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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — After 13 years at the helm of college baseball’s most consistently excellent program, Kevin O’Sullivan isn’t interested in soft-pedaling or tempering expectations. The Florida coach is heading into 2021 with the most talented and complete team in college baseball; we know this, and he surely knows it too. So let’s just dispense with the false humility, shall we?
“If I sit here and tell you that, ‘We’re short in this area, we’re short in that area,’ I’d just be giving you coach speak,” O’Sullivan said. “And you know I’ve always been conservative as far as where our team is, just because I know the rigors of the SEC and our schedule every year. I think the biggest thing that we’re gonna have to overcome like everybody is the inconsistencies of your roster because of COVID, until we get this [pandemic] figured out. Regardless of how good your roster is, you could go into a weekend not having two of your weekend starters or being on your third catcher, there’s all kinds of things that could happen. But we got basically everybody back from last year; we got our whole weekend rotation back, which very rarely happens in college baseball. We added a very good class that came in.
“I think most of the time when you look at your team — because we’re all restricted on scholarships and roster limits — I think it’s very hard to be equally strong on the pitching side of things and the offensive side; you’re either strong in one side or the other. But with everybody coming back and especially Tommy [Mace] and Jack [Leftwich] coming back, which was unexpected, it keeps your staff at a high level.”
The bottom line is that there is no discernible weakness on this Florida roster, coming off a shortened season that saw the Gators go 16-1 and finish ranked No. 1 in the nation (albeit without ever playing a conference game). This team has power, speed, defensive skill, experience and balance in the lineup — but we’ll get to that later. We need to start this breakdown somewhere, so let’s start with a look at a pitching staff that is even more loaded with marquee arms than usual — and that’s saying something for the Gators.
As O’Sullivan intimated, Mace and Leftwich would almost certainly have gone off to pro ball in a normal year. Mace ranked No. 29 on the D1Baseball College Top 50 Prospects list heading into the 2020 draft after going 3-0, 1.67 with a 26-5 K-BB mark in 27 innings, and he turned down significant bonus overtures that fell short of his asking price, causing him to go unselected in the five-round draft. But this fall he’s firmly established himself as a strong first-round-caliber prospect, showing a more complete arsenal than ever before.
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A year ago at this time, Mace’s go-to secondary pitch was a short cutter at 87-88, and he mixed in a 79-81 mph slurve that wasn’t a true out pitch. But in the four-inning start I caught this November, Mace’s best pitch was a hammer curveball at 78-81 mph that was a legitimate plus offering at times, with tight spin up to 2959 rpm. He also showed the ability to land the pitch for strikes. The cutter has morphed into more of a true slider at 82-85 with more tilt than the old cutter and solid spin in the 2300-2500 rpm range. He mixed in his 86-89 mph changeup liberally against lefties to induce weak contact, and he mostly located well with his 91-95 mph fastball with good riding life.
“I think the biggest thing for him is the development of his curveball, because now he’s got some separation with his pitches, because before his fastball and changeup and that short slider were all in that same tunnel, and there were really only 6 or 7 mph difference between all his pitches,” O’Sullivan said. “Now the curveball gives him something to slow their bats down. And it’s a really good pitch. A couple years ago I think the cutter became the pitch of baseball, and he developed it really quickly and it’s a really good pitch, but sometimes those pitches blend together, the slider and the cutter and the curveball. I think they did that for a while for him, but they’re two distinct pitches now. So he’s got a legitimate four pitches and they all have different shape and velocities, which will help him down the road.”
Leftwich has made 29 starts in his two full seasons plus the shortened 2020, and he’s flashed high-end stuff throughout his career, but the results haven’t quite matched the talent, as he’s still never posted an ERA better than 4.15. O’Sullivan said he’s as good as any pitcher he’s coached when he’s in a groove, but he’s struggled at times to pitch himself out of jams. He started showing signs of doing that better last spring and has continued making progress in that area this fall, focusing on location and execution rather than trying to reach back for an extra couple of miles an hour on his fastball when he finds himself in a tight spot.
