Welcome to Part II of GatorCountry.com’s two-part series previewing the Florida Gators’ baseball team, version 2013.
It’s a team that, as we learned in Part I, will be much different from last season’s squad, which reached the College World Series for a third consecutive year. We talked about true freshman shortstop Richie Martin, top returner Casey Turgeon at second and how third baseman Josh Tobias could be a key cog in the offense.
In case you missed it, please click here to catch up on everything in Part I before reading the rest of this because Part II picks up right where Part I left off:
Back around to the other side of the horn are three players who could end up rotating between first base and designated hitter. O’Sullivan said if the season began now Vickash Ramjit likely would start at first but Powers or freshman Kevin Stypulkowski also could fit in there as well.
“I think out of the group Vickash is certainly our best defensive first baseman, although Zach Powers is right there with him,” O’Sullivan said. “Vickash has the ability where he also can go to the outfield.”
The outfield is where UF is thin, especially with projected starting centerfielder Tyler Thompson leaving the team last week for personal reasons. Justin Shafer is one player for sure who figures into the outfield mix, possibly in left field.
“He’s one of those guys who flies under the radar for whatever reason,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s one of our best, purest hitters. He will definitely hit in the middle of the order.”
Along with Shafer and the possibility of putting Ramjit in right, the coaching staff has some options in the outfield thanks to the continuing development of freshmen Harrison Bader and Christian Dix.
Another player who could factor into the outfield mix is Raphael Andrades, a true freshman who started three games at receiver for the Florida football team this fall. Andrades batted .400 with four doubles, two triples and two home runs for Tallhassee (Fla.) Lincoln as a senior. As a freshman, he batted .548.
The first month of the season is non-conference play, so expect the staff to try some different combinations to see what works the best.
All 22 of the non-conference games will be played in the state of Florida with 20 of those scheduled as home dates at McKethan Stadium.
“I still have to figure that out,” O’Sullivan said, referring to the outfield starters. “A lot of it has to do with the development of Christian Dix and Harrison Bader and how they come along. If those guys start making plays at this level early on then we can keep Vickash at first. If not, we’ll have to put him in the outfield.”
Last but certainly not least as far as the defense, and offense for that matter, goes is catcher Taylor Gushe, who has big shoes to fill taking over duties for Zunino, who was the third overall pick in last June’s draft by the Seattle Mariners.
Offensively, Gushe can hit for power and average. Defensively, he doesn’t have quite the arm strength Zunino had — after all, he’s one of the best catchers in the school and SEC’s history — but he threw several would-be base stealers out during the fall thanks to his quick release and accurate throws. He’s a rare talent because he arrived at Florida as a 17-year-old freshman when he enrolled in January of what would have been his senior year in high school. He started 39 of the 52 games he appeared in last season with 28 starts at first, six as a designated hitter and five at catcher.
“I think the biggest part of his game that has improved the most is his throwing,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s cleaned up his throwing mechanics — it’s shorter, it’s more efficient, he’s got better carry to his ball and he’s more accurate. That’s all we’re looking for from him.
“We know that the offensive is part of his game that has always been a strength but the most important thing for me has been his improvement behind the plate, certainly throwing wise.”
Stypulkowski will back up Gushe behind the plate but the freshman should be able to work his way into lineup because he’s a switch hitter. As mentioned previously, he can play first or serve as designated hitter.
Gushe certainly has taken control of the catching duties. It helped when he caught a pair of Florida pitchers, Daniel Gibson and Bobby Poyner, on the Madison (Wisc.) Mallards of the Northwoods League last summer. In 21 games, Gushe batted .250 with 14 RBI, 12 runs, two doubles and two home runs.
As far as pitching, Florida will rely heavily on the 1-2 punch of junior right-handers Jonathon Crawford and Karsten Whitson. The highly decorated duo are penciled in as the Friday and Saturday starters.
Crawford (6-1, 205) tossed the first no-hitter in postseason play in two decades to kickoff last season’s Gainesville Regional and was named a preseason All-American by Louisville Slugger. He fires fastballs in the upper 90s and posted a 6-2 record with a 3.13 ERA to go along with 73 strikeouts in 77.2 innings last season.
The 6-4, 225-pound Whitson is an intimidating presence on the mound and is 12-1 with a 2.69 ERA in 29 starts over the past two seasons. Whitson famously turned down more than $2 million afer being selected by the San Diego Padres with the No. 9 overall pick of the 2011 MLB First-Year Player Draft.
“They’re our veterans, our 1-2 guys,” O’Sullivan said. “They’re going to be the strength of our team and we’re looking for them to be our team leaders.”
The main question will be who will emerge as the No. 3 starter on most SEC Sundays. O’Sullivan likes the possibilities.
“We’ve got plenty of options,” O’Sullivan said. “Starting with the older guys – Daniel Gibson, Keenan Kish, Johnny Magliozzi – those three guys will certainly get looks and then two freshmen Tucker Simpson and Eric Hanhold.
“That gives us five guys that we’re looking at for that third starter or a weekend starter. I think a lot of that decision making will depend on who in that group as well do we feel comfortable with as the guys at the end of the game, in the backend of the bullpen.
“It’s going to be a combination of what gives us the best chance of winning each game but also keeping in mind that we’re going to solidify the back end of our bullpen.”
O’Sullivan believes the strength of the team, other than Crawford and Whitson as the starters, will be in the “overall depth” of the bullpen. One of those pitchers is left-hander Corey Stump, who dropped his arm slot to gain more movement on his pitches in the offseason.
O’Sullivan said Stump has the ability to be a weekend starter, but his value as a reliever may be an even greater asset.
“Stump is certainly one of those guys that could start on Sundays as well,” O’Sullivan said. “For me, Corey is probably our most effective left-hander. Just knowing that we have Corey Stump down there at any point during the game definitely makes me feel a lot more comfortable, certainly left on left (a left-handed pitcher vs. a left-handed batter, always a favorable matchup).”
Overall, it’s going to be a lot of different faces and essentially a different team than a year ago. One thing O’Sullivan wants to avoid, which will be difficult for fans and media, are comparisons to last year’s talented team that included nine players drafted in the top nine rounds led by Zunino at No. 3.
“One thing I’m not going to do is make comparisons between Mike or any of our previous players with any of our new players,” O’Sullivan said. “Our new players are going to need time to develop. They are going to need time to develop their own identity and it’s not fair to do that.”