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On-Deck Report

Written by gatorcody, February 17, 2009, 0 Comments,
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Year Two of Florida’s baseball resurgence under coach Kevin O’Sullivan begins this Friday night at McKethan Stadium when the Gators play host to Big East powerhouse Louisville at 6:30 p.m. in the first of a three-game set.

Though the 2008 season finished with a pair of losses in the Southeastern Conference Tournament and two more at the NCAA Sub-Regional at Florida State, O’Sullivan and his staff succeeded in returning the Gators to prominence with their 34-24 finish which included a 17-13 record in the SEC.

Off that finish, the Gators are ranked No. 23 in the USA Today/ESPN Top 25 coaches’ preseason poll, and Florida’s schedule once again is a challenging one starting off with the No. 16 Cardinals. The Gators will play No. 1 Louisiana State, No. 4 Georgia, No. 9 (with Texas) Florida State, No. 11 Mississippi and No. 14 Miami (Fla.).

Last year, the bar was set. This year, the level of expectations has been raised, with the ultimate goal, as always, being a trip to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series June 13-24.

THE NEWCOMERS

Before we dive into what the rotation and bullpen look like this season, you need to get to know the newcomers. After all the prospects either decided to go to school or sign with a professional team, Baseball America ranked this Florida class the fifth best recruiting class in the country. It’s a group that has the talent to produce early, and they will be counted on to do that.

Jeff Barfield, RHP, 6-0, 215, Perry Ga. (The Westfield School and Lake City Community College): The JUCO transfer looks as if he will start the season as the closer for the Gators. He throws with decent velocity, but it’s his breaking stuff that is the toughest to hit. He throws a heavy sinker and locates well. Hopefully he has the makeup to be a successful closer, and we will find that out if he steps on the mound with a small lead against a talented team such as Louisville or Miami the first two weekends.

Anthony DeSclafani, RHP, 6-2, 180, Freehold, N.J. (Colts Neck): This is a name Gator baseball fans need to get familiar with over the next three years. He was a guy that the coaching staff was very happy to get a commitment from in high school and valued him very highly, regardless of the fact he wasn’t talked about being taken early in the draft. Chalk this one up to O’Sullivan’s eye for talent. DeSclafani has stepped on campus and done nothing but impress. At the first day of spring practice, sophomore preseason All-SEC third baseman Josh Adams was raving to me about DeSclafani. We’ll talk more about what the freshman will bring a little further down to the season. He was drafted in the 22nd round by the Red Sox, who made a late push but failed to sign him.

Will Jolin, RHP, 6-2, 206, Guilford, Conn. (Guilford): Jolin doesn’t get the publicity of the other freshman pitchers, but he hasn’t begun to tap his potential. After this class signed last fall, O’Sullivan mentioned something about Jolin (and DeSclafani) that I found very interesting. He said the coaches were excited to get him down into a climate that is conducive to baseball year-round. Being that Jolin is one of the pitchers that won’t be counted upon right away as a major producer, his evolution over the next few years will be fun to watch. I’ve heard him described as “a bulldog” on the mound, and those are the types of pitchers O’Sullivan loves.

Greg Larson, RHP, 6-8, 215, Longwood, Fla. (Lake Brantley): Larson is the flamethrower of the group. O’Sullivan believes that Larson has potential to be the hardest throwing pitcher he has ever coached. It may take a few years for him to develop. He has a history of injuries, particularly to his back, in high school, but from what I’ve heard he is healthy and ready to go. He was also a basketball player in high school (pretty obvious with his size), so he is a good athlete.

Nick Maronde, RHP, 6-3, 195, Lexington, Ky. (Lexington Catholic): Maronde is the crown jewel of the recruiting class. He would have been drafted within the top five rounds at least, potentially even in the top two. The reason he wasn’t drafted until 43rd round is two-fold: his advisor Scott Boras, the agent for Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and Mark Teixeira among many stars, convinced him to go to college and Maronde wanted to be mentored by and play for O’Sullivan, who had recruited him at Clemson when he was the pitching coach. Many clubs didn’t want to deal with Boras to get Maronde, especially since his original desire was to play in Gainesville anyway. Now Maronde finds himself likely a weekend starter for the Gators.

Ben McMahan, C, 6-0, 205, Windermere, Fla. (Bishop Moore Catholic): McMahan brings the Gators a great athlete at catcher. He also comes from a winning program in high school. He is the fourth catcher on the Florida roster, which raised some eyebrows as to what would happen. Hampton Tignor and Buddy Munroe are both juniors at the position, while Teddy Foster is a senior. It is unlikely but possible that the three of them are gone after this season. Florida has two high school catchers signed who will be on campus next year (we’ll get to recruiting later), so the importance of just having bodies at the position is large. McMahan is more than just a body at the position however. He is in the conversation at DH right now and will get at-bats this season. However it looks like his biggest impact will come next season.

Lee Reumann, LHP, 6-0, 185, Wellington, Fla. (Wellington): Reumann is a name that has snuck onto the radar recently, but he will see the mound this spring. He wasn’t even on the team during fall practices. The crafty left-hander walked onto the team during the winter and impressed the coaches with his ability. More importantly, he gives them another viable option from the bullpen that was depleted at times last year. He’s a great story, and anything the Florida staff gets out of him will be a plus. He also batted .409 with 32 s as a senior in high school.

Mike Mooney, SS, 5-8, 160, Loxahatchee, Fla. (Royal Palm Beach, Palm Beach Community College): Mooney comes to Gainesville with a statewide reputation for his glove. Everything he does in the field is smooth. Regardless of his size, Mooney has an absolute cannon of an arm. The thought was that he would be a liability at the plate this season. I heard before the fall started that we could “pencil him into the nine hole.” However that was before he flashed the highest batting average during the fall scrimmages. I don’t think he has had an outstanding spring though. He still won’t wow you with his bat, but he will be serviceable and provide a hitter who can get the little things done.

Alex Panteliodis, LHP, 6-2, 240, Tampa, Fla. (Alonso): The three freshman pitchers I keep hearing about in the same breath are DeSclafani, Maronde and Panteliodis. It might come as a surprise to some that Panteliodis wasn’t even drafted. He comes from the same high school as injured Florida pitcher Tommy Toledo. From his freshman year of high school to early in his senior year, he won a school-record 20 straight decisions. He doesn’t have overwhelming velocity on his pitches, but he knows how to pitch.

Daniel Pigott, OF, 6-2, 195, Ormond Beach, Fla. (Seabreeze): Pigott was an intriguing prospect to the Florida staff from the beginning, if only because of his brother, Jonathan, who has started a majority of the last two years in right field. O’Sullivan has told me on multiple occasions that Daniel Pigott is one of his favorite recruits. He calls him “old school,” because he’s a guy who goes as hard as he can regardless of what is happening. Florida watched him play in multiple tournaments and games, and in every one, O’Sullivan said Pigott would run on and off the field and do all the little things correct. The other thing O’Sullivan loves about him is the size-speed combination he brings to the table. This is just me thinking out loud, but I think he is the perfect candidate to replace Matt den Dekker in center field next season.

Tyler Thompson, OF, 6-1, 180, Tequesta, Fla. (Jupiter): ,He has been somewhat of a mystery to those who watched fall practice because he wasn’t out there at all. I found out the other day that he didn’t participate because of a knee injury that lingered from high school. He has been participating in individual workouts and now the three weeks of practice before the season. His father, Robby Thompson, also played at Florida before being selected by the San Francisco Giants in the first round of the 1983 draft. A redshirt may make sense for Tyler this year, but his bat has been so good that it will be tough to keep him from getting at-bats.

Preston Tucker, 1B, 6-0, 205, Tampa, Fla. (Plant): Tucker may not have had the hype of prospects like Maronde in high school, but he will certainly prove to be as valuable this season. He looked very important to this recruiting class when first baseman Brandon McArthur was expected to graduate last year. Even now that McArthur is back, Tucker will still be in the lineup more often than not. O’Sullivan called him the kid with the most power he’s ever recruited out of high school. From what I saw during batting practice this fall, the ball sounds completely different off his bat. Just to give you an idea, he hit a ball well over the right field scoreboard during batting practice earlier this week. Later we will talk about possible scenarios to get him in the middle of the lineup.

IJerico Weitzel, INF, 5-11, 190, Ridgway, Pa. (Ridgway): Weitzel is the nephew of Florida assistant coach Brad Weitzel, but don’t think that is why he is on the team. He was a high school wrestler and a good one at that. He played baseball and wrestled at Bolles High School in Jacksonville his freshman year and finished in second place at the state championship in his weight class. Calling Weitzel “thick” is an understatement. He is also extremely strong. He will get plenty of playing time this year. I have heard him described as O’Sullivan’s type of recruit. I asked what that meant and the person told me “he lives and breathes baseball.”

PROJECTED LINEUP

The possibilities in this lineup, particularly from spots 6-9, are endless. A lot of it will have to do with who is swinging the bat well at that time. The key loss from last season was shortstop Cole Figueroa, who was drafted in the fifth round by the San Diego Padres.

Going along with the versatility of each player in different spots of the rotation, they can also play all over the field. One option the Florida coaches have been toying with is playing Brandon McArthur at third base, which I believe will happen frequently. That shows you how comfortable they feel plugging freshman Preston Tucker into first base and the middle of the lineup. In this lineup, Josh Adams would move to shortstop, with Clayton Pisani, Jerico Weitzel and Mike Mooney fighting for the final spot at second base. The designated hitter spot then would go to one of the three freshmen – Tyler Thompson, Daniel Pigott or Ben McMahan. Thompson is a left-handed hitter while the other two are right-handed, so a platoon is possible in that lineup. The main question right now is McArthur, who suffered a torn ACL last season. If the first game was last weekend, the Florida coaches weren’t completely confident that he would be ready to play three consecutive games on defense. Now you see how important Tucker will be to this team as well.

The main thing I cannot stress enough is that regardless of the starting lineup, you will see plenty of Ben McMahan, Daniel Pigott, Tyler Thompson and Jerico Weitzel. Five games a week takes its toll on any team and having depth from these four freshmen gives this team a huge boost.

The lineup listed below isn’t the final lineup for Friday night’s opener, but this is my best educated guess as to what it will look like.

1. Avery Barnes, LF, Sr., 5-11, 175, Bats L/Throws R, High Springs, Fla. (Santa Fe). 2008: .360 batting average, 2 home runs, 19 , 26 stolen bases. I think Barnes is the best leadoff hitter in the SEC this season. He has the speed that O’Sullivan wants at the top of the lineup. He adjusted nicely in his first season in left field last season. The one area of improvement I know the Florida staff is looking for is in his bunt game. O’Sullivan is a big fan of bunting, particularly when his faster guys do it for base hits. His bunts weren’t very reliable last season, so O’Sullivan has been in the senior’s ear to improve.

2. Josh Adams, 3B, So., 5-10, 200, R/R, Jacksonville, Fla. (Eagle’s View Academy. 2008: .330, 8, 51. The freshman-sophomore year jump in performance is expected for most players. If Adams sees his season improve over what he did last year, he’s in for All-American honors. There really wasn’t a part of his game that struggled as a freshman, despite the fact that he tailed off at the end of the season and led the team in strikeouts. There’s a good chance that’s because he was a freshman who wasn’t used to a long season. He has dropped 15 pounds this offseason to lower the amount of weight he’s forced to carry for the season.

3. Matt den Dekker, CF, Jr., 6-1, 205, L/L, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Westminster Academy). 2008:.333, 8, 48, 20. Gator fans should take advantage of this season to soak up how good of a player den Dekker has been in Gainesville. I expect this will be his last season, as Baseball America lists him as their 17th best college prospect and 20th best draft prospect overall. His ceiling is very high as a pro prospect. He was a member of the All-SEC Defensive Team last season, and I can’t think of a center fielder in the country I’d rather have out there on defense. He’s another one of the guys who can and will steal plenty of bases.

4. Brandon McArthur, 1B, Sr., 6-1, 200, R/R, Seffner, Fla. (Armwood). 2008: .337, 2, 44. The team’s inspirational leader returns. He’s not your typical cleanup hitter, as he only hit two home runs last season, but he is as clutch of a hitter as you will find on the team. You know what you’re going to get from McArthur. He will hit over .300 and drive in some much needed runs for the Gators. His consistency is refreshing to Florida fans, coaches and players.

5. Preston Tucker, DH, Fr., 6-0, 205, L/L, Tampa, Fla. (Plant). 2008: .468, 9, 46 at Plant. This is the newcomer I’ve been hearing about since the players got on campus late summer. I heard in the fall that he was already a guy the Florida coaching staff felt comfortable plugging in the middle of the lineup, and that was only a few months into his time on campus. He has absolute raw power, and that’s something this lineup hasn’t seen since the days of Matt LaPorta. If you could close your eyes and watched batting practice, you could pick Tucker out from the crowd because the ball sounds different when it comes off his bat. The thing that has impressed me the most about him is he knows how to use the entire field. He isn’t a dead-pull hitter like many young hitters are. He is disciplined and gets backspin on every ball he hits to the opposite field. He is very advanced and intelligent for his youth.

6. Clayton Pisani, 2B, Jr., 6-1, 200, R/R, Naples, Fla. (Barron Collier). 2008: .271, 5, 28. If there was one player I was the least confident about being in this lineup, it’s Pisani. I think he starts the year at second base, but he’s going to need to hit better this season if he wants to keep his starting spot. Mooney and Weitzel can all play the position and would be inserted if the streaky Pisani struggles out of the gate. The Florida coaches are expecting this to be the season Pisani jumps out and claims this position.

