, where Florida fell to Texas.

So why is it that the Gators keep having these "down" seasons? Well the reasons range from mistakes on the recruiting trail, surprises in terms of guys turning pro, bad luck, poor performances and draftitis.

Draftitis?

One of the toughest things for college baseball players and coaches to deal with is the ever-present Major League draft. The draft hovers over the top players all year long, most notably on juniors who are going to be draft-eligible at the end of the season. From John Burke to Matt McClendon to Matt LaPorta we have seen highly touted players struggle in their draft seasons, and perhaps lose a lot of money in the process.

Not only does the upcoming draft put a great deal of additional pressure on players; it can often complicate things for the coaches, too. You see college baseball players can't have agents, but most of the top ones have "legal advisors" who also just happen to be sports agents. And they are not bashful about letting the coaching staff know that their guy is hurt or tired or can't throw more than a certain number of pitches.

There's no way of knowing if any of this year's top draft prospects might have been affected by the pressures of the upcoming draft. But it certainly could account for several significant drop off performances this year.

Changes UF Should Consider

Cut down the roster: There are 45 guys on the Gator baseball roster according to the UF media guide. That's just too many. Of the 45, 20 are pitchers. How on earth can one guy coach 20? Baseball rosters are hard to manage because of the inexcusably low scholarship cap (11.7) but I think it would help to keep the roster around 35-36. That's a 20 percent reduction in the head count, which means more time for the guys who are actually playing. Besides, those other ten guys should be getting experience at a junior college program.

Sign JUCO pitchers every year: Now that the junior college ranks are getting more players, get the best starting pitchers you can from those ranks. I wonder where UF baseball would have been without guys like Russ Kibler, Jeff Gidcumb, Johnny Wiggs and Clay Daniel. Paul Rigdon and Justin Hoyman were pretty good, too. High school talent should remain the number one priority, but at least one JUCO starter should be brought in to provide some experience each season.

Don't forget the need for speed: Most of Florida's best teams have blended speed and power. Speed doesn't slump and is a great weapon when you are struggling to score runs. Florida's 67 steals last year was relatively few, but this year's 34 is horrific. Adam Davis led the team with nine steals, the fewest to lead a UF squad since 1973. It's not just the steals, either. Speed puts pressure on the defense every time you take the extra base.

Lefty power is a MUST: Florida's top two power hitters this season, Matt LaPorta and Gavin Dickey are both righty sluggers. But McKeithen Stadium begs for lefty power. There's no place the ball carries better than right at the scoreboard. Balance is ideal, but power form the left side is mandatory to take advantage of the home field.

Get a Gator on staff: Coach Mac has done a wonderful job of reaching out to former players, but here's one vote for the next coaching vacancy going to a former Gator player. There's no better way to use the past to enhance the present and build the future than to have that connection intimately involved in the program. Let there be no confusion here. I am NOT advocating making any staff changes. These guys were two wins from a national title eleven months ago. I'm just saying the next time an opening occurs; I'd like to see an ex-Gator on board.

Recruit defensive specialists: The final suggestion I will make is to have a great glove or two on the bench. With a 25-man roster for SEC weekends you can certainly have one or two superb defenders available for late-inning substitutions. You want to improve your pitching? Get better defensive players on the field whenever possible. Just like with speed, defense is not just about fewer errors; it's about getting to more balls, turning more double plays and denying opposing runners the extra base.

So there you have it. One's man's master plan to address certain elements of the Gator roster on an annual basis.

Comments are always welcome. Write me at Vettel@gatorcountry.com


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