In the November outing I saw, Leftwich found himself in a jam in the first inning, but he minimized the damage to just one run by stranding runners at second and third with a big strikeout on a good slider. His stuff actually got better as his four-inning start progressed; he attacked at 93-95 and bumped 96 with a very high-spin fastball up to 2637 rpm, and he flashed a number of plus sliders with hard tilt in the 81-85 range. He struggled early in the outing with his changeup, but he found his feel for it in his final two innings, and even ended his outing with a strikeout on a very good 82 mph changeup against lefty-swinging Brock Edge. It was an encouraging look all the way around — Leftwich worked fast and stayed in attack mode, flashed three very good pitches at times, and showed the ability to pitch out of trouble. I’m betting on Leftwich to finally put it all together in 2021.
The Gators also could have college baseball’s best No. 3 starter in second-year freshman left-hander Hunter Barco, one of the top prospects to show up on a college campus last fall, and a slam-dunk Friday night caliber arm. Starting against Leftwich in the second of the two scrimmages I saw in Gainesville, Barco allowed a pair of solo homers in the first inning and then put the clamps down on the opposing squad for the next three innings. A physical three-quarters lefty with longer arm action and a little bit of funk that adds deception, Barco pounded the bottom of the zone with a heavy fastball at 89-93 mph, mixing in a plus changeup with good deception and sink at 82-84 as well as a solid 80-82 slider with big sweeping action. O’Sullivan said Barco likely earned himself a rotation spot based on his strong four weeks last spring and his good fall, during which he’s worked on becoming more efficient, doing a better job avoiding deep counts.
If the SEC goes to four-game weekend series, Florida will be better positioned on the mound than anybody. Third-year sophomore right-hander Nick Pogue gives the Gators a very good fourth rotation option, as a strong-bodied 6-foot-5 right hander with a nice four-pitch arsenal. He faced off with Mace in the first scrimmage I caught and turned in four shutout innings, holding his velocity at 92-93 mph throughout and flashing an above-average changeup at 85-86 along with a 76-78 curveball that was inconsistent on this look and a decent low-80s slider.
“He’s made a huge jump. Statistically, he had the best fall out of anybody on our staff. Well, he was right there with the other guys, let’s put it that way,” O’Sullivan said. “The thing that I’ve been playing around with is, in 2017, we had one guy at the back end: Michael Byrne. Michael had starter stuff but he just closed games for us out of necessity and it turned into something special for us. But we can close a guy like Pogue on a Friday night and really shorten the game in the seventh/eighth/ninth. And then we could do the same with somebody like [Ben] Specht. These guys are multiple-inning pitchers and we have enough depth. It could be a very interesting and exciting and intriguing way to use the staff. There’s really no reason to wait to use a guy because we have other options.”
Specht, a sturdy 6-foot-1, 210-pound righty with a three-quarters slot, took over for Mace in the first scrimmage I saw, showing a nice three-pitch mix in his two innings of work. He sat 90-92 with solid arm-side run, flashing a plus changeup at 79 mph with good fade and a useful slurve at 77-80, sometimes showing more downer action and other times more lateral tilt. O’Sullivan said Specht has been up to 95 mph at times, and he’s proven himself in high-leverage situations, recording three saves and posting a 0.75 ERA in nine appearances last spring.
Junior college transfer Franco Alemán, a bounceback from Florida International who generated significant scouting buzz in the Cape Cod League in 2019, fits in as another potential multi-inning arm who could see innings at the back end or serve as a mid-innings stopper or swingman, like Specht and Pogue. What O’Sullivan said about Alemán really stands out for his “competitive spirit” and confidence, which should make him a trusted weapon on this deep staff. At 6-foot-6, 215 pounds, he certainly fits in physically on this staff, and he presents a different look with a long three-quarters arm action and some front-side funk, which makes his fastball jump on hitters a bit. He worked at 91-94 in the four-inning stint I saw, but O’Sullivan said he’s been up to 96 this fall. His breaking ball can blend between a 76-79 mph curveball and more of a slider look at 80-83, but O’Sullivan said he thinks it plays better when it’s a true downer curveball. He didn’t have good feel for his 83-85 changeup on my look, and his breaking stuff was inconsistent, but he still turned in four scoreless innings and got better as his outing progressed.