7. Jonathan Pigott, RF, Jr., 6-2, 195, R/R, Ormond Beach, Fla. (Seabreeze). 2008: .220, 2, 16. O’Sullivan was surprisingly non-committal about who his starting right fielder would be when I spoke to him on the first day of practice. But from everything I have heard, it looks like Pigott will be the starter on opening night. He obviously struggled last season, but he was hitting just under .400 going into SEC play. He is another player who is very streaky. He had a great fall this year and has the potential to put it all together and cement himself in the lineup, possibly higher than this. Pigott was back at practice on Feb. 10 from a muscle pull in his back, and he swung the bat then with no reservation. So he should be 100 percent for the start of the season.

8. Hampton Tignor, C, Jr., 6-1, 205, R/R, Sarasota, Fla. (Sarasota). 2008: .304, 3, 9. I also heard that Tignor might have the current edge as the team’s catcher. Out of the three returning players at the position, his upside is definitely the highest. He has the best arm behind the plate, but struggles with his defense sometimes. It’s his bat that sticks out the most to me. If he got consistent at-bats, which I expect this season, I think he will have a solid year at the plate. O’Sullivan has always said he doesn’t prefer to rotate catchers, but if one doesn’t step up, we may seem a similar rotation to what we did last year.

9. Mike Mooney, SS, Jr., 5-8, 160, S/R, Loxahatchee, Fla. (Royal Palm Beach, Palm Beach Community College). 2008: .332, .447 on-base percentage at PBCC. Assistant coach Brad Weitzel said on the Gator Country Radio Show over the fall that Mooney was a guy you could plug into the nine hole of the lineup. I believe that is still the case, despite the fact that he led the team in batting average over the fall practices. He’s a hard-working player who shows up early and stays late, doing whatever he has to for improvement. If his bat struggles early on, don’t be surprised to see the lineup that I mentioned above with Mooney fighting for the second base job.

THE BENCH PLAYERS

Riley Cooper, OF, So., 6-3, 215, R/R, Clearwater, Fla. (Clearwater Central Catholic). 2008: .207, 2, 10. First of all, there is no indication that Cooper will sign professionally after this season. Everyone I have spoken to around the baseball program fully expects him to return for his senior year and play both sports then as well. From everything I know about Cooper’s offseason, look for him to have a much better season in 2009 than 2008. In the fall of 2007, Cooper paid zero attention to baseball and started practicing with the team weeks late. He spent the fall of 2008 taking batting practice at least once a week after football practice. He also was at practice on the first day this spring. All of that goes to show how much more serious he is about baseball this year. A lot of his struggles last year were due to a bit of cockiness— Cooper thought he could step on the field and hit anyone. That obviously proved not to be the case and apparently he has learned. I expect this renewed baseball mindset to pay off and Cooper to push Pigott as the starting right fielder. Competition is a good thing, and it’s something that will benefit this team at many positions.

Teddy Foster, C, Sr., 6-3, 240, R/R, Jacksonville, Fla. (The Bolles School). 2008: .264, 2, 3. Foster may not bring the most offense to the catching position, but it’s impossible to deny that the Florida pitchers just love throwing to him. O’Sullivan sets it up so that his catchers call their own game, and it’s the level of trust between the pitcher-catcher that is the most important during a game. All the pitchers trust what Foster does behind the plate. He may not have the offensive potential of Tignor, but he has enough bat control to benefit the team while hitting.

Ben McMahan, C, Fr., 6-0, 205, R/R, Windermere, Fla. (Bishop Moore Catholic). 2008: .330, 7, 45 in high school. McMahan is in a tough position this season, but he will be an impact player starting next year. He is in the conversation for designated hitter, but that spot in the lineup will only be open when Preston Tucker is playing first base. Next season is the one to watch McMahan and his athletic frame make an impact behind the plate.

Daniel Pigott, OF, Fr., 6-2, 195, R/R, Ormond Beach, Fla. (Seabreeze). 2008: .383, 4, 23 in high school. He’s a prime candidate as the main pinch runner off the bench in late-game situations. He also gives the team an option if his older brother, Jonathan, and Cooper struggle again. I have a hard time believing he won’t see the field, seeing how much O’Sullivan loves him as a player, but it’s just tough to imagine where he fits in this season in a veteran outfield. As I said above, I expect him to replace den Dekker in center field next season.

Tyler Thompson, OF, Fr., 6-1, 180, R/R, Tequesta, Fla. (Jupiter). 2008: .443, .639 slugging percentage, 14 stolen bases in high school. I feel the same about Thompson that I do with Daniel Pigott. It’s just hard to see where they fit in this season. He’s a guy who can step into left field next year or even in center field with Daniel Pigott in left, and start right away. I really like the upside on Thompson, but his injury during the fall hurt his already slim chances to play this spring. There’s nothing wrong with having too much talent in the outfield. Thompson had three hits, all of them going extra bases, in a scrimmage earlier this week. He’s starting to open some eyes on the coaching staff.

Buddy Munroe, C, Jr., 5-11, 185, R/R, Miami, Fla. (Christopher Columbus). 2008: .237, 3, 17. I’ll be interested to see how Munroe responds this year. Last season he seemed to be the main guy behind the plate. If he isn’t this year, I expect him to still start a weekday game or two. He’s a consummate team player, so I wouldn’t be worried about him, Tignor or Foster if they don’t start. They all clearly want to play, but if not, they’ll root hard for their teammate who is.

Jerico Weitzel, INF, Fr., 5-11, 190, L/R, Ridgway, Pa. (Ridgway). 2008: .500, 4, 32 in high school. I mentioned him above when I talked about guys who are pushing Pisani for playing time at second base. The coaches, except for his uncle who doesn’t want to seem biased, gush over Weitzel and his attitude. He works as hard as anyone you’ll find. He’s just a hard-nosed player. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen him dive headfirst into first base during scrimmages, only to get a lecture from the coaches about going in standing. That’s just the way he plays, though. His defense is outstanding. He’s another one that I expect will start at least a midweek game every week.

THE STARTING ROTATION

The starting rotation has taken a hit since the end of last season. Tommy Toledo had arthroscopic surgery and is out for the season. Stephen Locke was kicked off the team, but what isn’t very well known is that he would have been out until around April because of a torn ACL after the fall practices. Kyle Mullaney is also no longer with the team.

That means three pitchers who started significant games last season will not contribute this season. All signs should point to this season being rough for the Gators because of those losses to the pitching staff, but the way O’Sullivan and the Florida staff have recruited, that is far from the truth. 

Patrick Keating, RHP, Sr., 6-2, 215, Sr., R/R, Harrisburg, Ill. (Harrisburg). 2008: 8-1, 4.16 ERA. The need for an ace was eliminated when Patrick Keating decided to come back for his senior year. He will likely be the Friday starter. He was a true stopper for the Gators last year before he faded a little bit down the stretch. He got hit hard the final weekend against Vandelt and in his SEC Tournament appearance. Watch how that pushes him this year. Keating is ready to go out with a bang.

Nick Maronde, LHP, Fr., 6-3, 195, S/L, Lexington, Ky. (Lexington Catholic). 2008: 8-1, 0.54 ERA, 129 strikeouts in 77 innings in high school. This is the pitcher I’m most excited to watch this season. I got to see him throw a few innings at a scrimmage earlier this week, and he looks as good as advertised. The likely Sunday starter, Maronde has a unique arm action, but the movement he gets on all his pitches gives him an extra advantage. He’ll go through the ups and downs that all freshmen do, but he will be an immediate contributor for this team.

Billy Bullock, RHP, Jr., 6-6, 225, R/R, Valrico, Fla. (Riverview). 2008: 4-5, 5.01 ERA. I really expect a big year out of Bullock. He spent this summer pitching in Cape Cod. I saw him throw last week in a scrimmage and was blown away. His velocity looks as if it has improved, and his location was impeccable. He threw three innings and I can only recall one hit being given up, and it was a single up the middle to Preston Tucker. Everything he does just looks much sharper this season. He’s a guy that pro scouts drool over because of his long, lanky body, but he just hasn’t been able to put the huge season together yet. This could be that year. He will be the versatile pitcher the Gators need, contributing as a starter and out of the bullpen this season.

Anthony DeSclafani, RHP, Fr., 6-2, 180, R/R, Freehold, N.J. (Colts Neck). 2008: 7-1, 1.44 ERA, 81 strikeouts, 7 walks in 58.1 innings in high school. As much as I like Maronde and his talent, DeSclafani is right on his heels. For the Florida staff to go out and get two pitchers the caliber of Maronde and DeSclafani speaks to their recruiting prowess. Now watch how O’Sullivan develops him. A likely mid-week starter, DeSclafani has an electric arm and a fluid wind up. He’s a guy that Gator fans will enjoy watching pitch.

Alex Panteliodis, LHP, Fr., 6-2, 240, L/L. Tampa, Fla. (Alonso). 2008: 9-2, 2.37 ERA in high school. Panteliodis earned a spot weekend rotation, getting the ball on Saturday. He doesn’t have the electric stuff of Maronde or DeSclafani, but he is an incredibly intelligent pitcher for a freshman. He competes and trusts his pitches. He won’t light up the radar gun or wow the crowd with his velocity, but he’ll get you plenty of wins. He threw during the scrimmage Saturday and kept hitters off balance. Keating, Bullock, Maronde and Panteliodis all threw, and Panteliodis was by far the most impressive. He uses his off-speed stuff to perfection.

THE BULLPEN

What a difference a year makes for this group. Last year it was a good game if Florida finished it with enough healthy pitchers. Now the Gators actually have enough to give them some depth into the weekday games. That’s why you saw basketball player Adam Allen on the mound last season, as well as center fielder Matt den Dekker, who hadn’t pitched since high school. The coaches did anything to find pitchers who could eat innings for them last year. This year, though the bullpen is young, it’s full of capable, SEC-caliber arms. There are also enough guys who could start or relieve, giving the staff more flexibility when it comes to getting weekday games out of the way.

Kevin Chapman, LHP, So., 6-4, 210, L/L, Coral Springs, Fla. (Westminster Academy). 2008: missed season after shoulder surgery. There are three wild-cards that I see in the bullpen who could really help this team out with a healthy, successful year. Chapman is the first of them. He was a serviceable freshman in 2007 and has a live, left-handed arm. This year I have actually heard he has improved enough to be in the running for the Wednesday starting pitcher. He threw at a scrimmage earlier this week and finished his first two innings in six and 11 pitches respectively. His third inning was a little longer, but he didn’t give up a single hit in the outing. His delivery looks easier than it used to be, and he repeats it well. I’m counting on a big comeback year for him.

Tony Davis, LHP, Jr., 5-9, 185, S/L, Cooper City, Fla. (North Broward Prep). 2008: 0-2, 5.12. Davis’ ERA was skewed because he was the left-handed specialist out of the bullpen. He would pitch sometimes only 1/3 of an inning, and if he gave up a run, his ERA would skyrocket. He did a very solid job last season, shutting down most key left-handed batters he faced. The good news is, O’Sullivan actually believes that Davis has improved more this offseason than any pitcher he has ever had. Think about that for a minute. As well known of a pitching coach as O’Sullivan is, Davis has improved the most under his tenure. Davis moved his arm slot from the side-arm motion he used in 2008 and put it back up top, above his shoulder, for the upcoming 2009 season. It looks like we can expect big things out of him.

Clint Franklin, RHP, Jr., 6-3, 200, R/R, Orlando, Fla. (Timber Creek). 2008: 3-3, 3.23 ERA. Franklin was one of the few stable pitchers out of the bullpen last year. He seems to go under the radar when it comes to returning arms in the bullpen, but he was a go-to arm early in the year. He is another guy who has improved this offseason, but he’s not a pitcher that will garner tons of praise. He just goes about his work every day and gets batters out. Look for more of the same from the quiet but productive Franklin this season.

Will Jolin, RHP, Fr., 6-2, 205, R/R, Guilford, Conn. (Guilford). 2008: 5-3, 2.83 ERA in high school. I mentioned above that Jolin pitches with a bulldog mentality, and that is ideal for his role this season. He will most likely be a long reliever this year, where he’ll sometimes have to bear down and get some outs in blowout games.

Greg Larson, RHP, Fr., 6-8, 215, R/R, Longwood, Fla. (Lake Brantley). 2008: 2-1, 2.13 ERA in an injury-shortened high school season. He’s got the stuff of a closer, but Larson is at least one healthy offseason away from that. I guarantee the first time you see him on the field you will have to double take because of how tall he is. O’Sullivan told me in the fall that Larson has the potential to be the hardest thrower he’s ever coached. It makes sense physically with his 6-8 frame, but it shows you how highly the staff thinks of him. He’ll be a big-time contributor down the road, and depending on how he adjusts throughout the year, he might even give them some valuable innings this year.

Justin Poovey, RHP, Fr;, 6-0, 195, R/R, Granite Falls, N.C. (South Caldwell). 2008: Missed the season with Tommy John surgery. The Florida coaches will most likely pick their spots with Poovey to start the season, but he should be a mainstay out of the bullpen by midseason. He hasn’t pitched in a game in two years. He’s my second wild card that could really benefit this team if he can stay healthy all year. He doesn’t have a long history of injuries by any means, so I don’t expect any recurrence of injury. In his recovery from the surgery, Poovey is already back to throwing 90-plus mph. I know that pro scouts refer to his arm as “very live” and think he has a bright professional future. He, like Bullock, gives O’Sullivan starter/reliever flexibility, but I would imagine they wouldn’t throw him in to start at the beginning of the year with his status still somewhat uncertain.

