2021 Gator baseball preview: Florida’s “best team never” returns to run it back

Gator baseball
Photo via Florida Gator baseball digital media team

No sooner had the ultra-promising 2020 Gator baseball season lifted off the ground than it crashed and burned a mere few feet beyond the end of the runway.

Some teams were left decimated by the MLB Draft and never got their money’s worth out of veterans who had come back for one last run in 2020. Each of Florida’s three traditional baseball rivals- Georgia, Miami and FSU- lost multiple players to the Draft, most notably Georgia pitching ace Emerson Hancock. And with the wealth of veteran talent the Gators had on their 2020 roster, it was generally assumed that few teams would be victimized as badly as Florida.

It was a shame, of course, because the 2020 Gator baseball team was pegged as a trendy pick to win the national championship. Many of the key players from the up-and-down 2019 campaign were back, and had spent the pre-2020 offseason priming themselves for the bounce back season of all bounce back seasons. Now, it was assumed, they would never get their chance to write their names in the history books. Thus, that 2020 Gator baseball team was instantly memorialized as a classic tale of, “Oh, what could have been.”

But then something amazing happened. In a vein not completely unlike the Gator basketball team in 2006, Florida’s veteran leaders banded together, put off their MLB aspirations and chose to return as a unit in 2021. Other than senior Swiss Army knife Austin Langworthy and “Secret Agent Man” Brady Smith (moment of silence), every single piece of what had the 2020 team looking so special will be back for the Gators this year. And that, in a sentence, has this team looking like it just might be the best in school history.


Pitching

It starts, of course, with the pitching. And the pitching section of this preview has to start with what could be one of the best starting pitching rotations in college baseball history.

Starting pitching

Florida exited the COVID-shortened 2020 season thinking its 2021 starting pitching rotation would be some combination of Hunter Barco, Christian Scott and Nick Pogue on the weekends and potentially Brandon Sproat or David Luethje as a midweek starter or emergency fourth starter should the Gators need one in the NCAA Tournament. And that right there would have qualified as a top two or three pitching staff in the SEC. Barco would have been the Friday night starter for at least half the teams in the conference a year ago and will almost certainly be a first-half-of-the-first-round MLB Draft pick. Pogue and Scott, while not at that level, showed major flashes of promise last year and would have been weekend starters on about 95% of teams in Division I last year. So had that been what Kevin O’Sullivan had to work with in 2021, giving his pedigree for developing pitchers, Florida figured to be just fine from an arms standpoint.

But then Tommy Mace shocked the world by passing up millions and decided to come back in 2021. Various reports say that Mace was coming back if he wasn’t offered a certain amount of money, he wasn’t offered that number, stuck to his guns and came back. That gives Florida a dependable Friday night starter with a fastball that he can place with pinpoint accuracy and that consistently hits 95 mph, an undetectable change-up in the high 80’s, and a nasty 80 mph curveball that can fool hitters on both sides of the plate. He had a rough go in 2019, but was on pace for a tremendous 2020 season in which he sported a 1.67 ERA, 26 strikeouts and a 3-0 record in four starts that totaled 27 innings. Above all, his penchant for pitching to soft contact can earn a lot of quick outs, and thus pave the way for some long, quality starts.

Mace’s decision tipped over the next domino, which was fellow right-handed pitcher Jack Leftwich. Some thought Leftwich could slip into the fourth and fifth round of the Draft, and if not then be a highly sought after UDFA, but Leftwich opted to rejoin Mace to improve his draft stock- and try to win a championship. An up-and-down 2019 season ended on a high note, with him going the distance against Missouri and then shutting down Army in the NCAA Tournament, and then in the 2020 mini-season, Leftwich turned in three stellar outings and one bad one against Troy. He’s got a 96 mph fastball, an above average mid 80’s slider and a strong 86-87 mph changeup, which alone would make him the Friday night guy for at least two thirds of college baseball. If he can add a little more bite and consistency to his slider and turn it into a bona fide “out” pitch, he’s going to be a terrifying Saturday starter.

And then there’s Barco, the sophomore from Bolles who’s more than good enough to be the #1 starter and only isn’t because of the veterans ahead of him. Objectively speaking, Barco never should have made it to campus; coming out of high school, he boasted more than enough promise to jump right to the MLB Draft. But he didn’t and now he’s Florida’s weapon for another two years. Barco doesn’t have enough innings under his belt to say too many things about him definitively, but what he did do was quickly earn a starting role as a true freshman a year ago, shut down the Miami Hurricanes, and allow just three runs in 19.1 innings of work, striking out 26 batters along the way. He knows how to miss opposing bats with a wipeout slider, his fastball should only add some speed as he develops (it’s already topped out at 95 mph), and with his control of both pitches he just might be the best Sunday starter in the country.

