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February 15, 2013

2013 Florida Baseball Preview



Break out the programs and numerical rosters. Florida baseball will not be overly recognizable to the casual eye in 2013.

Gone are the vast majority of players who led the Gators to the past three editions of the College World Series. Over the past two years, Florida has lost 28 players and signees to the Major League Baseball Draft. The Gators' opening weekend lineup will feature four regular starters from 2012, only one of those a starting pitcher.

Florida will be young, a team that could start as many as seven players in the field who are freshmen or sophomores on any given night.

Replacing MLB No. 3 overall pick Mike Zunino will be sophomore Taylor Gushue, a player who graduated high school early one year ago to play for the Gators as a freshman at 17. Florida loses more than 200 starts at shortstop with Nolan Fontana leaving and fills the spot with freshman Richie Martin.

Three regular starters are gone in the outfield and replacing them is one of the few questions coach Kevin O'Sullivan doesn't have a certain answer to yet.

In many ways, the Gators will be a different team. They lose 58 home runs from a season ago and in many situations will be trading sluggers for speedsters, refocusing the offense around small-ball and base-running.

Youth doesn't stop in the field or in the batting lineup. A freshman and a sophomore will start on the mound on Saturdays and Sundays, respectively.

That doesn't change Florida's goals. Speak to any UF player and they'll tell you these are still the Gators and the ultimate mission still ends in Omaha.

"The expectations haven't changed for us," Gushue said. "We're definitely a great team. We have a lot of great pieces to our team. I'm really excited to see where it goes."

No. 17 Florida's journey begins tonight at 7 against Duke at McKethan Stadium.

INFIELD

Breakout Candidate: Freshman shortstop Richie Martin will be thrown into the fire right away. Those were the direct words of O'Sullivan. Martin brings special speed and defensive ability and is expected to start at shortstop and bat lead-off from his first game forward.

Biggest Question: Who is going to play first? Ideally, O'Sullivan would like to see senior Vickash Ramjit hold down the spot, but it will depend on how much Ramjit is needed in an outfield that severely lacks experience. If Ramjit is needed in the outfield, look for sophomore Zack Powers or Brady Roberson to fill in, although that would mean a dropoff in defense.

Forgotten Man: Josh Tobias spent a large portion of his freshman year injured but was a major defensive asset when he returned to the lineup. His offense came on late but topped off at a .252 batting average. Expect more confidence from him at the plate this year and more of the same on defense.

Best Player: Second baseman Casey Turgeon made one big play after another in the field as a freshman and showed flashes of a reliable bat with surprising pop for his 5-foot-9, 170-pound size. After taking a backseat to upperclassmen like Fontana and Zunino in 2012, Turgeon has been a catalyst this offseason. Gushue is a candidate for honorable mention but has to prove his swing has become more sustainable.

Sully Says: "I feel that [Richie] and Casey up the middle; it's as good of a middle (infield) as you're going to see at this level."

PITCHERS

Breakout Candidate: Tucker Simpson is a freshman Florida has been high on since he got on campus, so much so that he became the Saturday starter when news broke that Karsten Whitson would not pitch this season. At 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, Simpson has the frame to be a player in the SEC. He's just obviously very green.

Biggest Question: How will the bullpen sort out? There are plenty of questions about how the weekend starters will pan out, but at least we know who has what role. In the bullpen, it's a mystery of who goes where and how things will piece together at the end of games without Steven Rodriguez and Austin Maddox. Johnny Magliozzi, Daniel Gibson and Corey Stump are just some of the names that will come up. Don't be surprised if the Gators go weeks without identifying any form of a closer.

Forgotten Man: Keenan Kish made 13 appearances and 2012 and was especially impressive late in the season. No UF pitcher had a lower opponent batting average (.198) and O'Sullivan has said he would like to find some way to start Kish. That could come in a regular midweek role.

Best Player: Jonathon Crawford is the lone UF player on the watch list for the Golden Spikes Award, which goes to the nation's best amateur baseball player. An injury-torn 2012 for Whitson opened the door for Crawford and he seldom disappointed. He threw a no-hitter in the NCAA Tournament and finished with a 6-2 record. This year he will utilize a changeup he is confident in to complement a high-90s fastball.

Sully Says: "We're not going to put too much on [Crawford]. There are going to be other guys who are going to help carry this squad. Obviously, we're going to need him to be really good for us on the weekends, but we're not going to ask for anything that's not realistic."

OUTFIELD

Breakout Player: Freshman Harrison Bader comes to mind as an athletic, defense-first player who can help seal the wound left by the departure of Tyler Thompson. Because of a lack of experience, nearly any possible outfield name would be a breakout player if he had a good season.

Biggest Question: It's simple and not at the same time. Who starts? The outfield is wide open and likely will remain that way until O'Sullivan sees what the young options can do during game action. Expect plenty of shuffling during non-conference play until he finds a combination he is happy with.

Forgotten Man: Freshman Christian Dicks is a lefty bat with tremendous athleticism who could factor in defensively and offensively as an option for the Gators early. He will have to earn his time, as O'Sullivan will be apt to place a veteran like Ramjit or Cody Dent in the outfield if he is not comfortable with the younger players.

Best Player: Justin Shafer enters this season with a full slate as the Sunday starting pitcher and the only returning outfielder with extensive experience from 2012. He will be looked on to play in some capacity in every game this season and will be a fixture in the middle of the batting lineup as one of the Gators' few players with significant power.

Sully Says: "It's all going to depend on how some of these freshmen develop. We've still got some questions [in the outfield]."


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