Lee Reumann, LHP, Fr., 6-0, 185, L/L, Wellington, Fla. (Wellington). 2008: 4-1, 0.78 ERA in high school. Reumann will be an upgrade from the pitchers the Florida coaches were forced to use in mop-up duty last season. He’s a guy that can be an innings eater. From watching him pitch in a scrimmage earlier this week, he’s a lefty who doesn’t look like he would break a pane of glass with his fastball, but he gets people out. He uses his off-speed pitches very effectively to keep hitters off balance, and that makes his fastball look like it has a lot more velocity on it. He’s a guy who will get plenty of groundballs when he is down in the zone, but if he misses up in the zone, it could go a long way.

Chas Spottswood, RHP, Jr., 6-4, 205, R/R, Key West, Fla. (Key West). 2008: missed the season because of injury. Spottswood is the guy a lot of Florida fans ask about. From everything I have heard, he is fully healthy for the first time in two years. He’s my third wild card. If two of Chapman, Poovey and Spottswood can give the Gators a healthy season, this bullpen could be a lot better than some people expect. He threw earlier this week in a scrimmage I watched, and he seemed a little tentative to me. He struggled with his command, even starting with seven straight balls. He needs to regain some confidence and can let it go when on the mound. Again, I’m making this observation based on one performance, so it’s nothing to worry about just yet. He did settle down near the end and managed to have an average performance.

Jeff Barfield, RHP, Jr., 6-0, 215, R/R, Perry, Ga. (The Westfield School, Lake City Community College). 2008: 5-3, 2.68 ERA last season at Lake City Community College. The leading closer prospect, he’s a groundball pitcher who keeps the ball down. That’s exactly what you want out of the closer. Mental toughness will always be in question until you see a kid pitch at the SEC level, but from all accounts the Florida staff trusts him with the ball in the ninth inning. He’ll be given every chance early in the season to lock down the closer spot.

INJURY UPDATE

Tommy Toledo, RHP, So., 6-3, 185, R/R, Tampa, Fla. (Alonso). From what I have heard, Toledo is already back and throwing after having arthroscopic surgery in early October. The surgery looks as if it went without any problems, and Toledo is expected back 100 percent well before the 2010 season. If Maronde, DeSclafani and Panteliodis have the freshmen years that O’Sullivan is expecting, imagine the depth they will have when Toledo returns to the weekend rotation in 2010. The team is finally beginning to get into reload mode. Toledo’s injury is the only one that will keep a player out for any significant time, as of the start of spring practice.

NON-CONFERENCE OPPONENTS

Louisville (Feb. 20-22): The Cardinals come to Gainesville as an uncommon opponent for the first weekend of the season. They won the Big East last season, only one year after making it to the College World Series. They are led by junior ace Justin Marks, who had a 2.37 ERA in 18 appearances last season. Their Saturday pitcher, similar to Florida’s Saturday pitcher Nick Maronde, will be a freshman, Keith Landers. Either Matt Lea or Bob Revesz will complete their rotation. The pitching staff will be the determining factor for how far Louisville goes in 2009.

The offense is led by All-American third baseman Chris Dominguez. He was in the same situation as Florida’s shortstop from last year, Cole Figueroa, and was able to sign professionally after his sophomore year because he was 21 before the draft. He instead opted to return to school. Dominguez hit .365, with 21 home runs and 75 s. He is the definition of a run producer. Lousville also returns senior shortstop John Dao and outfielder Stewart Ijames, both who hit over .350 last season.

Miami (Feb. 27-March 1): The Hurricanes return one of the top pitchers in the country, and he’s only a sophomore. Chris Hernandez had a phenomenal freshman season, going 11-0 with a 2.72 ERA. He struck out 117 and walked 18 batters in 112 2/3 innings pitched. Eric Erickson, the Friday night starter at the start of last year and projected Saturday starter this year, went down this offseason with an arm injury, hurting the rotation depth. David Gutierrez will move into the Saturday role after making seven starts last season with a 4.75 ERA. Miami is hoping for a huge lift from JUCO transfer Taylor Wulf on Sundays.

The lineup is what took a huge hit after last season. Miami’s offense was absolutely terrifying in 2008. It will still be a good offense, but nowhere near what Hurricanes fans were able to watch last year. Junior shortstop Ryan Jackson is the headliner in the field, and he’s really as complete of a player as you will fine. He is an excellent defender who swings a good bat. He played on Team USA this summer with Florida center fielder Matt den Dekker. Freshman third baseman Harold Martinez will give the lineup an immediate boost.

Florida State (March 17, March 31 and April 14): The Seminoles, similar to Miami, lose a lot from a College World Series team last season. Their pitching staff was hit hard when Elih Villanueva and Matt Fairel signed professional contracts. They lack a true ace, but I think they have a special one in the making with John Gast. He had a 2.70 ERA in 14 innings last season, but it’s his electric stuff that makes him an outstanding prospect. He will battle it out with Geoff Parker for the Friday night duties this spring. The Sunday pitcher will likely be filled by an incoming freshman, possibly Austin Wood. I have heard that the new pitchers are struggling to pick things up.

The offense loses catcher Buster Posey, who won the 2008 Dick Howser Trophy and the Golden Spikes Award, as well as right fielder Jack Rye, shortstop Tony Delmonico and designated hitter Dennis Guinn. Their trio of sophomores – center center fielder Tyler Holt, left fielder Mike McGee and third baseman Stuart Tapley – all bring big bats to a lineup that will need some big bats to step up. The catcher will be a big question mark, as transfer Rafael Lopez will have surgery and miss some time. A weak spot at catcher doesn’t sit well for the Seminoles when they play the Gators, who love to steal bases.

SEC OPPONENTS

EAST DIVISION

1. Georgia (May 1-3): This series will be a marquee matchup between two of the top teams in the SEC. It all starts with Trevor Holder on the mound for the Bulldogs. He was their ace last season and decided to return for his senior season instead of signing professionally. Alex McRee will be their Saturday pitcher, and he comes from the bullpen last season to do that. He only made three starts last season, but he has the talent to be a good starter. The Sunday spot is up in the air, but I think it will be freshman Michael Palazzone by the time the Gators play the Bulldogs. The Atlanta Braves took Palazzone in the 18th round, but he let it be known early in the process that it would take a lot of money to steal him from stepping on campus in Athens. They also lost All-American closer Josh Fields, who graduated but is yet to sign with the Seattle Mariners.

The offense for the Bulldogs loses star shortstop Gordon Beckham and third baseman Ryan Piesel. The offensive attack will depend on senior catcher Bryce Massanari and junior first baseman Rich Poythress. Poythress hit .375, with 15 home runs and 75 s, while Massanari hit .325, with 11 home runs and 65 s.

2. Florida

3. Vandelt (April 3-5): Ace pitcher Mike Minor leads the Commodores into the 2009 season with high hopes. He pitched on Team USA this summer with Florida’s den Dekker. My dark horse on their pitching staff is Sonny Gray. His draft stock fell because of his desire to go to school, and now he will be an instant contributor for Vandelt.

The Commodore offense loses seven of nine starters from last season, none bigger than the Pittsburgh Pirates first-round draft pick, third baseman Pedro Alvarez.  Shortstop John Flaherty and outfielder Dominic de la Osa, the school’s record-holder for most career hits, have also graduated. The offense will take a hit this season, but the strong pitching staff should keep them in almost any game.

4. Tennessee (March 20-22): The Volunteers return their two best pitchers from last season, sophomore Bryan Morgado and junior Nick Hernandez. These two pitchers will be as good as any one-two punch on the mound in the SEC. Morgado was a Freshman All-American last season, striking out 104 batters in 80 1/3 innings pitched. That was the second highest total for any Tennessee freshman ever. Hernandez led the SEC in walks per nine innings with .97.  He didn’t walk multiple batters in any of his 10 SEC starts.

The Tennessee offense is led by arguably the top draft-eligible sophomore in the country, Kentrail Davis. He was another Freshman All-American for the Volunteers last season, hitting .330, with 13 home runs and 44 . The rest of the Tennessee offense will need to step up this season as it was often often a one-man show last season.

5. South Carolina (April 24-26): Sam Dyson is one of the top returners for the Gamecock pitching rotation. Dyson was the pitcher who impressed me the most for South Carolina last season, coming just short of upsetting the LSU Tigers on day one.

The South Carolina offense loses first-round draft picks, first baseman Justin Smoak and shortstop Reese Havens, along with second-round selection, left fielder James Darnell. Catcher Phil Disher, who provided even more power for the 2008 offense, is also gone. Center fielder Whit Merrifield returns after an outstanding freshman campaign, and utility player Parker Bangs will be one of the top two-way prospects to watch this season. Senior first baseman Jesse Barbaro will take over for Smoak this season. It goes without saying, however, that this is not the same offense South Carolina boasted last year. But with their new ballpark being the same dimensions as the old little league field they played in, who knows how many home runs they will hit.

6. Kentucky (May 14-16): Kentucky head coach Joe Cohen left five days after they were eliminated from the postseason to take the job at Mississippi State, where coaching legend Ron Polk decided to retire. Kentucky named associate head coach Gary Henderson to be head coach. First-team All-SEC member Chris Rusin will lead the pitching staff. James Paxton will also provide depth to the pitching staff that loses key members, including closer Scott Green.

The key losses to the entire team come in the lineup, where the Wildcats lose outfielders Colin Cowgill and Sawyer Carroll. The offense will have to step up big to make up for the loss of two of the best outfielders in the SEC last season.

WEST DIVISION

1. Louisiana State (May 8-10): The pitching staff is the only thing that can hold LSU back this season. They lose Jared Bradford, Ryan Verdugo and Blake Martin. Sophomore Anthony Ranuando will start out as the ace of the staff, but he has struggled with injuries over the past few years. There’s still a lot of upside with him. Tigers closer Louis Coleman is one of the best in the SEC. His strange motion has his foot stepping towards the third base dugout, instead of home plate, and then his arm coming from seemingly out of nowhere. It’s something I’ve never seen before, and it makes him almost impossible to hit.

The Tigers offense will be among the elite in the country. They lose the nation’s top home run hitter, Matt Clark, and Michael Hollander. They do return Blake Dean, Leon Landry and Jared Mitchell. And that’s just the outfield. The infield is led by one of the top prospects in all of college baseball, D.J. LeMahieu. Their catcher will be sophomore Micah Gibbs, who played with Team USA this summer with Florida’s Matt den Dekker.

2. Ole Miss (April 17-19): The Rebels lost two of the most feared pitchers in the SEC with the departure of Lance Lynn and Cody Satterwhite. There are some doubts out there about their rotation, but Drew Pomeranz is about to have a gigantic season for them. The lefty has all the necessary stuff to be a Friday night pitcher in the SEC. Juniors Phillip Irwin and Nathan Baker will complete their rotation. There may not be a pitcher in the rotation that causes fear like Lynn and Satterwhite did, but closer Scott Bittle gives the Rebels an experienced closer to end games. He was an All-American last season with a 1.78 ERA.

The offense also has to replace key players in third baseman Cody Overbeck and outfielder Michael Guerrero. Leadoff hitter Jordan Henry spark plugs the offense, with Logan Power, ironically, brings the biggest bat to the middle of the lineup. It’s a solid offensive group, but Ole Miss will be counting on their pitching to carry them.

3. Alabama (March 27-29): Alabama’s pitching staff will be led by senior Austin Hyatt, who I think is one of the more underrated pitchers in the SEC. I’ve seen him pitch a few games, but the one that stands out was when he sent the No.1-seeded Georgia Bulldogs packing from the SEC Tournament last year with a complete game shutout. Senior Miers Quigley and freshman Adam Morgan are projected to finish out the rotation. Adam Scott, a junior college transfer, will fill their closer role.

The Crimson Tide lineup will be among the top in the SEC, if not the southeast. The middle infield and top of their lineup will be filled by sophomore shortstop Josh Rutledge and sophomore second baseman Ross Wilson, younger brother of former Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson. Junior first baseman Brandon May, who hit .365 with nine homeruns and 50 s last season, will be the key power bat in the lineup.

4. Arkansas (March 13-15): The Razorbacks’ starting rotation is weaker than last season, but the optimism is still in place. Junior lefty Dallas Keuchel will anchor the staff after going 4-3 with a 4.58 ERA last season. Junior right-handers T.J. Forrest and Mike Bolsinger finish out the rotation, while freshman Zack Cox, who will also start at third base, will serve as the team’s closer.

The offense is led by Preseason SEC All-American right fielder Chase Leavitt. He finished the 2008 campaign boasting a .366 batting average, with three home runs and 25 . Sophomore first baseman Andy Wilkins is the other key returning bat, after hitting .331, with eight home runs and 38 .

5. Auburn (April 10-12): The Tigers return 72 percent of their innings pitched from last season. Grant Dayton and Paul Burnside, who combined for a 16-6 record last season, will anchor the Auburn staff. The other 10 returning pitchers combine for only 24 career victories. The percentage of returning innings may be a bit skewed because of how much Dayton and Burnside threw last season. If the younger guys can develop for the rotation, this team will be better than expected. Auburn also hired John Pawlowski, formerly the coach at College of Charleston, as its new head coach.

Auburn returns its three top hitters from last season. First baseman and former first-round selection by the Boston Red Sox Hunter Morris was a staple in the middle of the lineup as a freshman, when he put up a .351 batting average, with 11 home runs and 49 . Junior infielder Joseph Sanders and sophomore outfielder Brian Fletcher also return to carry the load. This is a young team that will only get better with Pawlowski at the helm.

6. Mississippi State (not on Florida’s schedule): Long-time Bulldogs head coach Ron Polk decided to step down after last season, and Mississippi State stole former Kentucky coach Joe Cohen in the offseason. The loss of Aaron Weatherford will hurt the pitching staff. Sophomore right-hander Michael Busby has the lowest ERA of any returning pitcher, but even that is a 5.84. It’s safe to say the Bulldogs will struggle to find the pitching this season and may depend largely on freshmen.

