While much of the country buckled down in the midst of an arctic blast, the Florida Gator baseball team kicked off the 2013 campaign in style on Friday holding their first practice in beautiful, sunny mid 70′s weather. Such is life in paradise, and for the Gators program. Just like the Gainesville weather, the Gator baseball program is looking great coming off three consecutive College World Series appearances.
The bulk of the perfomers and stars from those CWS teams, however, have left either due to graduation or the Major League draft. The biggest loss for the Gators, of course, was captain and national player of the year Mike Zunino, the third overall pick for the Seattle Mariners and the highest draft pick in Gators history. He became only the thirteenth Gator ever picked in the first round and the first since Matt LaPorta went to Milwaukee with the seventh overall pick in 2007.
Pitcher and first baseman Brian Johnson became the fourteenth Gator first round selection when he went 31st to the Boston Red Sox. If Zunino was the heart and soul of the Gators then Johnson would be the muscles as he led a power hitting Gator lineup last season. Besides those two the Gators lost their starting shortstop, Nolan Fontana (2nd round to Houston), two starting outfielders in Preston Tucker (7th to Houston) and Daniel Piggot (9th to Cincinnati), as well as three other pitchers Steven Rodriguez (2nd to Dodgers), Austin Maddox (3rd to Boston), and Hudson Randall (7th to Detroit).
So this season begins with a lot of new faces but with most of the same old dreams. The identity of the team will change however. Last year’s team relied mostly on pitching and power, this year’s team will be more pitching, defense, and small ball. Gone are 61 of the 75 (81%) home runs the Gators hit last season and over 60% of their RBI’s. What they do have is tons of speed both offensively and defensively.
“Obviously we’ve got a lot of new faces,” head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said in friday’s media session before practice. “I do like our pitching, I like our defense, obviously our offense is going to be young. I’ts going to be a work in progress but we certainly have enough to be successful.”
“We’ve had some great players come through here that have moved on but now it’s time for these players to make a name for themselves. They’ve worked extremely hard and we’re just anxious to get started.”
Coach is anxious to get practice underway, the players are anxious to get started, and fans are anxious to see the new team and how well they play together. Can they live up to the standards of previous O’Sullivan Gator teams and get to Omaha? Possibly, but they will have to rely on good starting pitching, strong defense, and manufactured offense.
“Everything as far as recruiting is concerned has always been pitching and defense so I do feel good about that and I do feel good about our offense,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s just there’s going to be some ups and downs, there’s going to be a learning curve but we certainly have the personnel to be ok.”
While certainly the offense won’t be nearly as powerful as in season’s past, it’s not as if they can’t hit. They just will have to use their speed to move runners and manufacture runs more this season.
“Our offense is going to be different this year,” according to O’Sullivan. “I think offensively how you coach and how you approach things as a coaching staff changes from year to year depending on your personnel. Our personnel is different. It is what it is, but it certainly can be as successful we’re just going to have to do it a different way.”
They do have some experience and tons of talent. Senior captain Vickash Ramjit will provide solid defense at first base and right field as well as being a steady bat in the middle of the Gators order and the vocal leader of the team.
“Our main goal is to win,” Ramjit said. “As a captain, I emphasize that as much as possible.”
Backup shortstop and swing infielder Cody Dent also returns to provide leadership for a young infield which has boatloads of talent but somewhat lacking in experience. Freshman Richie Martin takes over for the departed Nolan Fontana at shortstop. He has big shoes to fill but O’Sullivan expects great things from him defensively and in the batting lineup.
“He’s a very, very good player, very mature. Up until this point he’s our hardest worker. From a baseball standpoint, he’s very talented. He’s got some big shoes to fill with Nolan departing last year. He’s worked extremely hard. He’s very talented, he can handle the bat. He’s going hit at the top of the order for us. He’s going to be a mainstay in the middle of the diamond. I feel with he and Casey up the middle it’s as good a middle as you’ll see at this level.
Casey would be sophomore Casey Turgeon who returns at second base after gaining valuable playing time by starting 65 of 67 games last season and becoming the ninth Freshman All American in O’Sullivan’s six years in Gainesville. Turgeon is a fundamentally sound second baseman who should be even better with a full season under his belt. He and Martin should provide great range and solid defense in the middle of the field.