Christian Scott and Brandon Sproat give the Gators two more power options from the right side. Scott, a third-year sophomore who posted a 1.20 ERA in 15 innings over seven relief appearances last spring, appears to have added strength to his 6-foot-4 frame in the last year. He wasn’t as electric in the three-inning stint I caught this fall as he was in a one-inning performance last fall (when he cut it loose at 93-95), but he still held 90-93 mph for three innings, along with a solid 80-83 slider and a surprising 79-81 changeup with very good arm speed that he showed confidence throwing against righties as well as lefties. He’s in the same category as Pogue, Specht and Alemán as a go-to arm who could work in a variety of roles.
Sproat has the biggest arm on the staff but is still working on developing his secondary stuff and his command. He pumped 94-97 mph cheddar but gave up two runs in the inning-plus I saw this fall, showing a slurvish breaking ball at 77-81 that lacked power and bite, and an 84-86 changeup that showed promise but was inconsistent. He has a good frame at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds and a sound, clean delivery, and it’s only a matter of time before he goes off in a big way. That could certainly happen this spring.
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The Gators have plenty of quality bullpen options from the left side as well. Two-way talent Jordan Butler has loads of pitchability and competitiveness, and he’s always thrown from multiple arm slots, but O’Sullivan said he’s been a little more consistent with his angles and release point this fall, helping his command play up. His quality three-pitch mix could make him a multi-inning pitcher as well. Veteran Trey Van Der Weide, who came in as a graduate transfer from USC Upstate last fall, offers a different look with a funky crossfire delivery, an 88-91 fastball and a nice changeup, and he’ll be a nice change of pace from some of the big power arms on this staff — though he’s plenty firm enough to be effective. And then there’s blue-chip freshman Timmy Manning, a 6-foot-2, 175-pound southpaw with a clean high-three-quarters arm action. In three strong innings in November, Manning showed me good command of an 89-91 fastball, a promising 78 mph changeup with very low spin in the 1200 rpm range, and advanced feel for a premium curveball at 75-77 with tight 1-to-7 rotation.
“He’s a star in the making,” O’Sullivan said of Manning. “His fastball’s up to 93, pitches at 90-91 consistently. But it’s one of the better curveballs you’ll see at this level. He’s got a chance to be a No. 1 starter for us [in the future] — I would be really disappointed if that did not happen. It’s that good of stuff.”
It all adds up to a staff that might well be the best in college baseball in 2021.
But here’s the thing: the lineup might well be the best in college baseball, too. So rarely does a team come along with a chance to be truly elite in both of those areas, but these Gators legitimately have that chance.
It starts with third-year sophomore center fielder Jud Fabian, who gets my vote as the best position player in college baseball heading into 2021. Widely regarded as one of the top pro prospects for next year’s draft, Fabian is a true five-tool talent who had started to put everything together last spring, posting a 1.010 OPS and hitting five homers in 68 at-bats. In the second scrimmage I saw this fall, Fabian ripped a laser double into the left-field corner and hit two monster home runs: one to center field that landed just left of the batter’s eye off a 92 mph Barco fastball, and one that cleared the left-field bullpen at the brand-new Florida Ballpark and then bounced into the road, possibly hitting a passing minivan. That came on a 91 mph fastball from Scott.
In addition to his obvious right-handed power, Fabian has very good speed and can be a human highlight reel in center field.
“I think what’s really come to light [with scouts] this fall, and I’ve already known it, is his ability to play defense with the great center fielders we’ve had in the past, and his ability to run,” O’Sullivan said. “I’ve seen him play defense since high school. I think sometimes when you're a bats-right, throws-left guy, it throws people off a little bit, but his ability to recognize spin a little better and not chase has been his biggest development the last two years out of high school for me. He generates a lot of bat speed, more than most people ever thought. In one intrasquad this fall, he hit a home run to the left of the batters’ eye, 445 feet, then one to the right of the batters’ eye 444 feet. You just don’t see that.”