The offense is led by junior Connor Powers who hit .348, with 11 home runs and 38 . Sophomore outfielder Ryan Collins will be the second-best bat after hitting .348, with three home runs and 23 . The offense will be the better of the two sides of the ball for Mississippi State, but this will be a long season for Cohen and the Bulldogs.

CLASS OF 2008

When this Florida recruiting class signed in mid-November, Baseball America named it its No. 1 recruiting class, with Florida getting signatures from eight of the top 100 players in the country. It’s incredible when you look at what O’Sullivan is doing instate. According to prospectwire.com, a site devoted specifically to Florida high school baseball prospects, the Gators signed the Nos. 3, 4, 6, 9 and 10 players in the state. That’s a well-balanced group in my eyes, staying away from the top two players who I think will definitely sign, but still taking a few calculated risks on kids.

Now obviously this ranking doesn’t matter at all. It’s the one that will come after the recruits decide if they will come to campus or not that is the most important. Out of the 16 recruits Florida signed early, from what I have heard, they expect 10-11 recruits to see campus.

Avery Barnes, Teddy Foster, Patrick Keating and Brandon McArthur are the only four who will definitely be gone after this season. I think it’s smart to assume den Dekker signs professionally after this season, but I can’t think of another junior who would leave unless Jonathan Pigott or Billy Bullock put together a monster season.

So there aren’t many open spots left. O’Sullivan and the staff took a few guys (Borchering, Maddox, Levon Washington) who are projected to be drafted very highly, but they had a chance to do that because of the young team they return. If the highly regarded kids decide to go pro, then so be it. They’re just hoping to strike gold. Last season, UCLA took a commitment from right-handed pitcher Gerrit Cole, who was drafted late in the first round by the New York Yankees. Cole and the Yankees couldn’t agree on a contract, so he will step on campus and join the rotation at UCLA. This is what the Florida staff is crossing its fingers will happen this offseason.

I had an interesting conversation with O’Sullivan before practice earlier this week. I asked him how many of the 16 signees he expected to come to campus, and his response was, “What do you mean? I expect all 16.” He said it with a laugh and was obviously being sarcastic, but there was some truth in what he was saying. This is his mindset when it comes to recruits. All we heard before he took the job at Florida was that he was a relentless recruiter who had a knack for getting kids to campus that weren’t expected. He is a brilliant recruiter and works hard to make sure the signees, and possibly more importantly their families, know how much they are valued in his program.

The last thing I want to point out about this class is the location of the signees. Out of 16 signees, there is one who is from outside Florida. O’Sullivan always recruited the state of Florida hard when he was the recruiting director at Clemson, and it’s obvious he knows where the talent is. The lone signee is Hudson Randall, a pitcher from just outside Atlanta. Even when Florida does leave the state, it doesn’t go far in this class. Don’t expect that to change. O’Sullivan makes a habit of saying how easy it is to recruit kids to Florida. He always talks about how much the university offers prospects so much academically and athletically, that he really does see the university recruiting for itself throughout the state.

This class is full of top-notch players, including five left-handed pitchers. I have heard the Florida staff thinks the five of them are all outstanding pitchers with huge upside, and that getting three of the five to campus would be a job well done.

There are five signees who played in the Aflac All-American Game, which is the most prestigious high school All-Star game in the country. If the Under Armour Game and Army All-American Game combined their players and only had one All-Star game, that would be the equivalent of the Aflac Game. The four who played in it are Michael Heller, Austin Maddox, LeVon Washington and Michael Zunino. The East Team had 19 total players on it, and the Gators signed four of them. That is as good as you will find. Maddox, Bobby Borchering, and Steven Rodriguez played in the prestigious Under Armour All-American Baseball Game at Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

At this time last year, it seemed like a long shot for Nick Maronde to see campus. Now he is lining up as Florida’s Saturday pitcher. Florida took a late commitment from Sickles outfielder Kenny Wilson during the spring of 2008 with little doubt that he would come to campus, but Wilson was drafted in the second round and signed with the Blue Jays. My point is you just never know what will happen with these recruits.

NOW THE PROSPECTS

Ben Brown, RHP, 5-11, 175, Winter Haven, Fla. (Winter Haven): Brown was a third-team 5A All-State selection in 2008. Prospectwire.com ranks him its No. 163 player in the state of Florida.

Danny Healey, RHP, 6-2, 195, Cooper City, Fla. (Cooper City): Suffered an arm injury last season and is back to full speed. He uses a three-quarter delivery with a long, easy-arm action. He sits around 90 mph with his fastball. His curveball is already solid with potential to be better under the right coaching. He also has a very solid mound presence. Healey is also a great student.

Michael Heller, RHP/INF, 6-2, 190, Sarasota, Fla. (Cardinal Mooney): I did a story on Heller back in the fall and came away impressed with him as a player and person. He is very well-spoken and genuinely excited about being a Gator. He is a Top 100 prospect in the country, but he was very honest with me in saying that it would take a ton of money to keep him away from Gainesville. I heard the Florida staff likes him as a pitcher, but they’re going to give him the opportunity to play infield as well. He throws over 90 mph right now with an impressive array of off-speed pitches. He has even been clocked in the mid-90s. He could legitimately have a solid career as a hitter, but I think his future in the SEC is on the mound.

Hudson Randall, RHP, 6-4, 180, Dunwoody, Ga. (Dunwoody): Randall’s tall, lean frame projects well if he can add some weight. He is already a good pitcher, but some more weight would add to his velocity. As the only prospect the Gators signed that is not from the state of Florida. He played for the prestigious East Cobb Braves. He’s a smart pitcher who keeps his pitches down. He is also a solid student. I expect him to make it to campus.

David Holmberg, LHP, 6-4, 215, Port Charlotte, Fla. (Port Charlotte). The big lefty has an upside the Florida coaches are very excited about. He comes from the same hometown as former Gators first baseman Matt LaPorta. His build alone makes him a legitimate Major League prospect. He sits in the high 80s, touching 90 a few times. His off-speed stuff needs work, but the curveball and changeup have potential if he gets solid coaching at the next level. What better person to teach him than O’Sullivan? His outstanding command combined with the potential plus off-speed stuff makes him an outstanding college prospect. He will shoot up the draft board for many college teams from now until the draft.

Brian Johnson, LHP, 6-4, 220, Cocoa, Fla. (Cocoa Beach): Another elite two-way prospect in this class. I think the Florida staff is leaning towards using him as a pitcher, but there is no doubt he will be given every chance to prove he can swing the bat at the SEC level. It’s tough to compare all these talented left-handed pitchers, but Johnson surely ranks near the top of them. He throws in the upper 80s and has touched 90 before. Prospectwire.com compares him to Florida freshman Alex Panteliodis, which is absolutely a compliment.

Mike Rayl, LHP, 6-3, 180, Lake Worth, Fla. (Park Vista, Palm Beach Community College: Rayl will step on campus and give the Gators another left-handed arm out of the bullpen. He played junior college ball in 2008 with Florida infielder Mike Mooney. He was drafted in 2008 in the 41st round by the Washington Nationals but decided to return to school instead of signing.

Steven Rodriguez, LHP, 6-2, 210, Miami, Fla. (Gulliver Prep): The Under Armour All-American throws in the upper 80s with a solid cutter that he uses to keep right-handed hitters honest. He won’t wow any scouts with his stuff, but he has a good knowledge of how to pitch. I expect him to be a solid contributor for the Gators out of the bullpen in his career.

Patrick Schuster, LHP, 6-2, 170, Holiday, Fla. (J.W. Mitchell High School): Schuster is a guy who is starting to fly up plenty of draft boards, and the Florida staff knows it. He is another example of the Florida coaches finding someone who isn’t well known when they accept his commitment, and then the scouts begin to find him after he has been committed to the Gators for plenty of months. He has a whip-like arm action and throws the ball effortlessly. He doesn’t play the best competition, but his performances have been solid at showcases.

Bobby Borchering, 3B-1B, 6-4, 200, Alva, Fla. (Bishop Verot): This is my favorite prospect in this class. I don’t want to exaggerate this comparison, but I’ve spoken with a few people about him and the name Chipper Jones always comes up. He has a tall, skinny frame similar to what Jones had coming out of high school. He is a power-hitting, switch-hitter who projects as a third baseman. He is athletic enough to be considered a good runner for his size. Scouts wonder if he is quick enough to play third base. If he proves that he is during his senior year, he will be drafted highly, possibly in the first round. Borchering’s mother is a teacher and knows the value of a college degree, so that could benefit the Gators in getting him to campus. He is one of the top power hitters in the country and would be an immediate impact player if he decides to come to Florida.

Cody Dent, SS, 5-11, 170, L/R, Boynton Beach, Fla. (Park Vista): The son of former New York Yankees shortstop Bucky Dent, he’s exactly what you would expect of the son of a former big leaguer. He is very well polished in all areas of the game. He has good range and makes all the routine plays. He hits the ball well to all fields and will continue to develop power as the strength comes along.

Nolan Fontana, SS, 5-11, 180, Winter Garden, Fla. (West Orange): I mentioned near the top of this report that Jerico Weitzel is a player the coaches love because he lives and breathes baseball. Fontana will be next year’s version of him. He is somewhat of a legend in the Central Florida area when it comes to high school baseball. Everyone who has watched him since before he was in high school has raved him about. The Florida coaches love his mindset. He played with Maddox on Team USA this past summer and hit leadoff.

Austin Maddox, C-RHP, 6-3, 225, Jacksonville, Fla. (Eagle’s View Academy): The Florida staff is telling Maddox he can play whatever position he wants in Gainesville, and right now he is saying that he would prefer to catch. He has a cannon of an arm from behind the plate and one of the best overall bats in the country. Behind the plate, he is somewhat of a work in progress, but all the tools are there for him to be a special player. He played with Florida infielder Josh Adams in high school. His raw power is through the roof. He pitched for Team USA this summer and served as the team’s closer. Maddox also hit cleanup on the team. I have heard from people close to their baseball program that scouts would come to watch Adams in high school but would leave the game raving about Maddox instead.

Kamm Washington, OF, 5-10, 190, Boynton Beach, Fla. (Park Vista): He generates a lot more power than you would imagine with his smaller frame. He is a plus runner who plays outstanding defense. He has every tool you could want from a potential player. Prospectwire.com ranks him as the No. 18 player in Florida going into his senior season, but don’t be surprised if he turns into one of the best players in this class. When it all comes together, he could potentially be a five-tool player. He was even clocked at 6.38 second in the 60-yard dash. He is a teammate of Cody Dent at Park Vista High School. His left-handed bat has potential to find itself in the leadoff spot for the Gators a year or two down the road.

LeVon Washington, IF/OF, 5-11, 170, Gainesville, Fla. (Buchholz): Washington is one of the Florida coaching staff’s favorite prospects in this class. His upside is extremely high. He is the fastest high school player in the country, running a 6.35 60-yard dash at a combine earlier this year. He grew up a huge Gator fan, obviously with him living in Gainesville. He can run and swings a great bat, but the only question right now is the position he will play at the next level. The other question is signability at this point, as he projects to go very high simply because of his speed. His professional baseball career will be a very good one before it’s all over, whether he comes to campus or not.

Mike Zunino, C, 6-1, 195, Cape Coral, Fla. (Mariner): Zunino is fully capable of being a starting catcher in the SEC. He and the other Florida signees (Maddox, Washington and Heller) who played in the Aflac All-American Game all grew very close, and there’s no doubt that will benefit the Gators chances to get them on campus. Zunino is athletic enough to play the outfield or third base, shown with his 6.76 60-yard dash time. He has a solid swing with power potential to all fields.

CLASS OF 2009

This is obviously down the road, as these guys will make an impact during the 2011 season in Gainesville, but I just wanted to give you some ideas of how well this staff is doing in recruiting. Not only are the coaches locking down top talent from in the state, they’re also doing it when recruits are young. These two guys committed before the start of their junior seasons. From what I’ve heard about the two, they are absolute studs.

The Florida coaches could have at least 10 commitments at this point in the class, but O’Sullivan isn’t sure how the 2009 draft will treat the recruiting class he just signed. He wants to see how things shake out after the draft, as far as how many spots the class has in it. With that being said, you understand how talented these two commitments are.

Karsten Whitson, RHP, 6-2, 190, Chipley, Fla. (Chipley): Whitson is ranked the No. 4 player in the state of Florida, according to Prospectwire.com. He is currently throwing in the upper 80s and low 90s in his junior season. His changeup is his best pitch, which is extremely rare for such a young pitcher. This shows he has great feel for a pitcher. His curveball is what will need to be worked on at the next level. I know the Florida coaches are incredibly high on this kid. Just as in football, when the coach takes a commitment from a kid before or during his junior season, you know they expect him to be a star.

Jacob Tillotson, SS, 5-10, 170, Lake City, Fla. (Columbia): Tillotson’s parents are both University of Florida graduates, so once draft time comes around for him next year, the Gators will have that in his favor. He’s a very good athlete who is a smooth defender. He is also a switch-hitter and looks to have the talent to continue switch-hitting at the next level. He is a very good student who also has experience playing for Team USA.

CONCLUSION

You’d be hard-pressed to find a time when the future of Florida baseball looked this bright. The staff has already targeted its top junior targets for the next signing class and has solid relationships already developed. The reputation of O’Sullivan being a hard-working recruiter may have actually been an understatement.

The Florida team is loaded for the 2009 season and will bring back plenty of talent next season. This season will show a team relying on two freshmen pitchers pitching on Saturday and Sunday. There will be ups and downs this season just like the others, but know that there is no program in the country with as bright a future as Florida.

