Florida baseball recruiting has been hit or miss over the past few years. Classes would bring high school stars, such as Matt LaPorta and Cole Figueroa, to campus, but lack the depth necessary to compete in the Southeastern Conference. Now head coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s first full recruiting class has stepped on campus in preparation for the 2009 season, and it looks to be a group that will lead the Gators back to national prominence.
The key lack of depth was on the pitching staff. The quality of pitching never was the problem, but the quantity of dependable arms was. The 0-4 record in the postseason wasn’t because of a lack of talent, but when some of the team’s top pitchers got tired, there just weren’t enough talent in the bullpen.
O’Sullivan spent countless hours on the recruiting trail seeking to add depth to his team, especially on the mound, before his first season as the Gators’ coach even began. The result of his hard work is seven arms which O’Sullivan believes will contribute early.
“There just hasn’t been a lot of numbers pitching-wise, so we knew we needed to hit that with this class and in the 2009 class we are putting together now,” O’Sullivan said. “Playing five days a week, you need a lot of good pitchers. When you recruit a kid who is good enough to play at the next level, the one thing you want to sell to a kid is that you can take care of their arm. The only way to be able to sell that is to have a lot of guys around them that wouldn’t force me to put an unnecessary amount of pressure on one arm.”
O’Sullivan, who came to Florida after spending nine seasons as the pitching coach at Clemson, immediately began making improvements to the pitching staff. Florida’s staff ERA, 5.27 in 2007, fell to 4.39 with essentially the same pitchers.
“One thing I think we needed to stress was the pitching side of things,” O’Sullivan said. “When you break down the classes, there are two guys who are now going to be in the sophomore class – Tommy Toledo (RHP, 6-3, 185, Tampa/Alonso) and Justin Poovey (RHP, 6-0, 195, Granite Falls, N.C.), so we’ve got a void there.”
Then there was the chance of losing upperclassmen after the 2009 season. Starters Stephen Locke (LHP, 6-2, 190, Tampa/King) and Patrick Keating (RHP, 6-2, 215, Harrisburg, Ill.) are seniors who will be done with their playing careers, but there are many juniors who could be drafted as well—Billy Bullock (RHP, 6-6, 225, Valrico/Riverview), Kyle Mullaney (RHP, 6-2, 190, Jacksonville/Bishop Kenny), Tony Davis (LHP, 5-9, 185, Cooper City/North Broward Prep), Clint Franklin (RHP, 6-3, 200, Orlando/Timber Creek) and JUCO signee Jeff Barfield (RHP, 6-0, 215, Perry, Ga./The Westfield School/Lake City CC) will all be eligible for next June’s draft.
Then there was the issue of signability. Recruiting for baseball becomes extremely difficult because coaches want to attract top talent, but not be burned and have the recruits sign with a Major League team after the draft and leave a gaping hole in the class.
“Every year there are guys you think there’s no chance to get and you get them,” O’Sullivan said. “Then there are guys you won’t think you’ll lose and you lose them. I will say this – you don’t sign anybody thinking you won’t get them. There are obviously reasons why you don’t get them in the end, but going into it, you sign a kid thinking you’re going to keep him.”
Regardless of all the issues, O’Sullivan and his staff currently have all of their pitching commitments on schedule to attend Florida except for Ryan Weber, who will attend St. Petersburg Community College instead. Prospects that were drafted had until Aug. 15 to sign with their professional team or else they have to attend college.
The pitching headliner would be Lexington (Ky.) Catholic left-handed pitcher Nick Maronde. The 6-3, 195-pound southpaw was ranked as Baseball America’s 19th best player in the nation for 2008.
“Last year at this time, you never would have thought he would go to school,” O’Sullivan said. “Now he’s coming. He’s one of the more highly recruited kids in the country. He’s a left-hander who pitched for the USA Team. He performed well at all the big showcases last year. He’s got a great arm. He’s someone we certainly expect to come in and pitch for us right away.”
One of the multiple prospects brought down from the Northeast is right-handed pitcher Anthony DeSclafani. The 6-3, 175-pound right-hander from Freehold, N.J., and Colts Neck High School has a whip-like pitching action which tops his fastball out in the low 90s. He was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 22nd round.
“(Anthony) has a great arm and we just love his toughness,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s got tremendous upside with a chance to have an above-average fastball. For a kid his age, the feel he has for his changeup is real good and his breaking ball is getting better every day. He’s a high-profile guy.”
Barfield was a late addition to this class. The Lake City Community College prospect went 5-3 with a 2.68 ERA. He struck out 96 batters in 74 innings of work, allowing only 30 walks. O’Sullivan believes Barfield could end up as the Gators’ closer.
“It wouldn’t surprise me to see (Barfield) throw in the low 90s because he’s got a great arm,” O’Sullivan said. “He could possibly be one of those guys we look at to close a game out for us. He’s a big, strong kid who works hard. He’s got one of those sliders that is equally effective against right- and left-handed hitters. He’ll be a huge addition.”
Alonso High School in Tampa seems to have a pipeline to Gainesville and another Raven, Alex Panteliodis, has made the trip. The left-handed pitcher was 11-0 with an 0.54 ERA as a junior and was 9-2 with a 2.37 ERA as a senior. At one point during his senior year, he had a 20-game winning streak going back to his freshman year.
“Alex has pitched at the highest high school level and succeeded there,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s got great pitchability and his mound presence is great. He handles himself on the mound extremely well. He’s very mature for his age. He’s got really, really good command of all three of his pitches. He’s got a great pickoff move as well.”