Speaking of eye-opening power — and batters’ eye-clearing power — third-year sophomore Kris Armstrong was a revelation this fall, hitting one moonshot after another in batting practices and scrimmages alike. A switch-hitting 6-foot-4, 230-pound hulk, Armstrong put on a dazzling show in BP when I was in Gainesville, and he was the buzziest player in all the chatter I heard between the heavyweight scouts assembled for those two days. He also turned in six quality at-bats in eight trips against marquee pitching, resulting in three bullets (two of them for hits) and three walks. His plate discipline has taken a big step since last spring, when he hit a modest .250/.368/.438 in 32 at-bats. Recruited as a two-way talent, Armstrong made nine appearances on the mound in 2019 and posted a 7.71 ERA, but his prospect stock is soaring now that he’s focused solely on being a position player. He’ll factor into the mix at first base, corner outfield and DH.
“My take on it is this: he was so talented out of high school — when he was a sophomore in high school, he was a potential first-round pick down the road, on the mound. I’ll probably never coach a kid like this again, but he was a switch-hitter, and he pitched righty and lefty, so it was a switch on both sides, offensively and pitching wise,” O’Sullivan said. “I think it just took some time to figure out his game. I think the pitching was ahead of his hitting earlier in his career, then once he started concentrating on the offensive side, that’s when you started to see the bat take off. The ball comes off his bat differently. It’s 380 to the gaps and he’s hitting balls off the scoreboard. He hit one ball 460 feet in BP one day. It takes special power to do that.”
Armstrong has the most raw power on the team, but these Gators have no shortage of thunder in the lineup. Fifth-year senior Kirby McMullen waited his turn behind older players and earned playing time in the cleanup spot last spring, finishing with an .865 OPS in 54 at-bats. Like Armstrong, he’s a former two-way player who has found his niche as a position player, and his big right-handed power potential should earn him plenty of at-bats at third base or DH. He could split time at the hot corner with blue-chip freshman Colby Halter, the latest in a long line of polished, instinctive, game-ready freshman infielders at Florida. Halter is an athletic defender whose actions, arm strength and range play all around the infield, and he has good feel for his barrel from the left side. He showed off some opposite-field pop with a solo homer to left on a 92 mph fastball from Barco — left-on-left — in the second scrimmage I saw.
Second-year freshman Nathan Hickey will serve as the primary catcher, but he also started one of the scrimmages at third base and showed surprising agility and good instincts, along with a strong arm. Given the depth of this lineup, Florida will need to shift players around to different positions, so Hickey could see some action at the hot corner as well, but O’Sullivan said he’s looked good behind the plate. One thing is certain: his left-handed bat will be in the lineup every day, because he’s one of the best pure hitters in the SEC, with plenty of power potential as well. “I call him ‘The Whammer.’ He can really hit,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s one of those sophomore-eligible guys that’s put himself in position, it’ll probably be a tough decision for him to make.”
Fourth-year junior Cal Greenfield will also see plenty of action behind the plate thanks to his veteran leadership and strong catch-and-throw skills. Two more talented freshmen, Mac Guscette and Wyatt Langford, provide additional right-handed pop in the catcher/first base/DH mix. Langford reminds O’Sullivan of “that old South Carolina look — a burly, 6-2, strong guy” in the mold of Christian Walker or Kyle Martin or Phil Disher, and he’s “got a chance to really hit.” In that respect, he shares something with two-way talent Butler, a line-drive machine who should see at-bats as a left-handed option at first and DH.
O’Sullivan said the strong, compact 6-foot, 210-pound Guscette has really benefited from Greenfield’s mentorship as a defensive catcher, and he has a shot to be the next big catching prospect to come out of Gainesville.