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Year Two of Florida’s baseball resurgence under coach Kevin O’Sullivan begins this Friday night at McKethan Stadium when the Gators play host to Big East powerhouse Louisville at 6:30 p.m. in the first of a three-game set.

Though the 2008 season finished with a pair of losses in the Southeastern Conference Tournament and two more at the NCAA Sub-Regional at Florida State, O’Sullivan and his staff succeeded in returning the Gators to prominence with their 34-24 finish which included a 17-13 record in the SEC.

Off that finish, the Gators are ranked No. 23 in the USA Today/ESPN Top 25 coaches’ preseason poll, and Florida’s schedule once again is a challenging one starting off with the No. 16 Cardinals. The Gators will play No. 1 Louisiana State, No. 4 Georgia, No. 9 (with Texas) Florida State, No. 11 Mississippi and No. 14 Miami (Fla.).

Last year, the bar was set. This year, the level of expectations has been raised, with the ultimate goal, as always, being a trip to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series June 13-24.

THE NEWCOMERS

Before we dive into what the rotation and bullpen look like this season, you need to get to know the newcomers. After all the prospects either decided to go to school or sign with a professional team, Baseball America ranked this Florida class the fifth best recruiting class in the country. It’s a group that has the talent to produce early, and they will be counted on to do that.

Jeff Barfield, RHP, 6-0, 215, Perry Ga. (The Westfield School and Lake City Community College): The JUCO transfer looks as if he will start the season as the closer for the Gators. He throws with decent velocity, but it’s his breaking stuff that is the toughest to hit. He throws a heavy sinker and locates well. Hopefully he has the makeup to be a successful closer, and we will find that out if he steps on the mound with a small lead against a talented team such as Louisville or Miami the first two weekends.

Anthony DeSclafani, RHP, 6-2, 180, Freehold, N.J. (Colts Neck): This is a name Gator baseball fans need to get familiar with over the next three years. He was a guy that the coaching staff was very happy to get a commitment from in high school and valued him very highly, regardless of the fact he wasn’t talked about being taken early in the draft. Chalk this one up to O’Sullivan’s eye for talent. DeSclafani has stepped on campus and done nothing but impress. At the first day of spring practice, sophomore preseason All-SEC third baseman Josh Adams was raving to me about DeSclafani. We’ll talk more about what the freshman will bring a little further down to the season. He was drafted in the 22nd round by the Red Sox, who made a late push but failed to sign him.

Will Jolin, RHP, 6-2, 206, Guilford, Conn. (Guilford): Jolin doesn’t get the publicity of the other freshman pitchers, but he hasn’t begun to tap his potential. After this class signed last fall, O’Sullivan mentioned something about Jolin (and DeSclafani) that I found very interesting. He said the coaches were excited to get him down into a climate that is conducive to baseball year-round. Being that Jolin is one of the pitchers that won’t be counted upon right away as a major producer, his evolution over the next few years will be fun to watch. I’ve heard him described as “a bulldog” on the mound, and those are the types of pitchers O’Sullivan loves.

Greg Larson, RHP, 6-8, 215, Longwood, Fla. (Lake Brantley): Larson is the flamethrower of the group. O’Sullivan believes that Larson has potential to be the hardest throwing pitcher he has ever coached. It may take a few years for him to develop. He has a history of injuries, particularly to his back, in high school, but from what I’ve heard he is healthy and ready to go. He was also a basketball player in high school (pretty obvious with his size), so he is a good athlete.

Nick Maronde, RHP, 6-3, 195, Lexington, Ky. (Lexington Catholic): Maronde is the crown jewel of the recruiting class. He would have been drafted within the top five rounds at least, potentially even in the top two. The reason he wasn’t drafted until 43rd round is two-fold: his advisor Scott Boras, the agent for Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and Mark Teixeira among many stars, convinced him to go to college and Maronde wanted to be mentored by and play for O’Sullivan, who had recruited him at Clemson when he was the pitching coach. Many clubs didn’t want to deal with Boras to get Maronde, especially since his original desire was to play in Gainesville anyway. Now Maronde finds himself likely a weekend starter for the Gators.

Ben McMahan, C, 6-0, 205, Windermere, Fla. (Bishop Moore Catholic): McMahan brings the Gators a great athlete at catcher. He also comes from a winning program in high school. He is the fourth catcher on the Florida roster, which raised some eyebrows as to what would happen. Hampton Tignor and Buddy Munroe are both juniors at the position, while Teddy Foster is a senior. It is unlikely but possible that the three of them are gone after this season. Florida has two high school catchers signed who will be on campus next year (we’ll get to recruiting later), so the importance of just having bodies at the position is large. McMahan is more than just a body at the position however. He is in the conversation at DH right now and will get at-bats this season. However it looks like his biggest impact will come next season.

Lee Reumann, LHP, 6-0, 185, Wellington, Fla. (Wellington): Reumann is a name that has snuck onto the radar recently, but he will see the mound this spring. He wasn’t even on the team during fall practices. The crafty left-hander walked onto the team during the winter and impressed the coaches with his ability. More importantly, he gives them another viable option from the bullpen that was depleted at times last year. He’s a great story, and anything the Florida staff gets out of him will be a plus. He also batted .409 with 32 s as a senior in high school.

Mike Mooney, SS, 5-8, 160, Loxahatchee, Fla. (Royal Palm Beach, Palm Beach Community College): Mooney comes to Gainesville with a statewide reputation for his glove. Everything he does in the field is smooth. Regardless of his size, Mooney has an absolute cannon of an arm. The thought was that he would be a liability at the plate this season. I heard before the fall started that we could “pencil him into the nine hole.” However that was before he flashed the highest batting average during the fall scrimmages. I don’t think he has had an outstanding spring though. He still won’t wow you with his bat, but he will be serviceable and provide a hitter who can get the little things done.

Alex Panteliodis, LHP, 6-2, 240, Tampa, Fla. (Alonso): The three freshman pitchers I keep hearing about in the same breath are DeSclafani, Maronde and Panteliodis. It might come as a surprise to some that Panteliodis wasn’t even drafted. He comes from the same high school as injured Florida pitcher Tommy Toledo. From his freshman year of high school to early in his senior year, he won a school-record 20 straight decisions. He doesn’t have overwhelming velocity on his pitches, but he knows how to pitch.

Daniel Pigott, OF, 6-2, 195, Ormond Beach, Fla. (Seabreeze): Pigott was an intriguing prospect to the Florida staff from the beginning, if only because of his brother, Jonathan, who has started a majority of the last two years in right field. O’Sullivan has told me on multiple occasions that Daniel Pigott is one of his favorite recruits. He calls him “old school,” because he’s a guy who goes as hard as he can regardless of what is happening. Florida watched him play in multiple tournaments and games, and in every one, O’Sullivan said Pigott would run on and off the field and do all the little things correct. The other thing O’Sullivan loves about him is the size-speed combination he brings to the table. This is just me thinking out loud, but I think he is the perfect candidate to replace Matt den Dekker in center field next season.

Tyler Thompson, OF, 6-1, 180, Tequesta, Fla. (Jupiter): ,He has been somewhat of a mystery to those who watched fall practice because he wasn’t out there at all. I found out the other day that he didn’t participate because of a knee injury that lingered from high school. He has been participating in individual workouts and now the three weeks of practice before the season. His father, Robby Thompson, also played at Florida before being selected by the San Francisco Giants in the first round of the 1983 draft. A redshirt may make sense for Tyler this year, but his bat has been so good that it will be tough to keep him from getting at-bats.

Preston Tucker, 1B, 6-0, 205, Tampa, Fla. (Plant): Tucker may not have had the hype of prospects like Maronde in high school, but he will certainly prove to be as valuable this season. He looked very important to this recruiting class when first baseman Brandon McArthur was expected to graduate last year. Even now that McArthur is back, Tucker will still be in the lineup more often than not. O’Sullivan called him the kid with the most power he’s ever recruited out of high school. From what I saw during batting practice this fall, the ball sounds completely different off his bat. Just to give you an idea, he hit a ball well over the right field scoreboard during batting practice earlier this week. Later we will talk about possible scenarios to get him in the middle of the lineup.

IJerico Weitzel, INF, 5-11, 190, Ridgway, Pa. (Ridgway): Weitzel is the nephew of Florida assistant coach Brad Weitzel, but don’t think that is why he is on the team. He was a high school wrestler and a good one at that. He played baseball and wrestled at Bolles High School in Jacksonville his freshman year and finished in second place at the state championship in his weight class. Calling Weitzel “thick” is an understatement. He is also extremely strong. He will get plenty of playing time this year. I have heard him described as O’Sullivan’s type of recruit. I asked what that meant and the person told me “he lives and breathes baseball.”

PROJECTED LINEUP

The possibilities in this lineup, particularly from spots 6-9, are endless. A lot of it will have to do with who is swinging the bat well at that time. The key loss from last season was shortstop Cole Figueroa, who was drafted in the fifth round by the San Diego Padres.

Going along with the versatility of each player in different spots of the rotation, they can also play all over the field. One option the Florida coaches have been toying with is playing Brandon McArthur at third base, which I believe will happen frequently. That shows you how comfortable they feel plugging freshman Preston Tucker into first base and the middle of the lineup. In this lineup, Josh Adams would move to shortstop, with Clayton Pisani, Jerico Weitzel and Mike Mooney fighting for the final spot at second base. The designated hitter spot then would go to one of the three freshmen – Tyler Thompson, Daniel Pigott or Ben McMahan. Thompson is a left-handed hitter while the other two are right-handed, so a platoon is possible in that lineup. The main question right now is McArthur, who suffered a torn ACL last season. If the first game was last weekend, the Florida coaches weren’t completely confident that he would be ready to play three consecutive games on defense. Now you see how important Tucker will be to this team as well.

The main thing I cannot stress enough is that regardless of the starting lineup, you will see plenty of Ben McMahan, Daniel Pigott, Tyler Thompson and Jerico Weitzel. Five games a week takes its toll on any team and having depth from these four freshmen gives this team a huge boost.

The lineup listed below isn’t the final lineup for Friday night’s opener, but this is my best educated guess as to what it will look like.

1. Avery Barnes, LF, Sr., 5-11, 175, Bats L/Throws R, High Springs, Fla. (Santa Fe). 2008: .360 batting average, 2 home runs, 19 , 26 stolen bases. I think Barnes is the best leadoff hitter in the SEC this season. He has the speed that O’Sullivan wants at the top of the lineup. He adjusted nicely in his first season in left field last season. The one area of improvement I know the Florida staff is looking for is in his bunt game. O’Sullivan is a big fan of bunting, particularly when his faster guys do it for base hits. His bunts weren’t very reliable last season, so O’Sullivan has been in the senior’s ear to improve.

2. Josh Adams, 3B, So., 5-10, 200, R/R, Jacksonville, Fla. (Eagle’s View Academy. 2008: .330, 8, 51. The freshman-sophomore year jump in performance is expected for most players. If Adams sees his season improve over what he did last year, he’s in for All-American honors. There really wasn’t a part of his game that struggled as a freshman, despite the fact that he tailed off at the end of the season and led the team in strikeouts. There’s a good chance that’s because he was a freshman who wasn’t used to a long season. He has dropped 15 pounds this offseason to lower the amount of weight he’s forced to carry for the season.

3. Matt den Dekker, CF, Jr., 6-1, 205, L/L, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Westminster Academy). 2008:.333, 8, 48, 20. Gator fans should take advantage of this season to soak up how good of a player den Dekker has been in Gainesville. I expect this will be his last season, as Baseball America lists him as their 17th best college prospect and 20th best draft prospect overall. His ceiling is very high as a pro prospect. He was a member of the All-SEC Defensive Team last season, and I can’t think of a center fielder in the country I’d rather have out there on defense. He’s another one of the guys who can and will steal plenty of bases.

4. Brandon McArthur, 1B, Sr., 6-1, 200, R/R, Seffner, Fla. (Armwood). 2008: .337, 2, 44. The team’s inspirational leader returns. He’s not your typical cleanup hitter, as he only hit two home runs last season, but he is as clutch of a hitter as you will find on the team. You know what you’re going to get from McArthur. He will hit over .300 and drive in some much needed runs for the Gators. His consistency is refreshing to Florida fans, coaches and players.

5. Preston Tucker, DH, Fr., 6-0, 205, L/L, Tampa, Fla. (Plant). 2008: .468, 9, 46 at Plant. This is the newcomer I’ve been hearing about since the players got on campus late summer. I heard in the fall that he was already a guy the Florida coaching staff felt comfortable plugging in the middle of the lineup, and that was only a few months into his time on campus. He has absolute raw power, and that’s something this lineup hasn’t seen since the days of Matt LaPorta. If you could close your eyes and watched batting practice, you could pick Tucker out from the crowd because the ball sounds different when it comes off his bat. The thing that has impressed me the most about him is he knows how to use the entire field. He isn’t a dead-pull hitter like many young hitters are. He is disciplined and gets backspin on every ball he hits to the opposite field. He is very advanced and intelligent for his youth.

6. Clayton Pisani, 2B, Jr., 6-1, 200, R/R, Naples, Fla. (Barron Collier). 2008: .271, 5, 28. If there was one player I was the least confident about being in this lineup, it’s Pisani. I think he starts the year at second base, but he’s going to need to hit better this season if he wants to keep his starting spot. Mooney and Weitzel can all play the position and would be inserted if the streaky Pisani struggles out of the gate. The Florida coaches are expecting this to be the season Pisani jumps out and claims this position.

