Sully Has Gators Right on Track

No one associated with the Gator baseball program is in the mood to express any satisfaction with the 2010 campaign and with good reason. When you aim high your chances of coming up short are pretty good, but it still hurts.

The Gators wanted to win the College World Series and instead were the first team sent home. I get it. Still, the Florida program is in as good a shape as it has ever been, and the future could not be brighter.

Kevin O'Sullivan has been coaching the Gators for three seasons and in those years he has accomplished a remarkable progression. Each year his team has gotten better and younger. Florida for the most part has replaced departing veterans with better freshman and as a result looks to be an almost certain pre-season top 10 and possibly top five team for 2011.

Let's first look at the progress each season. In 2008, Sully's first team went 34-24, finished 17-13 in the SEC and earned and NCAA bid. In 2009, the Gators ended up 42-21 and won the SEC Eastern Division. They won an NCAA Regional and hosted a Super Regional. This year the Gators took it up another notch with an SEC Championship, a Super Regional win and the schools sixth trip to Omaha. And they did it with two freshmen in the starting rotation and rookies in the crucial positions of catcher, shortstop and clean-up hitter.

Losses Significant, but Minimal

In college baseball it's pretty rare for a team to return its top three starting pitchers and Florida is likely to return four. The Gators do, however have to replace one of the top closers in school history in Kevin Chapman. The lefty came out of nowhere to post a 3-0 record with 11 saves and a sparkling 1.65 ERA. He was a fourth round draft pick and will likely move on to pro-ball if he hasn't already. Senior Matt den Dekker made the most of his decision to return for his senior year hitting .352 with 13 HR and 49 RBI. He also stole a team high 23 bases and should go down as the best defensive outfielder in school history.

Other than that duo, the Gators lose just set up man Jeff Barfield (4-0, 3.38) from a talent and deep pitching staff. That's assuming Tommy Toledo and other late draft selections choose to remain in school rather than accept minimal pro offers.

Filling the Voids

For the time being our early look ahead will focus completely on the players already on the Florida roster. Most of the highly recruit players the Gators have signed were drafted by the pros and trying to fit them into 2011 roles wont happen (by me anyway) until after the august 18th signing deadline so we know which guys are actually going to join the team.

With that proviso, let's evaluate the three significant questions heading into next season.

Centerfield ---- The first guy who comes to mind is Kamm Washington. The freshman outfielder was seeing significant playing time before an injury ended his season. He was pretty impressive in 65 at bats with a .308 batting average, .400 on base percentage and 8-for-9 in stolen base attempts. Washington's speed makes him a prime candidate for centerfield next season. Daniel Pigott and Tyler Thompson return as outfielders and could be tried there as well.

Closer ---- My first thought is that Nick Maronde (2-0, 6.15) should be the guy. He has the most explosive fastball on the team as evidenced by his 37 strikeouts in just 26.1 innings. But the talented sophomore lefty couldn't find his control all season long (24 walks, 9 hit batters and 5 wild pitches). If he gets his control back he's the best option. Choice number two would be another talented but inconsistent reliever in Greg Larson (3-1, 5.70) who, like Maronde has command and consistency issues. A wild card in this could be Brian Johnson (6-4, 4.03) who could be spared from the rotation if Toledo returns to form in the spring.

Third Base ---- This is an interesting position to settle for O'Sullivan and his staff. Florida has used Bryson Smith, Austin Maddox, Cody Dent and Jerico Weitzel there are various times. Maddox gives you the best offense by a wide margin, but I'm certain the Gators would like to cut down on the most error prone position on an otherwise outstanding defense. Maddox doesn't want to be typecast as a DH, but with Mike Zunino catching and Preston Tucker at 1B there aren't many options. Of course Tucker could improve his pro stock by showing he's an adequate outfielder and Maddox is first a 1B so there are options out there.

The 2011 Gators should be the best of O'Sullivan's four teams, and if those three positions get solved in a big way it could be one of the best Florida has ever put on the field. It may not match the 1985 team with its eight players reaching the majors, but it just might do something no other Gator team has ever done. After all, Sully's teams have taken big steps in each of the last two seasons and there are only two steps left to take.

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