Earning the No. 4 spot in D1Baseball.com's preseason top 25, Florida looks poised to return to national prominence in 2020 with one of college baseball’s most talented and balanced rosters.
Below are a few facts to consider when breaking down the 2020 Florida club:
2019 record: 34-26.
Coach (record at school): Kevin O’Sullivan (531-255 in 12 seasons)
Ballpark: McKethan Stadium (5,500)
Postseason history: 35 regionals (active streak: 12), 12 CWS trips (last in 2018), 1 national title (2017).
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In this preview of Florida's 2020 season, we've graded the Gators in each characteristic of the game: Hitting, power, speed, defense, starting pitching, bullpen and experience/intangibles. But before we begin, let's present our projected lineup for Florida in 2020.
Florida's projected lineup
|C||Nathan Hickey, Fr.||HS — Jacksonville, Fla.|
|1B||Kendrick Calilao, So.||.276/.348/.401||5||49||2|
|2B||Cory Acton, So.||.251/.353/.387||6||30||3|
|3B||Brady Smith, Jr.||.270/.392/.428||5||20||5|
|SS||Josh Rivera, Fr.||HS — Bradenton, Fla.|
|LF||Austin Langworthy, Sr.||.283/.362/.498||10||43||4|
|CF||Jud Fabian, So.||.232/.353/.411||7||26||7|
|RF||Jacob Young, So.||.311/.383/.404||3||26||7|
|DH||Kirby McMullen, Sr.||.273/.308/.500||1||10||0|
Florida's projected weekend rotation/closer
|SP #1||Tommy Mace, Jr.||8-5||5.32||89.2||74||38||0|
|SP #2||Jack Leftwich, Jr.||6-5||5.31||62.2||62||18||0|
|SP #3||Hunter Barco, Fr.||HS — Jacksonville, Fla.|
|Closer||Christian Scott, So.||6-3||5.19||52||44||18||1|
Grading the Gators: Just as scouts grade prospects using the 20-80 scouting scale, we use a 20-80 scale to evaluate teams in our top 25. A score of 50 in each category is average, relative to a typical NCAA tournament team; 55 is slightly above-average; 60 is above-average (plus); 70 is well above-average (plus-plus); 80 is top of the scale, historically strong. Accordingly, 45 is fringe-average or slightly below-average; 40 is below-average; 30 is well below-average; and 20 is the extreme in that direction.
Florida endured a down season in 2019 by its standards, but offense wasn’t really the problem — the Gators ranked a respectable 43rd in the nation in scoring. The top two hitters from that club are gone (Nelson Maldonado and Brady McConnell), but we are nonetheless convinced that Florida’s offense is set to take a huge leap forward this spring. Our looks at the Gators this fall revealed a deep, versatile lineup without any easy outs, and its packed with emerging stars as well as rock-solid veterans.
Jacob Young, the top returning hitter from last year’s club, has a polished all-field approach and advanced plate discipline that makes him an ideal fit in the leadoff spot. Austin Langworthy, Nathan Hickey and Cory Acton all have fluid left-handed strokes that should enable all three to hit for both average and power. Langworthy has a knack for squaring up hard line drives from gap to gap, and he’ll help anchor the lineup in the No. 2 hole, in front of emerging star Jud Fabian, who has made huge progress learning to drive the ball to all fields since last spring.
Coach Kevin O’Sullivan compares Hickey’s offensive game to that of a young Kyle Schwarber, and he’s expected to hit in the cleanup spot from the jump. Kendrick Calilao and Josh Rivera also showed all-fields ability in the fall, and both have the look of future All-Americans before their Florida careers are over. Hard-nosed senior Kirby McMullen lengthens this lineup even more; the Gators call him “Barrels” because of his propensity for making hard contact. Sophomore two-way talent Jordan Butler is another line-drive machine who could serve as the left-handed half of a DH platoon with McMullen.
Florida’s coaches do an outstanding job recruiting and developing power hitters; last year’s club ranked 17th nationally in home runs and 25th in slugging, but don’t be surprised if the 2020 Gators rank inside the national top 10 in both categories, even after losing McConnell, Maldonado and Dalton, who combined for 33 of the team’s 77 homers.
Langworthy is the only returning double-digit home run hitter, but we’ll be surprised if Fabian, Calilao and Brady Smith don’t join him in the double-digit club because they all have serious right-handed bat speed. Hickey and Rivera also have the strength and offensive polish to put up significant power numbers as freshmen; they are elite talents who should hit the ground running in this loaded offense.
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Acton hit six homers as a freshman and could easily double that production as a sophomore now that his offensive approach is maturing. And McMullen and fellow senior Nick Blasucci showed off intriguing right-handed pop this past fall, giving the Gators legitimate home run threats up and down the lineup.
The stolen base isn’t typically a huge component of Florida’s offense, and last year the Gators ranked 200th in the nation in steals per game. Fabian and Young are plus runners, though neither recorded double-digit steals a year ago. There aren’t any other burners in this lineup; most of the Gators are below-average to fringy runners, but there aren’t any real base-cloggers.
Florida was an average defensive team a year ago, ranking 76th nationally with a .973 fielding percentage. They’re likely to use freshmen at the critical positions of catcher and shortstop, so it’s natural to expect some growing pains. But O’Sullivan was very pleased with the overall quality of his defense this fall. Rivera’s hands, actions and arm will play at either position on the left side of the infield, but he has surprised with the coaches with his quickness at short considering his size. Florida also has the option to use the steady, strong-armed Blasucci at shortstop and slide Rivera to the hot corner if necessary. Acton is a sound defensive second baseman who turns the double play well, and Calilao should be very good at first base.