7. Jonathan Pigott, RF, Jr., 6-2, 195, R/R, Ormond Beach, Fla. (Seabreeze). 2008: .220, 2, 16. O’Sullivan was surprisingly non-committal about who his starting right fielder would be when I spoke to him on the first day of practice. But from everything I have heard, it looks like Pigott will be the starter on opening night. He obviously struggled last season, but he was hitting just under .400 going into SEC play. He is another player who is very streaky. He had a great fall this year and has the potential to put it all together and cement himself in the lineup, possibly higher than this. Pigott was back at practice on Feb. 10 from a muscle pull in his back, and he swung the bat then with no reservation. So he should be 100 percent for the start of the season.

8. Hampton Tignor, C, Jr., 6-1, 205, R/R, Sarasota, Fla. (Sarasota). 2008: .304, 3, 9. I also heard that Tignor might have the current edge as the team’s catcher. Out of the three returning players at the position, his upside is definitely the highest. He has the best arm behind the plate, but struggles with his defense sometimes. It’s his bat that sticks out the most to me. If he got consistent at-bats, which I expect this season, I think he will have a solid year at the plate. O’Sullivan has always said he doesn’t prefer to rotate catchers, but if one doesn’t step up, we may seem a similar rotation to what we did last year.

9. Mike Mooney, SS, Jr., 5-8, 160, S/R, Loxahatchee, Fla. (Royal Palm Beach, Palm Beach Community College). 2008: .332, .447 on-base percentage at PBCC. Assistant coach Brad Weitzel said on the Gator Country Radio Show over the fall that Mooney was a guy you could plug into the nine hole of the lineup. I believe that is still the case, despite the fact that he led the team in batting average over the fall practices. He’s a hard-working player who shows up early and stays late, doing whatever he has to for improvement. If his bat struggles early on, don’t be surprised to see the lineup that I mentioned above with Mooney fighting for the second base job.

THE BENCH PLAYERS

Riley Cooper, OF, So., 6-3, 215, R/R, Clearwater, Fla. (Clearwater Central Catholic). 2008: .207, 2, 10. First of all, there is no indication that Cooper will sign professionally after this season. Everyone I have spoken to around the baseball program fully expects him to return for his senior year and play both sports then as well. From everything I know about Cooper’s offseason, look for him to have a much better season in 2009 than 2008. In the fall of 2007, Cooper paid zero attention to baseball and started practicing with the team weeks late. He spent the fall of 2008 taking batting practice at least once a week after football practice. He also was at practice on the first day this spring. All of that goes to show how much more serious he is about baseball this year. A lot of his struggles last year were due to a bit of cockiness— Cooper thought he could step on the field and hit anyone. That obviously proved not to be the case and apparently he has learned. I expect this renewed baseball mindset to pay off and Cooper to push Pigott as the starting right fielder. Competition is a good thing, and it’s something that will benefit this team at many positions.

Teddy Foster, C, Sr., 6-3, 240, R/R, Jacksonville, Fla. (The Bolles School). 2008: .264, 2, 3. Foster may not bring the most offense to the catching position, but it’s impossible to deny that the Florida pitchers just love throwing to him. O’Sullivan sets it up so that his catchers call their own game, and it’s the level of trust between the pitcher-catcher that is the most important during a game. All the pitchers trust what Foster does behind the plate. He may not have the offensive potential of Tignor, but he has enough bat control to benefit the team while hitting.

Ben McMahan, C, Fr., 6-0, 205, R/R, Windermere, Fla. (Bishop Moore Catholic). 2008: .330, 7, 45 in high school. McMahan is in a tough position this season, but he will be an impact player starting next year. He is in the conversation for designated hitter, but that spot in the lineup will only be open when Preston Tucker is playing first base. Next season is the one to watch McMahan and his athletic frame make an impact behind the plate.

Daniel Pigott, OF, Fr., 6-2, 195, R/R, Ormond Beach, Fla. (Seabreeze). 2008: .383, 4, 23 in high school. He’s a prime candidate as the main pinch runner off the bench in late-game situations. He also gives the team an option if his older brother, Jonathan, and Cooper struggle again. I have a hard time believing he won’t see the field, seeing how much O’Sullivan loves him as a player, but it’s just tough to imagine where he fits in this season in a veteran outfield. As I said above, I expect him to replace den Dekker in center field next season.

Tyler Thompson, OF, Fr., 6-1, 180, R/R, Tequesta, Fla. (Jupiter). 2008: .443, .639 slugging percentage, 14 stolen bases in high school. I feel the same about Thompson that I do with Daniel Pigott. It’s just hard to see where they fit in this season. He’s a guy who can step into left field next year or even in center field with Daniel Pigott in left, and start right away. I really like the upside on Thompson, but his injury during the fall hurt his already slim chances to play this spring. There’s nothing wrong with having too much talent in the outfield. Thompson had three hits, all of them going extra bases, in a scrimmage earlier this week. He’s starting to open some eyes on the coaching staff.

Buddy Munroe, C, Jr., 5-11, 185, R/R, Miami, Fla. (Christopher Columbus). 2008: .237, 3, 17. I’ll be interested to see how Munroe responds this year. Last season he seemed to be the main guy behind the plate. If he isn’t this year, I expect him to still start a weekday game or two. He’s a consummate team player, so I wouldn’t be worried about him, Tignor or Foster if they don’t start. They all clearly want to play, but if not, they’ll root hard for their teammate who is.

Jerico Weitzel, INF, Fr., 5-11, 190, L/R, Ridgway, Pa. (Ridgway). 2008: .500, 4, 32 in high school. I mentioned him above when I talked about guys who are pushing Pisani for playing time at second base. The coaches, except for his uncle who doesn’t want to seem biased, gush over Weitzel and his attitude. He works as hard as anyone you’ll find. He’s just a hard-nosed player. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen him dive headfirst into first base during scrimmages, only to get a lecture from the coaches about going in standing. That’s just the way he plays, though. His defense is outstanding. He’s another one that I expect will start at least a midweek game every week.

THE STARTING ROTATION

The starting rotation has taken a hit since the end of last season. Tommy Toledo had arthroscopic surgery and is out for the season. Stephen Locke was kicked off the team, but what isn’t very well known is that he would have been out until around April because of a torn ACL after the fall practices. Kyle Mullaney is also no longer with the team.

That means three pitchers who started significant games last season will not contribute this season. All signs should point to this season being rough for the Gators because of those losses to the pitching staff, but the way O’Sullivan and the Florida staff have recruited, that is far from the truth. 

Patrick Keating, RHP, Sr., 6-2, 215, Sr., R/R, Harrisburg, Ill. (Harrisburg). 2008: 8-1, 4.16 ERA. The need for an ace was eliminated when Patrick Keating decided to come back for his senior year. He will likely be the Friday starter. He was a true stopper for the Gators last year before he faded a little bit down the stretch. He got hit hard the final weekend against Vandelt and in his SEC Tournament appearance. Watch how that pushes him this year. Keating is ready to go out with a bang.

Nick Maronde, LHP, Fr., 6-3, 195, S/L, Lexington, Ky. (Lexington Catholic). 2008: 8-1, 0.54 ERA, 129 strikeouts in 77 innings in high school. This is the pitcher I’m most excited to watch this season. I got to see him throw a few innings at a scrimmage earlier this week, and he looks as good as advertised. The likely Sunday starter, Maronde has a unique arm action, but the movement he gets on all his pitches gives him an extra advantage. He’ll go through the ups and downs that all freshmen do, but he will be an immediate contributor for this team.

Billy Bullock, RHP, Jr., 6-6, 225, R/R, Valrico, Fla. (Riverview). 2008: 4-5, 5.01 ERA. I really expect a big year out of Bullock. He spent this summer pitching in Cape Cod. I saw him throw last week in a scrimmage and was blown away. His velocity looks as if it has improved, and his location was impeccable. He threw three innings and I can only recall one hit being given up, and it was a single up the middle to Preston Tucker. Everything he does just looks much sharper this season. He’s a guy that pro scouts drool over because of his long, lanky body, but he just hasn’t been able to put the huge season together yet. This could be that year. He will be the versatile pitcher the Gators need, contributing as a starter and out of the bullpen this season.

Anthony DeSclafani, RHP, Fr., 6-2, 180, R/R, Freehold, N.J. (Colts Neck). 2008: 7-1, 1.44 ERA, 81 strikeouts, 7 walks in 58.1 innings in high school. As much as I like Maronde and his talent, DeSclafani is right on his heels. For the Florida staff to go out and get two pitchers the caliber of Maronde and DeSclafani speaks to their recruiting prowess. Now watch how O’Sullivan develops him. A likely mid-week starter, DeSclafani has an electric arm and a fluid wind up. He’s a guy that Gator fans will enjoy watching pitch.

Alex Panteliodis, LHP, Fr., 6-2, 240, L/L. Tampa, Fla. (Alonso). 2008: 9-2, 2.37 ERA in high school. Panteliodis earned a spot weekend rotation, getting the ball on Saturday. He doesn’t have the electric stuff of Maronde or DeSclafani, but he is an incredibly intelligent pitcher for a freshman. He competes and trusts his pitches. He won’t light up the radar gun or wow the crowd with his velocity, but he’ll get you plenty of wins. He threw during the scrimmage Saturday and kept hitters off balance. Keating, Bullock, Maronde and Panteliodis all threw, and Panteliodis was by far the most impressive. He uses his off-speed stuff to perfection.

THE BULLPEN

What a difference a year makes for this group. Last year it was a good game if Florida finished it with enough healthy pitchers. Now the Gators actually have enough to give them some depth into the weekday games. That’s why you saw basketball player Adam Allen on the mound last season, as well as center fielder Matt den Dekker, who hadn’t pitched since high school. The coaches did anything to find pitchers who could eat innings for them last year. This year, though the bullpen is young, it’s full of capable, SEC-caliber arms. There are also enough guys who could start or relieve, giving the staff more flexibility when it comes to getting weekday games out of the way.

Kevin Chapman, LHP, So., 6-4, 210, L/L, Coral Springs, Fla. (Westminster Academy). 2008: missed season after shoulder surgery. There are three wild-cards that I see in the bullpen who could really help this team out with a healthy, successful year. Chapman is the first of them. He was a serviceable freshman in 2007 and has a live, left-handed arm. This year I have actually heard he has improved enough to be in the running for the Wednesday starting pitcher. He threw at a scrimmage earlier this week and finished his first two innings in six and 11 pitches respectively. His third inning was a little longer, but he didn’t give up a single hit in the outing. His delivery looks easier than it used to be, and he repeats it well. I’m counting on a big comeback year for him.

Tony Davis, LHP, Jr., 5-9, 185, S/L, Cooper City, Fla. (North Broward Prep). 2008: 0-2, 5.12. Davis’ ERA was skewed because he was the left-handed specialist out of the bullpen. He would pitch sometimes only 1/3 of an inning, and if he gave up a run, his ERA would skyrocket. He did a very solid job last season, shutting down most key left-handed batters he faced. The good news is, O’Sullivan actually believes that Davis has improved more this offseason than any pitcher he has ever had. Think about that for a minute. As well known of a pitching coach as O’Sullivan is, Davis has improved the most under his tenure. Davis moved his arm slot from the side-arm motion he used in 2008 and put it back up top, above his shoulder, for the upcoming 2009 season. It looks like we can expect big things out of him.

Clint Franklin, RHP, Jr., 6-3, 200, R/R, Orlando, Fla. (Timber Creek). 2008: 3-3, 3.23 ERA. Franklin was one of the few stable pitchers out of the bullpen last year. He seems to go under the radar when it comes to returning arms in the bullpen, but he was a go-to arm early in the year. He is another guy who has improved this offseason, but he’s not a pitcher that will garner tons of praise. He just goes about his work every day and gets batters out. Look for more of the same from the quiet but productive Franklin this season.

Will Jolin, RHP, Fr., 6-2, 205, R/R, Guilford, Conn. (Guilford). 2008: 5-3, 2.83 ERA in high school. I mentioned above that Jolin pitches with a bulldog mentality, and that is ideal for his role this season. He will most likely be a long reliever this year, where he’ll sometimes have to bear down and get some outs in blowout games.

Greg Larson, RHP, Fr., 6-8, 215, R/R, Longwood, Fla. (Lake Brantley). 2008: 2-1, 2.13 ERA in an injury-shortened high school season. He’s got the stuff of a closer, but Larson is at least one healthy offseason away from that. I guarantee the first time you see him on the field you will have to double take because of how tall he is. O’Sullivan told me in the fall that Larson has the potential to be the hardest thrower he’s ever coached. It makes sense physically with his 6-8 frame, but it shows you how highly the staff thinks of him. He’ll be a big-time contributor down the road, and depending on how he adjusts throughout the year, he might even give them some valuable innings this year.

Justin Poovey, RHP, Fr;, 6-0, 195, R/R, Granite Falls, N.C. (South Caldwell). 2008: Missed the season with Tommy John surgery. The Florida coaches will most likely pick their spots with Poovey to start the season, but he should be a mainstay out of the bullpen by midseason. He hasn’t pitched in a game in two years. He’s my second wild card that could really benefit this team if he can stay healthy all year. He doesn’t have a long history of injuries by any means, so I don’t expect any recurrence of injury. In his recovery from the surgery, Poovey is already back to throwing 90-plus mph. I know that pro scouts refer to his arm as “very live” and think he has a bright professional future. He, like Bullock, gives O’Sullivan starter/reliever flexibility, but I would imagine they wouldn’t throw him in to start at the beginning of the year with his status still somewhat uncertain.