So Florida’s starting rotation is loaded. All three of Florida’s starters are guys that Kevin O’Sullivan should feel secure with placing on the mound for a big game, and that’s certainly something that could come in handy if the Gators are going to make a deep run.

Relief pitching

While Sully has to feel very good about his chances with any of the aforementioned starters- Mace, Leftwich and Barco- on the mound, long rain delays, injuries, pitch counts and bad days exist. What will he and Florida do if things don’t go according to plan and he needs to call upon his bullpen?

Somehow, if such a thing is possible, the Gators might be in even better shape with its bullpen than with its starting three. Christian Scott and Nick Pogue will one day be starters, and are excellent options for long-relief duty in the event that a starter gets knocked out of a game. Both have multiple 3+ inning relief appearances under their belt, and word is that they’ve both increased their already above-average control this offseason.

But even beyond them, Florida has a dizzying array of weapons to choose from. Ben Specht was mostly lights out as the closer last year, suffering one bad outing against Miami; in his other eleven appearances, Specht allowed just two hits and zero runs in ten innings of work. Brandon Sproat brings his blazing 98 mph fastball back for another year, and if he can develop a slider or effective off-speed pitch to go with it, he could be another lethal option out of the pen. David Luethje has had some success in past seasons, and will be looking to enjoy more of that success consistently. You can copy and paste that last sentence for Hunter McMullen, who has missed most of the last two years due to injury after an up-and-down-ride on Florida’s 2018 College World Series team. And don’t completely discount Tyler Nesbitt, who pitched 11.2 innings of shutout ball in 2020.

The wild card of the bullpen could be Jordan Butler, a rock-solid two way player. Butler was great as a freshman on that 2018 team, with numerous appearances in the NCAA Tournament. He then turned around to focus on the hitting component of the game in 2019 (which included a walk-off homer to clinch the series against South Carolina), and thus seeing a major drop-off in appearances on the mound. He remains an excellent Swiss Army knife option for Sully to utilize in either phase in 2021.

And that’s still not all. Freshman Timmy Manning has a deadly drop-ball to go along with his heater, and he might battle Pogue and Scott for the midweek starter role. Even if he doesn’t get that fourth starter slot, he’ll be very difficult to keep off the mound in meaningful situations. Rounding out Sully’s deep pitching corps is Franco Aleman, a transfer from FIU who can consistently run his fastball in the mid-90’s.

All in all, that gives the Gator baseball team one of the deepest, top-to-bottom solid pitching corps in America that could win most of the games on Florida’s schedule by itself. Thankfully, they won’t have to.

Offense

No matter what Kevin O’Sullivan does with his starting lineup, he’s going to have one of the best offenses in college baseball. It’s with great hesitation that I say this, because nothing is ever guaranteed in life, and that goes double for the game of baseball, but this lineup is as close to fail-proof as you’ll ever see.

Returning position players

The Gator lineup starts with left fielder Jacob Young, who, thanks to a keen eye and an ability to spray the ball to all fields, might be the best on-base machine Florida baseball has ever had. He collected a hit in all seventeen games last year and finished the shortened season with an incredible .450 batting average. Young isn’t afraid to take walks, either, which resulted in an on base percentage of over .500. That’s right: more than half the times he came to the plate last year, he safely reached base. That’s unheard of. And to boot, his speed makes him a base stealing threat when he does reach.

Backing him up in the lineup will likely be center fielder Jud Fabian in the #2 hole. Fabian’s bat cooled off toward the end of the 2020 pseudo-season, but even with that little dip in production, he still finished with a healthy .294 batting average and six homers. He’s a great contact hitter with a knack for finding holes in the defense and isn’t afraid to go with the pitch and slap it the other way. Now that he’s begun to produce power, he’s going to be even less appealing for opposing pitchers to deal with than Young. He’s said to have continued making strides this offseason, and like Young, he’s a legitimate threat to steal once he gets on.