“We’re very fortunate to have both those guys in our program,” according to O’Sullivan. “I do think they have a chance to be one of the best, if not the best, middle infield combination in the country.”
Another player who got a lot of playing time last season is sophomore third baseman Josh Tobias, a Freshman All SEC last season,who is strong defensively and should provide some power in the lineup for the Gators as well as leadership.
“We have to step up this year and teach the younger guys the ropes,” Tobias said.
Tobias has bulked up in the offseason and will likely be the Gators best power hitter this season. They will need him to step up offensively as they will likely struggle to create runs more this year than in years past.
“For me, he’s one of the keys to our offense,” according to O’Sullivan. “I feel like he has the ability to hit in the middle of the order. It’s just a matter of him going out there and doing it. When we start breaking down our team, player by player, he is one of those guys that, quite frankly, in order for us to be where we need to be, we really need him to have a solid year.”
The biggest loss, of course, is the leadership that Zunino provided for the Gators. He called his own games for the pitching staff, a huge deal for a college catcher, which is very telling for just how valuable he was to the staff and the team. In his place, Taylor Gushue takes over.
Gushue arrived at Florida just in time for last season, after graduating high school early and getting a jump on his college career. Immediately his hitting abilities forced O’Sullivan to find a spot in the batting order as we wasn’t expected to play much at catcher last season. After spending a lot of time as a designated hitter and learning from Zunino, Gushue takes over at catcher and should provide a solid bat in the middle of the order, while his defense catches up. O’Sullivan expects great things from Taylor.
”Obviously losing a player like Mike you’re not going to replace him,” O’Sullivan said. “With respect to Taylor, I’m really pleased where he’s at. Defensively he’s come light years. He’s going to have to hit in the middle of the order, he’s certainly capable. We recruited him for a reason, he came here early. He made a huge commitment to us, our school, our program, and it’s his time to go. We’re certainly comfortable with him.”
“I expect Taylor to be the same type of leader (as Zunino), it may take a little time here but I certainly expect the same thing from Taylor that I got from Mike.”
The outfield is probably the area that took the biggest hit losing three guys and then senior Tyler Thompson who left the team a few weeks ago for personal reasons. His departure is a big loss for the Gators’ outfield which will likely be forced to rely on newcomers this season. No reason was given for his departure.
“It was just a personal decision on his part,” O’Sullivan said. “We certainly support him. Obviously, it’s a blow to our team, but in the big picture it was just a decision he felt he wanted to make. We certainly support him. He was a great player for us for four years, and obviously he’s had some injuries and some setbacks. He’s a great Gator and we wish him the best.”
Two experienced players who may spend time in the outfield depending upon how the newcomers get up to speed are Tobias (left field) and Ramjit (right field).
The Gators have a couple of solid starting pitchers in Karsten Whitson and Jonathan Crawford. Whitson was 4-0 last season with a .351 ERA in 14 games and 10 starts. As a freshman he was 8-1 with a 2.40 ERA and was named National Freshman Pitcher of the Year. Crawford appeared in 19 games with 14 starts finishing 6-2 with a 3.13 ERA. The will, however, have to find a reliable third starter and a closer.
“From a starting pitching standpoint Whitson and Crawford (are set),” O’Sullivan said. “The third spot’s still up in the air a little bit. We do want to find somebody we trust at the end of the ballgame and if we can find that then we will figure out the Sunday starter. Kind of like our position players we have quite a few pitchers that could probably do both. We might work back from the back end of the bullpen to figure out who the third starter is.”
So spring practice begins for the Gators with tons of new faces and lots of optimism from Gator fans. After three straight College World Series trips, the Gators will be hard pressed to live up to expectations this season with so many new faces in the lineup. However, the Gators have a talented bunch returning and some talented newcomers and have an opportunity to carry on the tradition coach O’Sullivan has been building in Gainesville. The faces will be different, the play will be different, but with some hard work and luck the results could very well be similar, hopefully earning another trip to Omaha.
With the warm weather and the start of spring baseball practice, hope, as the old saying goes, springs eternal.