Lee Reumann, LHP, Fr., 6-0, 185, L/L, Wellington, Fla. (Wellington). 2008: 4-1, 0.78 ERA in high school. Reumann will be an upgrade from the pitchers the Florida coaches were forced to use in mop-up duty last season. He’s a guy that can be an innings eater. From watching him pitch in a scrimmage earlier this week, he’s a lefty who doesn’t look like he would break a pane of glass with his fastball, but he gets people out. He uses his off-speed pitches very effectively to keep hitters off balance, and that makes his fastball look like it has a lot more velocity on it. He’s a guy who will get plenty of groundballs when he is down in the zone, but if he misses up in the zone, it could go a long way.

Chas Spottswood, RHP, Jr., 6-4, 205, R/R, Key West, Fla. (Key West). 2008: missed the season because of injury. Spottswood is the guy a lot of Florida fans ask about. From everything I have heard, he is fully healthy for the first time in two years. He’s my third wild card. If two of Chapman, Poovey and Spottswood can give the Gators a healthy season, this bullpen could be a lot better than some people expect. He threw earlier this week in a scrimmage I watched, and he seemed a little tentative to me. He struggled with his command, even starting with seven straight balls. He needs to regain some confidence and can let it go when on the mound. Again, I’m making this observation based on one performance, so it’s nothing to worry about just yet. He did settle down near the end and managed to have an average performance.

Jeff Barfield, RHP, Jr., 6-0, 215, R/R, Perry, Ga. (The Westfield School, Lake City Community College). 2008: 5-3, 2.68 ERA last season at Lake City Community College. The leading closer prospect, he’s a groundball pitcher who keeps the ball down. That’s exactly what you want out of the closer. Mental toughness will always be in question until you see a kid pitch at the SEC level, but from all accounts the Florida staff trusts him with the ball in the ninth inning. He’ll be given every chance early in the season to lock down the closer spot.

INJURY UPDATE

Tommy Toledo, RHP, So., 6-3, 185, R/R, Tampa, Fla. (Alonso). From what I have heard, Toledo is already back and throwing after having arthroscopic surgery in early October. The surgery looks as if it went without any problems, and Toledo is expected back 100 percent well before the 2010 season. If Maronde, DeSclafani and Panteliodis have the freshmen years that O’Sullivan is expecting, imagine the depth they will have when Toledo returns to the weekend rotation in 2010. The team is finally beginning to get into reload mode. Toledo’s injury is the only one that will keep a player out for any significant time, as of the start of spring practice.

NON-CONFERENCE OPPONENTS

Louisville (Feb. 20-22): The Cardinals come to Gainesville as an uncommon opponent for the first weekend of the season. They won the Big East last season, only one year after making it to the College World Series. They are led by junior ace Justin Marks, who had a 2.37 ERA in 18 appearances last season. Their Saturday pitcher, similar to Florida’s Saturday pitcher Nick Maronde, will be a freshman, Keith Landers. Either Matt Lea or Bob Revesz will complete their rotation. The pitching staff will be the determining factor for how far Louisville goes in 2009.

The offense is led by All-American third baseman Chris Dominguez. He was in the same situation as Florida’s shortstop from last year, Cole Figueroa, and was able to sign professionally after his sophomore year because he was 21 before the draft. He instead opted to return to school. Dominguez hit .365, with 21 home runs and 75 s. He is the definition of a run producer. Lousville also returns senior shortstop John Dao and outfielder Stewart Ijames, both who hit over .350 last season.

Miami (Feb. 27-March 1): The Hurricanes return one of the top pitchers in the country, and he’s only a sophomore. Chris Hernandez had a phenomenal freshman season, going 11-0 with a 2.72 ERA. He struck out 117 and walked 18 batters in 112 2/3 innings pitched. Eric Erickson, the Friday night starter at the start of last year and projected Saturday starter this year, went down this offseason with an arm injury, hurting the rotation depth. David Gutierrez will move into the Saturday role after making seven starts last season with a 4.75 ERA. Miami is hoping for a huge lift from JUCO transfer Taylor Wulf on Sundays.

The lineup is what took a huge hit after last season. Miami’s offense was absolutely terrifying in 2008. It will still be a good offense, but nowhere near what Hurricanes fans were able to watch last year. Junior shortstop Ryan Jackson is the headliner in the field, and he’s really as complete of a player as you will fine. He is an excellent defender who swings a good bat. He played on Team USA this summer with Florida center fielder Matt den Dekker. Freshman third baseman Harold Martinez will give the lineup an immediate boost.

Florida State (March 17, March 31 and April 14): The Seminoles, similar to Miami, lose a lot from a College World Series team last season. Their pitching staff was hit hard when Elih Villanueva and Matt Fairel signed professional contracts. They lack a true ace, but I think they have a special one in the making with John Gast. He had a 2.70 ERA in 14 innings last season, but it’s his electric stuff that makes him an outstanding prospect. He will battle it out with Geoff Parker for the Friday night duties this spring. The Sunday pitcher will likely be filled by an incoming freshman, possibly Austin Wood. I have heard that the new pitchers are struggling to pick things up.

The offense loses catcher Buster Posey, who won the 2008 Dick Howser Trophy and the Golden Spikes Award, as well as right fielder Jack Rye, shortstop Tony Delmonico and designated hitter Dennis Guinn. Their trio of sophomores – center center fielder Tyler Holt, left fielder Mike McGee and third baseman Stuart Tapley – all bring big bats to a lineup that will need some big bats to step up. The catcher will be a big question mark, as transfer Rafael Lopez will have surgery and miss some time. A weak spot at catcher doesn’t sit well for the Seminoles when they play the Gators, who love to steal bases.

SEC OPPONENTS

EAST DIVISION

1. Georgia (May 1-3): This series will be a marquee matchup between two of the top teams in the SEC. It all starts with Trevor Holder on the mound for the Bulldogs. He was their ace last season and decided to return for his senior season instead of signing professionally. Alex McRee will be their Saturday pitcher, and he comes from the bullpen last season to do that. He only made three starts last season, but he has the talent to be a good starter. The Sunday spot is up in the air, but I think it will be freshman Michael Palazzone by the time the Gators play the Bulldogs. The Atlanta Braves took Palazzone in the 18th round, but he let it be known early in the process that it would take a lot of money to steal him from stepping on campus in Athens. They also lost All-American closer Josh Fields, who graduated but is yet to sign with the Seattle Mariners.

The offense for the Bulldogs loses star shortstop Gordon Beckham and third baseman Ryan Piesel. The offensive attack will depend on senior catcher Bryce Massanari and junior first baseman Rich Poythress. Poythress hit .375, with 15 home runs and 75 s, while Massanari hit .325, with 11 home runs and 65 s.

2. Florida

3. Vandelt (April 3-5): Ace pitcher Mike Minor leads the Commodores into the 2009 season with high hopes. He pitched on Team USA this summer with Florida’s den Dekker. My dark horse on their pitching staff is Sonny Gray. His draft stock fell because of his desire to go to school, and now he will be an instant contributor for Vandelt.

The Commodore offense loses seven of nine starters from last season, none bigger than the Pittsburgh Pirates first-round draft pick, third baseman Pedro Alvarez.  Shortstop John Flaherty and outfielder Dominic de la Osa, the school’s record-holder for most career hits, have also graduated. The offense will take a hit this season, but the strong pitching staff should keep them in almost any game.

4. Tennessee (March 20-22): The Volunteers return their two best pitchers from last season, sophomore Bryan Morgado and junior Nick Hernandez. These two pitchers will be as good as any one-two punch on the mound in the SEC. Morgado was a Freshman All-American last season, striking out 104 batters in 80 1/3 innings pitched. That was the second highest total for any Tennessee freshman ever. Hernandez led the SEC in walks per nine innings with .97.  He didn’t walk multiple batters in any of his 10 SEC starts.

The Tennessee offense is led by arguably the top draft-eligible sophomore in the country, Kentrail Davis. He was another Freshman All-American for the Volunteers last season, hitting .330, with 13 home runs and 44 . The rest of the Tennessee offense will need to step up this season as it was often often a one-man show last season.

5. South Carolina (April 24-26): Sam Dyson is one of the top returners for the Gamecock pitching rotation. Dyson was the pitcher who impressed me the most for South Carolina last season, coming just short of upsetting the LSU Tigers on day one.

The South Carolina offense loses first-round draft picks, first baseman Justin Smoak and shortstop Reese Havens, along with second-round selection, left fielder James Darnell. Catcher Phil Disher, who provided even more power for the 2008 offense, is also gone. Center fielder Whit Merrifield returns after an outstanding freshman campaign, and utility player Parker Bangs will be one of the top two-way prospects to watch this season. Senior first baseman Jesse Barbaro will take over for Smoak this season. It goes without saying, however, that this is not the same offense South Carolina boasted last year. But with their new ballpark being the same dimensions as the old little league field they played in, who knows how many home runs they will hit.

6. Kentucky (May 14-16): Kentucky head coach Joe Cohen left five days after they were eliminated from the postseason to take the job at Mississippi State, where coaching legend Ron Polk decided to retire. Kentucky named associate head coach Gary Henderson to be head coach. First-team All-SEC member Chris Rusin will lead the pitching staff. James Paxton will also provide depth to the pitching staff that loses key members, including closer Scott Green.

The key losses to the entire team come in the lineup, where the Wildcats lose outfielders Colin Cowgill and Sawyer Carroll. The offense will have to step up big to make up for the loss of two of the best outfielders in the SEC last season.

WEST DIVISION

1. Louisiana State (May 8-10): The pitching staff is the only thing that can hold LSU back this season. They lose Jared Bradford, Ryan Verdugo and Blake Martin. Sophomore Anthony Ranuando will start out as the ace of the staff, but he has struggled with injuries over the past few years. There’s still a lot of upside with him. Tigers closer Louis Coleman is one of the best in the SEC. His strange motion has his foot stepping towards the third base dugout, instead of home plate, and then his arm coming from seemingly out of nowhere. It’s something I’ve never seen before, and it makes him almost impossible to hit.

The Tigers offense will be among the elite in the country. They lose the nation’s top home run hitter, Matt Clark, and Michael Hollander. They do return Blake Dean, Leon Landry and Jared Mitchell. And that’s just the outfield. The infield is led by one of the top prospects in all of college baseball, D.J. LeMahieu. Their catcher will be sophomore Micah Gibbs, who played with Team USA this summer with Florida’s Matt den Dekker.

2. Ole Miss (April 17-19): The Rebels lost two of the most feared pitchers in the SEC with the departure of Lance Lynn and Cody Satterwhite. There are some doubts out there about their rotation, but Drew Pomeranz is about to have a gigantic season for them. The lefty has all the necessary stuff to be a Friday night pitcher in the SEC. Juniors Phillip Irwin and Nathan Baker will complete their rotation. There may not be a pitcher in the rotation that causes fear like Lynn and Satterwhite did, but closer Scott Bittle gives the Rebels an experienced closer to end games. He was an All-American last season with a 1.78 ERA.

The offense also has to replace key players in third baseman Cody Overbeck and outfielder Michael Guerrero. Leadoff hitter Jordan Henry spark plugs the offense, with Logan Power, ironically, brings the biggest bat to the middle of the lineup. It’s a solid offensive group, but Ole Miss will be counting on their pitching to carry them.

3. Alabama (March 27-29): Alabama’s pitching staff will be led by senior Austin Hyatt, who I think is one of the more underrated pitchers in the SEC. I’ve seen him pitch a few games, but the one that stands out was when he sent the No.1-seeded Georgia Bulldogs packing from the SEC Tournament last year with a complete game shutout. Senior Miers Quigley and freshman Adam Morgan are projected to finish out the rotation. Adam Scott, a junior college transfer, will fill their closer role.

The Crimson Tide lineup will be among the top in the SEC, if not the southeast. The middle infield and top of their lineup will be filled by sophomore shortstop Josh Rutledge and sophomore second baseman Ross Wilson, younger brother of former Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson. Junior first baseman Brandon May, who hit .365 with nine homeruns and 50 s last season, will be the key power bat in the lineup.

4. Arkansas (March 13-15): The Razorbacks’ starting rotation is weaker than last season, but the optimism is still in place. Junior lefty Dallas Keuchel will anchor the staff after going 4-3 with a 4.58 ERA last season. Junior right-handers T.J. Forrest and Mike Bolsinger finish out the rotation, while freshman Zack Cox, who will also start at third base, will serve as the team’s closer.

The offense is led by Preseason SEC All-American right fielder Chase Leavitt. He finished the 2008 campaign boasting a .366 batting average, with three home runs and 25 . Sophomore first baseman Andy Wilkins is the other key returning bat, after hitting .331, with eight home runs and 38 .

5. Auburn (April 10-12): The Tigers return 72 percent of their innings pitched from last season. Grant Dayton and Paul Burnside, who combined for a 16-6 record last season, will anchor the Auburn staff. The other 10 returning pitchers combine for only 24 career victories. The percentage of returning innings may be a bit skewed because of how much Dayton and Burnside threw last season. If the younger guys can develop for the rotation, this team will be better than expected. Auburn also hired John Pawlowski, formerly the coach at College of Charleston, as its new head coach.

Auburn returns its three top hitters from last season. First baseman and former first-round selection by the Boston Red Sox Hunter Morris was a staple in the middle of the lineup as a freshman, when he put up a .351 batting average, with 11 home runs and 49 . Junior infielder Joseph Sanders and sophomore outfielder Brian Fletcher also return to carry the load. This is a young team that will only get better with Pawlowski at the helm.

6. Mississippi State (not on Florida’s schedule): Long-time Bulldogs head coach Ron Polk decided to step down after last season, and Mississippi State stole former Kentucky coach Joe Cohen in the offseason. The loss of Aaron Weatherford will hurt the pitching staff. Sophomore right-hander Michael Busby has the lowest ERA of any returning pitcher, but even that is a 5.84. It’s safe to say the Bulldogs will struggle to find the pitching this season and may depend largely on freshmen.

