“It was a quality fall,” Kevin O’Sullivan said. “As a coach, you always wish you had more time and had more of the kinks to work out. Overall, I was pleased. I’m cautiously optimistic.”
Despite losing eight players that were drafted in the top nine rounds and six high school signees that were taken in the top three rounds, the Gators still have a pitching duo that will be among the best in the country, if not at the top. Junior right-handers Jonathon Crawford and Karsten Whitson are both expected to be taken in the first round in the 2013 MLB Draft, and they’ll anchor the rotation this year.
“Anybody would want to be in that situation, but we have to count on them,” O’Sullivan said of his two starters. “It’s their time to shine. It’s their time to go. We’ve got to keep them healthy, but it is their time.”
Crawford and Whitson, who “finished really strong” and regained his mid-90s velocity in the fall, are the only two pitchers that exited the fall with a clear role. The rest of the time was used for young pitchers to get time on the mound.
The fall didn’t yield many concrete answers for the pitching staff, but it’s an important part of what still needs to be decided in the spring for the group to reach their potential.
“There are certain things that have to fall into place,” O’Sullivan said. “The obvious ones are Crawford and Whitson on the front end. We’ve got to find a third starter and figure out who at the end of the game wants the ball and can handle that situation. If there’s not one, maybe we play a bunch of matchups. Is it by committee? Maybe it is.”
There are options for the third starter. The Gators haven’t needed to make decisions about it in recent years since Brian Johnson and Hudson Randall were in the rotation since their freshman year. With Crawford and Whitson both getting time last year in the rotation, the Gators didn’t have to lean on many young pitchers on the weekend.
That will change this year. There are plenty of older pitchers on the roster that could earn the role — Keenan Kish, Johnny Magliozzi, Bobby Poyner or Corey Stump. Four Florida freshmen — Jason Carmichael, Eric Hanhold, Tucker Simpson and Danny Young — also made their case in the fall.
“There are more options than I thought,” O’Sullivan said.
The closer role isn’t as clear. It could be done by committee, depending on the matchups in the late innings. Right-hander Ryan Harris struggled with his control at times this fall, but he has the potential to handle the job. Daniel Gibson and Stump could form an electric left-handed duo.
Sophomore Justin Shafer, who played mostly outfield last season, will also see innings on the mound this spring. Shafer was originally recruited to Florida as a pitcher.
“The closer role is a little more cloudy, but I feel much better with matchups,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve got some lefties (on the mound) that lefties don’t see well. We’ve got some righties that righties don’t see well.”
The offense won’t look familiar. The Gators were unique at the plate in recent years because of the power that was up and down the Florida lineup. This year’s team will have a different look. There’s more speed, and the Gators will be more active on the bases.
“Offensively, we’ve identified what our strength is, and that’s our athleticism,” O’Sullivan said.
The leader of the team has also been identified – senior first baseman Vickash Ramjit. He hit .273 in limited duty last year, but the Florida coaches went to work on him during the offseason. They started to clean up his swing and make it more effective. It showed in the fall, as Ramjit hit over .400 against Florida pitching.
“He’s had a great fall. (Assistants Craig Bell and Brad Weitzel) shortened his swing up,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s more consistent. The bottom line is his at-bats have really matured. He doesn’t swing and miss as much and doesn’t chase. He gets into good counts, and that’s what good hitters do.
“He has been around this league so many times. He has been in and out of the lineup the past two years, but he’s a mainstay in the lineup this year.”
Outfielder Tyler Thompson earned a fifth year of eligibility after he tore his ACL during the first week of conference play last season. He’ll return and play center field for the Gators in the spring. The coaches took it easy with him in the fall.
They know what Thompson can do and didn’t want to push the knee just yet. He’s expected to be full strength for the spring.
“We haven’t pushed it the whole fall,” O’Sullivan said. “There was no need to. This is his fifth year in the program and we know what he can do. We just want him to be 100 percent. If he’s not 100 percent, it doesn’t do him or us any good. I’m positive he’ll be ready to go in the spring.”
The sophomore class will have a big impact on the rest of the offense. Casey Turgeon was a Freshman All-American last season, and infielder Josh Tobias, catcher Taylor Gushue and Shafer will all be staples in the lineup.
Leadership will also have to come from this class. They’ll also be counted on for more production than last season. It’s something they have to be prepared to handle.
“For me as a coach, I don’t think about it like I hope they’re ready. They just have no choice,” O’Sullivan said. “They’re going to be in the lineup and have to do it. If not, we’ll struggle. If they do, we’ll be okay. I don’t look at it like I hope they’re ready. They just have to be.
“The proof will come out when we start playing games. Have they made progress? Are they a year better? Yeah. We’re going to lean on those guys a lot. That’s the core of our team.”
There’s also a strong group of freshmen. Shortstop Richie Martin stole the headlines in the fall, and there was rarely a scrimmage that happened without the freshman making a highlight play with his legs, glove or bat.
But is his strong fall something O’Sullivan and the coaching staff expected?
“I don’t want to say yeah, but yeah,” O’Sullivan said with a laugh. “He’s a good player and we’ve always known that. Spark plug. He’s disruptive on the base paths and finds his way on base all the time. He’s a tough out in a deep count. He competes at the plate every pitch.”
The Gators will have a big hole to fill behind the plate with the departure of Mike Zunino, who was selected with the No. 3 overall pick by the Seattle Mariners last year. Gushue served as his backup last year, and he’ll move into the starter’s role this year.
The big improvement for him has come behind the plate. He has a good arm, but questionable mechanics didn’t show it on the field last year. O’Sullivan, a former catcher at Virginia, helped Gushue work through the issues and shortened up the time between the ball hitting the sophomore’s glove and when it leaves his hand to throw out a base runner.
Gushue has improved at the plate during the fall. He started his freshman season at a torrid pace and went through a slump that eventually earned him a spot on the bench. He’ll have to be an important part of the offense this year, and O’Sullivan is confident that will happen.
“You can only go one of two ways when you struggle — it gets worse or it gets better. You learn from it,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s a tough kid and a hard worker. I don’t see it not helping him. You never want anybody to go through that, but it makes you a harder player. We all learn from mistakes.”