“Obviously Guscette, defensively he’s really good. And I’ll tell you what, he gets the barrel to the ball as much as any freshman I’ve had, to be honest with you,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s gonna be a really, really good player for us, and a really good draft when it’s all said and done. He catches the low ball as good as anybody I’ve had other than probably [Mike] Zunino. To be able to handle that low ball and make it look like a strike, shows you the grip strength and hand strength. The arm is good too.”
Florida has another power threat at second base, where Cory Acton looks primed for big things heading into his third season as a regular. Acton was a big-name recruit who hit a modest .251/.353/.387 but flashed power (six homers) in 199 at-bats as a true freshman in 2019, then got off to a slow start in 2020. But his offensive approach has continued to mature, and O’Sullivan said he was “as hot as a firecracker” for the last three weeks of the fall. He showed off his left-handed power with a mammoth home run to right field off a 94 mph Leftwich fastball in the second scrimmage I saw; a day earlier he turned on a 95 mph heater from Sproat for an RBI single and then swiped second base. He may get overlooked on this star-studded roster, but there’s a reason Acton was such a highly regarded recruit: he has plenty of talent, and now that he also has experience, he’s a solid pick to click in 2021.
Florida has yet another big-name talent at shortstop, where second-year freshman Josh Rivera is a first-round talent for the 2022 draft. Rivera stepped right into the everyday shortstop job as a true freshman last spring, hitting .298/.385/.439 in 57 at-bats, and he has obvious power potential in his strong 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame, giving the Gators another right-handed masher. And he’s extremely agile for his size, so he figures to remain the starting shortstop despite the addition of slick-fielding freshman Jordan Carrion, who needs to get a little stronger but has “special” defensive ability, as O’Sullivan put it.
Third-year sophomores Jacob Young and Kendrick Calilao are returning two-year starters who can flank Fabian in the outfield, but they’ll get plenty of competition for playing time from Armstrong and heralded freshman Sterlin Thompson. Calilao has a knack for turning in professional at-bats and turned in a strong fall; he’s another righthanded power threat who could also slide to first base if that helps the Gators optimize their lineup. Young is a dynamic table setter who brings a different dynamic than all these power hitters; he’s a speed-oriented player with an innate knack for putting the ball in play, squaring up hard line drives and working counts, making him an ideal table setter at or near the top of the lineup. He led the Gators in hitting last year (.450/.514/.517 in 60 at-bats), and he’ll be tough to keep out of the lineup, even though his tools might not jump off the field like so many of the other blue-chippers on this roster. He’s just a winning ballplayer.
“He’s not that guy that stands out if you see him one time. But watch him four or five times in a row and it’s like, ‘Man, this guy’s a really good player,” O’Sullivan said. “I remember [recruiting coordinator] Craig [Bell] calling me from a travel game; he scored from second base on a wild pitch and never broke stride. Craig said, ‘This guy’s just different.’ I said, ‘Well, sign him!’ He was probably 160 pounds at the time. He’s definitely our best baserunner, and instincts off the charts.”
Thompson, on the other hand, looks how you draw them up: long, lean and strong at 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, with easy left-handed power and a plus arm in the outfield. Primarily an infielder in high school, Thompson has made a seamless transition to the outfield at Florida, and he impressed O’Sullivan with his ability to drive the ball to all parts of the field with a repeatable swing path. He could also factor into the corner infield mix, but his bat will be his carrying tool — and that bat is going to earn him abundant playing time as a freshman, even on this most loaded of teams.
“The only thing I could say that would give him the biggest compliment, for anybody that’s a freshman to come into our program right now, for them to crack the lineup or just to get significant time, is not easy,” O’Sullivan said.
“At the risk of repeating myself on the pitching side about being creative, we’re gonna do that on the offensive side too. Very rarely did we have the same lineup in back to back games last year either. The goal is then to maybe settle in more once conference play starts, but I think [using a lot of different lineups] built a lot of team camaraderie. I think guys learned to not worry about themselves so much and worry about the team as a whole. We had success with that last year, and we’ve been here long enough, I think the players trust that we’ll do what’s best for them individually and what’s best for us as a team.”