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Three position battles to watch during fall ball

University of Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan, center, watches after a inning ending strikeout as the Gators play the University of South Florida during the Gainesville Regional of the 2021 Division 1 Baseball Championship, at Florida Ballpark on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville Fla. June 4, 2021.
University of Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan, center, watches after a inning ending strikeout as the Gators play the University of South Florida during the Gainesville Regional of the 2021 Division 1 Baseball Championship, at Florida Ballpark on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville Fla. June 4, 2021. (Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun)

The Florida Gators baseball team is in the middle of their 2021 fall camp preparing for the 2022 season. The 2021 Gators were the favorites to win the College World Series but struggled and didn't make it out of their regional.

Florida lost a couple of key players to the draft but was also able to keep top hitters like Jud Fabian and Kris Armstrong. Florida also signed the No. 1 recruiting class in the country the last cycle, which includes three Perfect Game All-Americans.

Expectations are once again very high for the Gators this season but they are still in the process of trying to replace what they lost from last season. Here are three position battles to watch for during this fall camp.

Catcher 

One of the top hitters for the Gators last season was draft-eligible sophomore catcher Nathan Hickey. The Jacksonville native had two great seasons with the Gators and was drafted in the fifth round of the 2021 MLB Draft by the Boston Red Sox.

With Hickey in professional baseball, Florida needs to find their new catcher for the upcoming season. Sophomore catcher Mac Guscette served most of last season as Florida’s backup catcher before Florida head coach, Kevin O’Sullivan, made Hickey the DH and let Guscette start the rest of the season.

The former Perfect Game All-American played well for the Gators when he got his opportunity. Guscette slashed .298/.367/.351 with three doubles, nine RBIs, six walks, and had a .718 OPS.

Florida also brought in two catchers from their 2021 recruiting class in transfer BT Riopelle and high school All-American Rene Lastres. Coastal Carolina transfer BT Riopelle comes to Florida as a graduate transfer with plenty of experience.

Riopelle played three seasons at Coastal Carolina and started in 2020 and 2021. During his time at Coastal Carolina, Riopelle was a career .267 hitter with solid power and plus defense. In his last season at CCU, Riopelle slashed .270/.354/.459 with eleven doubles, eight home runs, 27 RBIs, eight stolen bases, and a .814 OPS. He was also on the Second Team All-Sun Belt in 2021.

Rene Lastres was the highest-ranked Florida signee that honored his commitment to the Gators. Lastres is a 6’3” 210-pound catcher with lots of raw power and is excellent behind the plate. Lastres was considered to be one of the top draft prospects and was even almost selected in the third round by the Cleveland Indians (now called Guardians). Lastres could definitely earn some playing time this season if he continues to develop his swing and cuts down on his strikeouts.

Sunday Starting Pitcher

The Florida Gators lost a couple of their best pitchers from last season including two of three weekend pitchers. Tommy Mace and Franco Aleman were both selected on the second day of the 2021 MLB Draft.

Florida only returns one pitcher from the weekend rotation which will be left-handed pitcher Hunter Barco. The junior southpaw will be Florida’s Friday night after a pretty solid sophomore season. Junior right-handed pitcher Brandon Sproat is also expected to be the Saturday starter.

The Sunday starter role is pretty open but redshirt-sophomore right-handed pitcher Nick Pogue is the early favorite for that role. Pogue is still recovering from Tommy John surgery from last season but he’s expected to be ready for the season opener.

If Pogue isn’t ready for the season opener, one of the very talented freshmen may get the Sunday role. Two left-handed pitchers have impressed early on in fall camp. North Carolina native Philip Abner has impressed early in camp. New Jersey native Pierce Coppola is another pitcher that is in the middle of the Sunday starter competition. Coppola is a 6’8” 220 pound lefty with a plus arm.

Left field

The final position battle to watch for is left field. Florida needs to replace an excellent left fielder that made a huge impact in just about every aspect of the game. Jacob Young was a three-year for the Gators and played left field all three years. Young was selected in the 7th round by the Washington Nationals last draft.

With Young gone, Florida will likely rely on one of their freshmen to start to left field this season. One freshman that should be competing for starting left field is Ty Evans. The Lakeland Christian product was the only Florida signee that was drafted but decided to go to Florida. On Perfect Game, Evans was the 121st prospect and the 21st ranked outfielder in the country.

Two other freshmen that should be considered to be the starting left fielder are Corey Robinson and Mikey Robertson. Robinson is a 5’11” 175-pound outfielder with great bat-to-ball skills and elite speed. Robertson is 6’2” 190 pounds with a nice left-handed swing and elite speed.