Smith brings valuable defensive versatility; he can defend ably at third base, catcher, or even second and first. Hickey is a very serviceable backstop who receives well, and he could also handle an infield corner spot. Junior Cal Greenfield might be Florida’s most polished defensive catcher (and he took a step forward offensively in the fall as well).
Fabian is an elite defensive center fielder with a lightning-quick first step and excellent closing speed, along with an accurate arm. The quick-twitch Young and the heady Langworthy are essentially center fielders playing the corners, making Florida’s outfield defense a major strength.
Starting Pitching: 60
Perhaps the biggest reason Florida’s 2019 season was so trying was the underperformance of the rotation, as the Gators ranked 187th nationally with a 5.37 ERA and 178th in hits allowed per nine innings. Florida simply must get more consistent performance out of junior righties Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich, who posted ERAs of 5.32 and 5.31, respectively, despite their premium talent. But there are plenty of indications that both of them have turned the corner and are ready to emerge as stars in 2020, giving this rotation sky-high upside — but there’s still some risk too, because Mace and Leftwich haven’t yet proven they can be elite SEC starters. O’Sullivan said both of them have progressed very well this fall, showing more maturity, more strength, better fastballs and better breaking balls. Mace attacked at 91-94 in our two fall looks, with a good 79-81 slider and a wicked 87-88 cutter. Leftwich sat 93-95 and flashed a filthy putaway slider at 81-84, which he commanded better in Florida’s second fall exhibition than in its first one.
Barco is one of the highest-ranked freshmen to set foot on a college campus this fall, and he looks ready to step right into the weekend rotation from the onset of his career. In the fall, Hunter Barco showed the makings of three above-average to plus pitches from the left side and good polish and competitiveness. He pounded 93-94 mph heat this fall along with an outstanding changeup at 82-83 that was a swing-and-miss pitch against both righties and lefties, as well as an 82-84 mph slider with good tilt that he threw for a strike or a chase to the back foot of a righty. O’Sullivan said he’s shown even more velocity this fall, bumping 95 at times.
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Midweek starts still look up for grabs, but the favorite for the Tuesday role appears to be sophomore righty Nick Pogue, who works downhill at 90-94 with good bite on a 79-84 mph breaking ball.
Unlike some of the other teams near the top of the rankings, Florida doesn’t have an established shutdown closer — its top saves man a year ago, Nolan Crisp, had a 6.41 ERA. But no staff in college baseball can match Florida’s depth of power arms, and there’s no shortage of candidates for the back end of the bullpen, which might be a committee affair, especially at the start of the season.
Christian Scott, an electric sophomore right hander, looks like the front-runner for the closer job after showing 93-96 mph heat and a putaway slider this fall. Fellow sophomore righty Ben Specht has been up to 95, sitting 92-93, with a quality slider and changeup. He’s a strike-thrower, but the next step in his development is commanding within the zone better, staying out of the middle of the plate. Another sophomore righty, David Luethje, was up to 94 this fall along with a Luethje’s solid 80-83 slider with big tilt.
Crisp, an undersized bulldog with a quick arm, can miss bats with his high-70s slider and 89-92 fastball, and he also has feel for a changeup, making him a valuable swingman who can earn midweek starts or serve in long relief. The biggest arm in the bullpen belongs to freshman right-hander Brandon Sproat, an unsigned seventh-round pick by the Rangers. A physical righty with a strong lower half and an easy delivery from a high slot, Sproat worked 94-97 and bumped 98 this fall, while also showing the makings of a wipeout power slider at 85-86 and a useful curveball at 78-81. O’Sullivan said he has feel for a changeup too, and he suggested Sproat might have the highest upside of any pitcher he’s ever coached. But the Gators have the luxury of being able to bring him along slowly if necessary.
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Senior righty Justin Alintoff could also be a useful piece; he worked at 88-90 in the fall with a short cutter/slider at 82-84, a decent three-quarters slurve at 77 and a changeup at 78. And three more freshmen provide even more depth. Righty Tyler Nesbitt has a projectable frame and a clean high three-quarters arm action, suggesting there’s plenty more velocity in the tank, though he sat in the high 80s in our fall look. He also flashed a promising slider at 80-81. Righty Kevin Martin has a thicker frame and showed a 91 mph heater in the fall along with an 80 mph slider. And 5-11, 155-pound lefty Ryan Cabarcas showed a quick arm that produced 89-91 heat, a solid 79-81 slider with late tilt, and a developing changeup at 81.
The Gators also have two established strike-throwing lefties in the bullpen: junior two-way talent Jordan Butler and graduate transfer Trey Van Der Weide. Butler worked at 88-91 from a three-quarters slot in his two appearances in the fall exhibitions, along with a quality changeup and slider. Van Der Weide, who threw 71 innings last year for USC Upstate, presents a funky crossfire look and the ability to carve up the zone at 88-91 along with a good changeup and an unflappable mound presence.
The biggest knock on Florida is a lack of players who have proven themselves as reliable impact players at the Division I level. Sure, the upperclassmen on this team have experienced deep postseason runs, as Florida made it to Omaha in 2018 and won it all in 2017, when Langworthy was a freshman everyday regular.
But this team is leaning heavily on high-profile freshmen and sophomores who have yet to establish themselves as stars — though it feels like just a matter of time until that happens. We believe that time is now for many of them. This team is too talented not to return to national prominence in 2020.