Freshman Will Jolin (RHP, 6-2, 205, Guilford, Conn./Guilford) brings a bulldog’s mentality to the mound with him. Jolin brings a hockey player’s mentality to the pitching mound – he played the sport at Guilford.
“He’s a tall, lanky guy who we saw pitch at (the) East Coast Pro (Showcase),” O’Sullivan said. “He comes with a nice three-quarters (arm) slot. He gets tremendous sink to his fastball and has a good slider. He’s a guy who may really take off when he moves here and can focus on baseball 12 months of the year. He’s another guy who is a great student. We’re looking for him to pitch as a freshman.”
When you talk about upside, Lake Brantley High School right-handed pitcher Greg Larson comes to mind. His 6-8, 215-pound frame is a big reason he projects as an excellent power pitcher. Without an injury during his senior year, he likely would have been drafted in an early round.
“In the fall of his senior year, he was throwing as hard as anybody in Florida,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve seen him up in the mid-90s. He hurt his back and didn’t throw a lot, but he’s coming off that injury and he feels great. The sky is the limit for Greg. He could be one of the hardest throwers I’ve ever coached.”
O’Sullivan expects his pitching recruits will make an impact, some of them immediately.
“Any kid that you recruit, hopefully they are the type of kid who can contribute right away,” O’Sullivan said. “Obviously that’s not going to happen with all of them, but they’re all certainly going to have that chance to do that.”
O’Sullivan realizes the importance of having intelligent, talented catchers to lead the pitching staff. For the most part, Florida’s catchers have the freedom to call pitches.
Some people might wonder why the Gators have four catchers on the roster for the spring, but O’Sullivan is planning ahead. Teddy Foster (R/R, 6-3, 240, Jacksonville/Bolles) is a senior and Buddy Munroe (R/R, 5-11, 185, Miami/Columbus) and Hampton Tignor (R/R, 6-1, 205, Sarasota/Sarasota) will be draft-eligible juniors.
With Foster guaranteed to be gone after this year, O’Sullivan signed Ben McMahon, a member of Baseball America’s Top 100 list of 2008 prospects. The Bishop Moore High School standout was a 30th round selection by the New York Yankees.
“(McMahon) was one of the highest ranked players in the state of Florida before the draft this year,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s got just tremendous power at the plate. He’s got a chance to be a really good player for us. He’s physical. You look at him and just hope he develops the power to hit right there in the middle of the order for us.”
Catcher/outfielder Daniel Pigott (R/R, 6-2, 195, Ormond Beach/Seabreeze) will follow in the footsteps of his brother Jonathon, a junior outfielder.
“Daniel is a multi-dimensional guy,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s just really athletic. For a kid his size to run like he can, that’s hard to find. He was one of my favorite players when we went out and recruited last summer. He plays the game extremely hard. He never took a day off and always hustled on and off the field. He’s one of those guys that stands out because he loves to play, and he plays just that way.”
With the departure of shortstop Cole Figueroa, who signed with the San Diego Padres after batting .350 last season, Florida recruited two solid midinfielders.
Jerico Weitzel, a 5-11, 190-pound infielder from Ridgway, Pa., is the nephew of current assistant coach Brad Weitzel. The left-handed hitting Weitzel actually started his playing career at The Bolles High School in Jacksonville.
“He’s a tough, hard-nosed kid,” O’Sullivan said. “He’ll give us a left-handed hitter who can run. He can also turn a double play very well. We love his makeup. We’re looking for him to come in and contribute right away.”
The departure of Figueroa made the signing of Palm Beach Junior College infielder Mike Mooney, a 5-8, 155-pound switch-hitter who will compete with returnee Josh Adams for the starting spot at shortstop.
“He’s one of the best defensive shortstops in the state of Florida, in our opinion,” O’Sullivan said. “We needed someone besides Josh who could handle that shortstop position and it’s very hard for a first-year guy to do that, but he certainly could.”
When it looked as if Brandon McArthur would not play in 2009, Tampa Plant High School freshman first baseman Preston Tucker (L/L, 6-0, 205) was an obvious replacement. He hit .456 during his senior season, with nine homeruns and 46 RBIs.
“He’s got as much raw power as anybody in the state,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s very good at first base, but he also could play left field or right field. He runs well for his size. He’s as strong a kid as I’ve recruited at that age. He hits balls a ton.”
Jupiter High School outfielder Tyler Thompson (R/R, 6-1, 180) had an easy choice when it came to colleges. His father, Robby, lettered at Florida in 1983 before being selected in the first round of the draft by the San Francisco Giants. His father had an 11-year career in the major leagues. Thompson shows an excellent knowledge of the game.
“Tyler is a very athletic, left-handed hitting outfielder,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s got tremendous upside. He can run and has a chance to hit for power. He knows how to use the field with his bat. His senior year was great.”
It would be tough for the total package of this recruiting class to be any more impressive.
“We’ve got a great class,” O’Sullivan said. “We feel very good about them. It’s a nice, balanced group of talented players, and that’s exactly what we needed.”
The class has been ranked No. 4 in the country.
“The rankings are all fun to read but I don’t put too much stock in those kinds of rankings because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” O’Sullivan said. “Florida is a good sell. A lot of these kids grow up wanting to be Gators. They want to come to school here, and a lot of them are indicating that to us.”
But it doesn’t stop there. O’Sullivan, Weitzel and assistant Craig Bell have verbals for the Class of 2009 from catcher Austin Maddox of Jacksonville Eagle’s View Academy, infielder/outfielder LeVon Washington of Gainesville Buchholz, catcher Michael Zurino of Cape Coral Mariner and pitcher/infielder Michael Heller of Cardinal Mooney High School in Sarasota.