Leadership was a popular topic when Florida baseball players met with the media before Friday’s first official practice of 2013. The Gators open the season Feb. 15 with a three-game series against Duke at McKethan Stadium.
With eight players selected in the top nine rounds and nine in the top 20 of last June’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, the leaders off last season’s squad are sprinkled throughout the country preparing for spring training, which begins Feb. 23.
That means it’s time for a new group of leaders to emerge.
“The guys we lost last season were our leaders,” said Vickash Ramjit. “but I feel like a lot of young guys have stepped up, sophomores and juniors and the two seniors. Zach Powers, Karsten Whitson, Keenan Kish — basically everybody.
“Everybody is stepping up and playing the role of a leader.”
Ramjit and Cody Dent are the lone seniors on this year’s club and Ramjit talked about his role as team captain, which is voted on by teammates. He said he’s “always vocal,” but that “leading by example” was the best way to describe him.
Leadership is instrumental for any team to have success. Players need guys to fire them up before games, to inspire hard work in practices or to help spark a come-from-behind rally. All teams will experience some level of adversity during a season, and it’s up to the leaders to lead the way through it.
Someone, other than the coaching staff, has to take charge. With so few seniors, underclassmen such as sophomores Casey Turgeon and Josh Tobias are becoming leaders, too. Turgeon talked about serving as a mentor to freshman Richie Martin while Tobias is welcoming the role as well.
“(Leadership) is a little bit different than last year because we had a lot of older guys,” Tobias said. “We have to step up this season and teach the younger guys the road to things and talk to them about how to go through practice and the upcoming season — we all just take it in stride.”
Sixth-year coach Kevin O’Sullivan said this season’s squad will be defined by its versatility because of the number of players able to play multiple positions.
For instance, there’s pitcher/outfielder Justin Shafer and, among others, Ramjit working out in right field and at first base.
“I’d love to leave (Ramjit) at first because I think he’s got the chance to be one of the best defensive first basemen in the country, but he’s also good enough to play outfield, kind of like Preston (Tucker) was for us,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s all going to depend on how much some of those freshmen develop to have a chance to play first base.”
O’Sullivan said he’s looking for young players to “step up” heading into the season. With so many holes to fill, several newcomers have opportunities to earn significant playing time, even as starters.
“(Redshirt sophomore) Zack Powers has a chance to play some first base,” O’Sullivan said. “(True freshmen) Brady Roberson, Kevin Stypulkowski — if one of those guys can develop, we’d feel much more comfortable at first base.
“Or if (redshirt freshman) Cory Reid, (true freshman) Christian Dicks or some of these other outfielders develop then we can keep Vickash at first base. So, we’ve still got some questions there.”
Behind The Plate
One area of little concern is at catcher where sophomore Taylor Gushe is expected to start in place of Mike Zunino, the third overall pick in last June’s draft.
Gushe has made a marked improvement defensively. He receives the ball well and gets it out of his glove quickly on throws down to second base. Gushe skipped his senior season of high school to join the Gators last spring and ended up playing in 52 games with 39 starts.
“Obviously, losing a player like Mike (Zunino), you’re just not going to replace him,” O’Sullivan said. “But with respect to Taylor, I’m really pleased with where he’s at. Defensively, he’s come light years and he’s going to have to hit in the middle of the order and he’s certainly capable of it.
“We recruited him for a reason; he came here early, he made a huge commitment to us and our school and to our program. It’s his time to go and we’re surely comfortable with him.”
Backing up Gushe will be Stypulkowski, a talented switch hitter who also can play first base or serve as the designated hitter. Sophomore Mike Fahrman and junior Todd Haskel add depth at the position.
Transfer On Hold
One versatile player the Gators are hoping can contribute is Taylor Ratliff, a junior who transferred from Jacksonville University. He has 82 collegiate starts under his belt over the past two seasons at second base, third base and as a designated hitter. He also can play outfield.
However, Ratliff may have to sit out this season. He has applied to the NCAA for a transfer waiver that will grant him immediate eligibility. As of Friday, a team spokesman said Florida has yet to hear back from the NCAA.
Regardless, Ratliff continues to prepare with the team like he’s going to play this season. He was named an NCBWA Freshman All-American after batting .330 with 58 runs, 25 stolen bases and 24 RBI in 2011. Last season, he batted .281 with 12 RBI and was 17 of 19 on stolen base attempts before suffering a season-ending hand injury.