Then comes the power. First baseman Kris Armstrong didn’t have a great 2020, but he’s one of those guys who will never not be a threat to launch one off a palm tree outside the park. He’s grown tremendously this offseason and looks more like a power hitter than ever before. You can pretty confidently pen him in to either the #3 hole or cleanup slot. And alongside him is Kirby McMullen, the only key holdover from the 2017 national championship winning Gator baseball team and the hero of the 2019 FSU game in Tallahassee. But although McMullen has been clutch in the past and can also send one a mile, he’s going to need to work on his consistency at the plate. Hitting in the .270’s, as he has done in both 2019 and 2020, isn’t bad by any means, but there are too many hungry youngsters waiting their turn for that to fly for too long as a starter at third base. However, at worst, McMullen will always be a dangerous pinch hitting threat.

Along that same vein, one guy I’m really looking forward to seeing in 2021 is second baseman Cory Acton. He didn’t hit well in the shortened 2020 season, but people within the program seem extremely high on him following his excellent fall performance. Ditto that for outfielder Kendrick Calilao, who knows how to rack up pitch counts and can make you pay for a mistake. These two will have to battle with youngsters to keep their starting jobs, but there’s promise that both of them can put it together at the dish in 2021.

But perhaps the key of keys to this offense’s success is the bat of shortstop Josh Rivera, who’s simply way too strong defensively (he may even be one of the best defensive players to ever come through the program) to even contemplate removing from the lineup. He was overall fine at the plate in 2020, hitting .298, but was inconsistent and really struggled on some of the down points of his up-and-down season. If he can take that step from “fine” to “a legitimate on-base threat” in 2021, Florida’s essentially going to have three leadoff-caliber hitters in its nine man batting order.

The catching position, which is more often than not the fail point of an offense, is likely going to be done by committee. Not because Florida doesn’t have a dependable catcher, but because they have two. Nathan Hickey is the better hitting catcher and is improving his defensive skills by the day, so he’s almost unbenchable. But Cal Greenfield is extremely close with Friday night starter Tommy Mace, knows him and his preferences like the back of his hand and makes Mace comfortable. And he did make some strides both at the plate and behind it over the past year. Neither will be expected to win the SEC batting crown, but O’Sullivan trusts either or both to pull their weight in the lineup. He’ll likely even use Hickey as the designated hitter when Greenfield is catching.

Incoming position players

And then there’s the new blood, the latest round of blue chip recruits that Kevin O’Sullivan has reeled in. There’s so much of it that’s it’s hard to pin down just one or two players who could make an impact.

Kirby McMullen is going to have to really work to keep his job at third base, not because he’s done a terrible job to this point, but because freshman Colby Halter is so promising. Halter is a tremendous athlete with a big arm and a bat that can send the ball out of any part of the yard. Sully may not want to throw him into the fire too soon if McMullen hits well, but Halter is just too talented to keep off the field for too long.

Fellow freshman infielder Jordan Carrion might take a little longer to see action- he’s got to bulk up a little- but he’s a dazzling shortstop with a strong arm and a decent bat. He and Halter are the future of the Gator baseball infield, and will figure to be the keys to Florida’s next set of runs to Omaha once Rivera and McMullen leave. And in an emergency, you could do a lot worse than Carrion at shortstop.

Sterling Thompson came in as a third highly touted infielder, but with all the competition there, he didn’t have a realistic path to playing time. So he learned how to utilize his big arm in the outfield, and just like that he’s a viable bench option out there. His bat is that good, both in terms of power and contact. Thompson impressed Sully in a big way this offseason, meaning that he, too, will be hard to keep off the field, and will be someone to watch for in the Gators’ College World Series pushes later this decade.

Finally, there are the pair of catchers that Florida added. Mac Guscette has some power in his bat, and has been taken under Greenfield’s wing this offseason as he works on his defense. Meanwhile, Wyatt Langford is probably more likely to get looks at first base or DH, but could catch in a pinch and brings still another power bat to the lineup.

Overview

Talent by itself never equals success, and what’s written on paper can often be a precursor for complacency. So it’s with those two things very much in mind, and with a great deal of hesitance, that I say the 2021 Gator baseball team is as stockpiled with talent as any Gator baseball team before it. And in a sport where the best team seldom wins a national championship, this Gator baseball team has to be considered the overwhelming favorite.

There just isn’t a weak link on this team. The Gators have one of the best lineups in college baseball, one of the best starting pitching rotations in college baseball, and one of the best bullpens in college baseball. And for an added bonus, when the lynchpins of this team leave, the talent is there to simply replace them in 2022 and beyond.

Buckle up. Whatever happens in the unpredictable game of baseball, one thing I can predict fairly confidently is that this is going to be one hell of a ride.

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