The offense is led by junior Connor Powers who hit .348, with 11 home runs and 38 . Sophomore outfielder Ryan Collins will be the second-best bat after hitting .348, with three home runs and 23 . The offense will be the better of the two sides of the ball for Mississippi State, but this will be a long season for Cohen and the Bulldogs.

CLASS OF 2008

When this Florida recruiting class signed in mid-November, Baseball America named it its No. 1 recruiting class, with Florida getting signatures from eight of the top 100 players in the country. It’s incredible when you look at what O’Sullivan is doing instate. According to prospectwire.com, a site devoted specifically to Florida high school baseball prospects, the Gators signed the Nos. 3, 4, 6, 9 and 10 players in the state. That’s a well-balanced group in my eyes, staying away from the top two players who I think will definitely sign, but still taking a few calculated risks on kids.

Now obviously this ranking doesn’t matter at all. It’s the one that will come after the recruits decide if they will come to campus or not that is the most important. Out of the 16 recruits Florida signed early, from what I have heard, they expect 10-11 recruits to see campus.

Avery Barnes, Teddy Foster, Patrick Keating and Brandon McArthur are the only four who will definitely be gone after this season. I think it’s smart to assume den Dekker signs professionally after this season, but I can’t think of another junior who would leave unless Jonathan Pigott or Billy Bullock put together a monster season.

So there aren’t many open spots left. O’Sullivan and the staff took a few guys (Borchering, Maddox, Levon Washington) who are projected to be drafted very highly, but they had a chance to do that because of the young team they return. If the highly regarded kids decide to go pro, then so be it. They’re just hoping to strike gold. Last season, UCLA took a commitment from right-handed pitcher Gerrit Cole, who was drafted late in the first round by the New York Yankees. Cole and the Yankees couldn’t agree on a contract, so he will step on campus and join the rotation at UCLA. This is what the Florida staff is crossing its fingers will happen this offseason.

I had an interesting conversation with O’Sullivan before practice earlier this week. I asked him how many of the 16 signees he expected to come to campus, and his response was, “What do you mean? I expect all 16.” He said it with a laugh and was obviously being sarcastic, but there was some truth in what he was saying. This is his mindset when it comes to recruits. All we heard before he took the job at Florida was that he was a relentless recruiter who had a knack for getting kids to campus that weren’t expected. He is a brilliant recruiter and works hard to make sure the signees, and possibly more importantly their families, know how much they are valued in his program.

The last thing I want to point out about this class is the location of the signees. Out of 16 signees, there is one who is from outside Florida. O’Sullivan always recruited the state of Florida hard when he was the recruiting director at Clemson, and it’s obvious he knows where the talent is. The lone signee is Hudson Randall, a pitcher from just outside Atlanta. Even when Florida does leave the state, it doesn’t go far in this class. Don’t expect that to change. O’Sullivan makes a habit of saying how easy it is to recruit kids to Florida. He always talks about how much the university offers prospects so much academically and athletically, that he really does see the university recruiting for itself throughout the state.

This class is full of top-notch players, including five left-handed pitchers. I have heard the Florida staff thinks the five of them are all outstanding pitchers with huge upside, and that getting three of the five to campus would be a job well done.

There are five signees who played in the Aflac All-American Game, which is the most prestigious high school All-Star game in the country. If the Under Armour Game and Army All-American Game combined their players and only had one All-Star game, that would be the equivalent of the Aflac Game. The four who played in it are Michael Heller, Austin Maddox, LeVon Washington and Michael Zunino. The East Team had 19 total players on it, and the Gators signed four of them. That is as good as you will find. Maddox, Bobby Borchering, and Steven Rodriguez played in the prestigious Under Armour All-American Baseball Game at Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

At this time last year, it seemed like a long shot for Nick Maronde to see campus. Now he is lining up as Florida’s Saturday pitcher. Florida took a late commitment from Sickles outfielder Kenny Wilson during the spring of 2008 with little doubt that he would come to campus, but Wilson was drafted in the second round and signed with the Blue Jays. My point is you just never know what will happen with these recruits.

NOW THE PROSPECTS

Ben Brown, RHP, 5-11, 175, Winter Haven, Fla. (Winter Haven): Brown was a third-team 5A All-State selection in 2008. Prospectwire.com ranks him its No. 163 player in the state of Florida.

Danny Healey, RHP, 6-2, 195, Cooper City, Fla. (Cooper City): Suffered an arm injury last season and is back to full speed. He uses a three-quarter delivery with a long, easy-arm action. He sits around 90 mph with his fastball. His curveball is already solid with potential to be better under the right coaching. He also has a very solid mound presence. Healey is also a great student.

Michael Heller, RHP/INF, 6-2, 190, Sarasota, Fla. (Cardinal Mooney): I did a story on Heller back in the fall and came away impressed with him as a player and person. He is very well-spoken and genuinely excited about being a Gator. He is a Top 100 prospect in the country, but he was very honest with me in saying that it would take a ton of money to keep him away from Gainesville. I heard the Florida staff likes him as a pitcher, but they’re going to give him the opportunity to play infield as well. He throws over 90 mph right now with an impressive array of off-speed pitches. He has even been clocked in the mid-90s. He could legitimately have a solid career as a hitter, but I think his future in the SEC is on the mound.

Hudson Randall, RHP, 6-4, 180, Dunwoody, Ga. (Dunwoody): Randall’s tall, lean frame projects well if he can add some weight. He is already a good pitcher, but some more weight would add to his velocity. As the only prospect the Gators signed that is not from the state of Florida. He played for the prestigious East Cobb Braves. He’s a smart pitcher who keeps his pitches down. He is also a solid student. I expect him to make it to campus.

David Holmberg, LHP, 6-4, 215, Port Charlotte, Fla. (Port Charlotte). The big lefty has an upside the Florida coaches are very excited about. He comes from the same hometown as former Gators first baseman Matt LaPorta. His build alone makes him a legitimate Major League prospect. He sits in the high 80s, touching 90 a few times. His off-speed stuff needs work, but the curveball and changeup have potential if he gets solid coaching at the next level. What better person to teach him than O’Sullivan? His outstanding command combined with the potential plus off-speed stuff makes him an outstanding college prospect. He will shoot up the draft board for many college teams from now until the draft.

Brian Johnson, LHP, 6-4, 220, Cocoa, Fla. (Cocoa Beach): Another elite two-way prospect in this class. I think the Florida staff is leaning towards using him as a pitcher, but there is no doubt he will be given every chance to prove he can swing the bat at the SEC level. It’s tough to compare all these talented left-handed pitchers, but Johnson surely ranks near the top of them. He throws in the upper 80s and has touched 90 before. Prospectwire.com compares him to Florida freshman Alex Panteliodis, which is absolutely a compliment.

Mike Rayl, LHP, 6-3, 180, Lake Worth, Fla. (Park Vista, Palm Beach Community College: Rayl will step on campus and give the Gators another left-handed arm out of the bullpen. He played junior college ball in 2008 with Florida infielder Mike Mooney. He was drafted in 2008 in the 41st round by the Washington Nationals but decided to return to school instead of signing.

Steven Rodriguez, LHP, 6-2, 210, Miami, Fla. (Gulliver Prep): The Under Armour All-American throws in the upper 80s with a solid cutter that he uses to keep right-handed hitters honest. He won’t wow any scouts with his stuff, but he has a good knowledge of how to pitch. I expect him to be a solid contributor for the Gators out of the bullpen in his career.

Patrick Schuster, LHP, 6-2, 170, Holiday, Fla. (J.W. Mitchell High School): Schuster is a guy who is starting to fly up plenty of draft boards, and the Florida staff knows it. He is another example of the Florida coaches finding someone who isn’t well known when they accept his commitment, and then the scouts begin to find him after he has been committed to the Gators for plenty of months. He has a whip-like arm action and throws the ball effortlessly. He doesn’t play the best competition, but his performances have been solid at showcases.

Bobby Borchering, 3B-1B, 6-4, 200, Alva, Fla. (Bishop Verot): This is my favorite prospect in this class. I don’t want to exaggerate this comparison, but I’ve spoken with a few people about him and the name Chipper Jones always comes up. He has a tall, skinny frame similar to what Jones had coming out of high school. He is a power-hitting, switch-hitter who projects as a third baseman. He is athletic enough to be considered a good runner for his size. Scouts wonder if he is quick enough to play third base. If he proves that he is during his senior year, he will be drafted highly, possibly in the first round. Borchering’s mother is a teacher and knows the value of a college degree, so that could benefit the Gators in getting him to campus. He is one of the top power hitters in the country and would be an immediate impact player if he decides to come to Florida.

Cody Dent, SS, 5-11, 170, L/R, Boynton Beach, Fla. (Park Vista): The son of former New York Yankees shortstop Bucky Dent, he’s exactly what you would expect of the son of a former big leaguer. He is very well polished in all areas of the game. He has good range and makes all the routine plays. He hits the ball well to all fields and will continue to develop power as the strength comes along.

Nolan Fontana, SS, 5-11, 180, Winter Garden, Fla. (West Orange): I mentioned near the top of this report that Jerico Weitzel is a player the coaches love because he lives and breathes baseball. Fontana will be next year’s version of him. He is somewhat of a legend in the Central Florida area when it comes to high school baseball. Everyone who has watched him since before he was in high school has raved him about. The Florida coaches love his mindset. He played with Maddox on Team USA this past summer and hit leadoff.

Austin Maddox, C-RHP, 6-3, 225, Jacksonville, Fla. (Eagle’s View Academy): The Florida staff is telling Maddox he can play whatever position he wants in Gainesville, and right now he is saying that he would prefer to catch. He has a cannon of an arm from behind the plate and one of the best overall bats in the country. Behind the plate, he is somewhat of a work in progress, but all the tools are there for him to be a special player. He played with Florida infielder Josh Adams in high school. His raw power is through the roof. He pitched for Team USA this summer and served as the team’s closer. Maddox also hit cleanup on the team. I have heard from people close to their baseball program that scouts would come to watch Adams in high school but would leave the game raving about Maddox instead.

Kamm Washington, OF, 5-10, 190, Boynton Beach, Fla. (Park Vista): He generates a lot more power than you would imagine with his smaller frame. He is a plus runner who plays outstanding defense. He has every tool you could want from a potential player. Prospectwire.com ranks him as the No. 18 player in Florida going into his senior season, but don’t be surprised if he turns into one of the best players in this class. When it all comes together, he could potentially be a five-tool player. He was even clocked at 6.38 second in the 60-yard dash. He is a teammate of Cody Dent at Park Vista High School. His left-handed bat has potential to find itself in the leadoff spot for the Gators a year or two down the road.

LeVon Washington, IF/OF, 5-11, 170, Gainesville, Fla. (Buchholz): Washington is one of the Florida coaching staff’s favorite prospects in this class. His upside is extremely high. He is the fastest high school player in the country, running a 6.35 60-yard dash at a combine earlier this year. He grew up a huge Gator fan, obviously with him living in Gainesville. He can run and swings a great bat, but the only question right now is the position he will play at the next level. The other question is signability at this point, as he projects to go very high simply because of his speed. His professional baseball career will be a very good one before it’s all over, whether he comes to campus or not.

Mike Zunino, C, 6-1, 195, Cape Coral, Fla. (Mariner): Zunino is fully capable of being a starting catcher in the SEC. He and the other Florida signees (Maddox, Washington and Heller) who played in the Aflac All-American Game all grew very close, and there’s no doubt that will benefit the Gators chances to get them on campus. Zunino is athletic enough to play the outfield or third base, shown with his 6.76 60-yard dash time. He has a solid swing with power potential to all fields.

CLASS OF 2009

This is obviously down the road, as these guys will make an impact during the 2011 season in Gainesville, but I just wanted to give you some ideas of how well this staff is doing in recruiting. Not only are the coaches locking down top talent from in the state, they’re also doing it when recruits are young. These two guys committed before the start of their junior seasons. From what I’ve heard about the two, they are absolute studs.

The Florida coaches could have at least 10 commitments at this point in the class, but O’Sullivan isn’t sure how the 2009 draft will treat the recruiting class he just signed. He wants to see how things shake out after the draft, as far as how many spots the class has in it. With that being said, you understand how talented these two commitments are.

Karsten Whitson, RHP, 6-2, 190, Chipley, Fla. (Chipley): Whitson is ranked the No. 4 player in the state of Florida, according to Prospectwire.com. He is currently throwing in the upper 80s and low 90s in his junior season. His changeup is his best pitch, which is extremely rare for such a young pitcher. This shows he has great feel for a pitcher. His curveball is what will need to be worked on at the next level. I know the Florida coaches are incredibly high on this kid. Just as in football, when the coach takes a commitment from a kid before or during his junior season, you know they expect him to be a star.

Jacob Tillotson, SS, 5-10, 170, Lake City, Fla. (Columbia): Tillotson’s parents are both University of Florida graduates, so once draft time comes around for him next year, the Gators will have that in his favor. He’s a very good athlete who is a smooth defender. He is also a switch-hitter and looks to have the talent to continue switch-hitting at the next level. He is a very good student who also has experience playing for Team USA.

CONCLUSION

You’d be hard-pressed to find a time when the future of Florida baseball looked this bright. The staff has already targeted its top junior targets for the next signing class and has solid relationships already developed. The reputation of O’Sullivan being a hard-working recruiter may have actually been an understatement.

The Florida team is loaded for the 2009 season and will bring back plenty of talent next season. This season will show a team relying on two freshmen pitchers pitching on Saturday and Sunday. There will be ups and downs this season just like the others, but know that there is no program in the country with as bright a future as Florida.

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