It’s a brand new era for UF baseball

The Kevin O’Sullivan Era will get underway with a three-game series beginning Friday night against Siena. There will be plenty of new looks. The Gators will sport new uniforms and a new logo. With regards to the starting lineup though, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Each of Florida’s defensive starters for Siena has seen extensive time in the lineup within the past two years. The biggest changes will be at first base, right field, and catcher. Two-time All-American first baseman Matt LaPorta now calls the Milwaukee Brewers organization home, while right fielder Brian Leclerc has completed his eligibility and former catcher Cody Neer has transferred to Nebraska.

There is so much to check out when the Gators take to the field this weekend. That’s always the case when a coaching change takes place. I can think of nine areas that I’m eager to look over off the top of my head. Obviously, seeing how the new coaches choose to manage in certain situations, so I won’t bore you there. In no particular order, I’ll share my thoughts on the areas that I’ll be interested in looking over.

Attitude has been one of the often used buzzwords around McKethan Stadium since O’Sullivan took command. O’Sullivan’s approach is unlike that of former Florida head coach Pat McMahon. The former Clemson assistant is fiery and assertive and demands the same from his charges. Expect to see a lot of hustle and competitive fire from the ’08 edition of Florida baseball. Another aspect in building a positive attitude is a cohesive clubhouse and that appears to be much improved. The transfer of Neer certainly helped matters in that regard according to a couple of players.

Pitchers will be often asked to throw something other than fastballs and curveballs. Too often Florida pitchers threw the same sequence to batters last season. This was confirmed by pitchers who spoke of being frustrated with former pitching coach Ross Jones. There is no question regarding the importance of locating pitches and the movement of the ball but when opposing batters understand that it’s a 50-50 shot they’ll guess what’s coming to them, they feel better. There were too many times the past two seasons when it seemed as if opposing batters guessed what was coming and put the ball into play.  It will also be interesting to see what effect the long toss program employed by O’Sullivan has on the pitching staff. Numerous major league and collegiate programs utilize the long toss program to enhance strength and endurance of their players’ arms. It also provides a tremendous benefit in helping pitchers with repetition of their optimum release point. Jones, however, did not see the benefits of a long toss program. Florida finished the 2007 season with a 5.27 ERA — the high mark among Southeastern Conference teams.

Sophomore catcher Hampton Tignor improved as the season went along behind the plate. He started 23 games for the Gators and was a much better defensive player than Neer, who was known for his bat. Tignor has outstanding defensive skills and a strong arm to make the throws to cut down runners. This season, Tignor will call the pitches and develop his game at a much faster pace. It is one that O’Sullivan believes he is ready to make. Offensively, Tignor struggled early on and finished with a .286 average, but the rumor is that he has improved that area of his game too. 

I want to see Brandon McArthur have an All-American season. BMac arrived on the University of Florida campus and was sucker punched by a moron outside a downtown club. He fought for his life and won the battle. When resuming a baseball career looked bleak, McArthur took charge and won that battle too. Last season, he suffered a shoulder injury that once again nearly cost him his career. You guessed it — he won that battle once again. He has a new lease on his baseball life on the opposite corner and should be surrounded in the lineup by solid hitters. Here’s hoping that McArthur performs every weekend like he did in 2005 against the Georgia Bulldogs when he went 8 for 12 with two runs batted-in and three runs scored.

I am looking forward to an outfield that from left field to right has the potential to play outstanding defense, hit, and effectively run the bases. Center fielder Matt den Dekker and right fielder Jonathan Pigott have each gotten rave reviews from their teammates for their offensive play in practice. Pigott and den Dekker are both sophomores who played well defensively, with den Dekker more advanced thanks to his outstanding speed and glove that allows him to plays that would have been extremely difficult for other players to complete. He struggled at the plate hitting only .234, but hit the ball pretty well in the batting practice sessions and scrimmages that I witnessed over the past two weeks. If den Dekker gets on base, he’ll be difficult for opposing batteries to keep penned up. 

Pigott is very good defensively and possesses a strong and usually accurate arm. He also possesses good speed and figures to be a threat on the basepaths. Pigott has hit the ball well since practice began. In fact, a couple of the Florida pitchers said that he was very difficult to get out. Pigott hit .280 last year for the Gators in 27 starts.

The old man of the group is former Santa Fe star Avery Barnes, who started at four different positions a year ago. The junior is expected to thrive in the leadoff position. Barnes is in the enviable position of playing the “super utility” role if needed. He hit .293 last season starting 37 games for Florida.

The Bullpen. Josh Edmondson will be throwing from a three-quarter angle and is expected to be much improved. A pair of sophomores, Tony Davis and Clint Franklin are also expected to see plenty of action. Lefthander J.K. LaCoste returns and hopes to breakout this season. Palatka star Cody Barnes is one of two freshmen whom the Florida staff hopes will emerge in ’08. Barnes has some nasty stuff and the ability to spot start if needed. Meanwhile, Texan Travis Lawler brings the heat with a good curveball and slider. If they can depend on the pen, Florida has a good chance to surprise some people.

Shortstop Cole Figueroa was one of the most heralded ballplayers in the country coming out of Tallahassee a little over a year ago. He got his start at second base and moved to shortstop later in the year. Although just a freshman, Figueroa was among the team leaders in both power numbers and stolen bases while hitting .332 on the season. This year much of the leadership duties fall squarely on his shoulders. He too has improved in every facet of his game. 

JT (Jon Townsend) is one player who I believe will tremendously benefit from the aggressive change in leadership at Florida. At practice, he smiles and interacts with his teammates, but he gets a bit serious when the first pitch is thrown. Townsend said that the coaches have told him that they don’t care how many teeth he loses, when a sharp ground ball is hit toward third. You have to love that mentality and eventually, so will JT.

Riley Cooper has been added to the active roster for the Gators. Cooper starred at Clearwater Central Catholic and was a 15th round selection of the Philadelphia Phillies coming out of high school. Cooper gives Florida a bat with some serious pop, speed to use in pinch running situations, and another outfielder with defensive skills. He would also make a tremendous clean-up hitter. We’ll see if Cooper can unseat one of the current starters for a position.

It’s an exciting time and there is plenty of talent on this squad. The players are excited and want to get out and perform in this aggressive, leave it all out on the field era of Florida baseball that O’Sullivan and staff have created.