Florida head coach Pat McMahon and his staff secured one of the top recruiting classes in collegiate baseball in 2006. Several of those fresh faces will be on display when the Gators open the season in newly expanded McKethan Stadium tonight against VMI.
Six members of Florida’s 2005 team signed contracts with major league teams, which created a huge void in the Gators lineup. The opportunity for playing time in a program that played for the national championship two years ago made for an easy choice with several of these players.
Besides opportunity, the key buzzword around the Florida clubhouse is depth. McMahon told me that based on what he has seen in practice, he’ll have options at every position. Competition for a starting spot should make those early games very exciting.
Look for the Gators to do a lot more on the base paths this season too. This is the fastest team in a few years at Florida.
The Florida infield appears set with first baseman Matt LaPorta (6-1, 215), who swings a mighty bat, but is largely underrated for his defensive play. LaPorta is swinging very well in batting practice and looks to be eager to erase the memories of ’05.
Coach Pat McMahon has indicated that junior transfer Jon Townsend (6-0, 195) and true freshman Cole Figueroa (5-10, 180) will each see some time at shortstop early in the season, as the Gators adjust looking for their best lineup. It appears that Townsend should get the start at short with Figueroa at second base in the season opener against VMI.
Townsend is a solid defensive player with good range and a quick release. He hit .374 at Saddleback Community College in Mission Viejo, California where he shared Most Valuable Player honors. He set the Gauchos school record with ten assists in a single game. He played at Louisville as a true freshman.
Figueroa (5-10, 180) has been a tremendous offensive player from Tallahassee Lincoln High School where he hit .563 with 70 RBI’s to the Florida Bombers where he hit for a .431 average with 53 RBI’s. He is solid defensively too making only nine errors playing shortstop with the Bombers. The early thought is that Townsend and Figueroa will bond to make a much improved double play combination over last season.
Brandon McArthur (6-1, 205) returns for his junior year at third base. I’m told that BMac has looked pretty comfortable at the position defensively. The Gators struggled though much of the season trying to find a solution at third base until David Cash settled in late in the year. McArthur has a career average of just .265. Look for a marked improvement there as well.
Sophomore Cody Neer (6-3, 215) will get the first look behind the plate. Neer led the state with a .528 batting average at Orlando Edgewater. He had just 26 bats (.154) playing behind Brian Jeroloman and as a designated hitter last season.
Two other catchers have performed well in practice- true freshman Hampton Tignor (6-0, 205) is an outstanding defensive player. The Sarasota native allowed only one stolen base his senior season, while hitting .340.
Tallahassee Community College transfer Dustin Bamberg (6-1, 200) is another solid bat in the Gators lineup. Bamberg earned second team all-state honors in both of the season he started for the Eagles. Bamberg hit .343 last season and a team leading .389 in his freshman year at TCC.
Sophomore Avery Barnes (5-11, 165), redshirt freshman Clayton Pisani (6-0, 185), and junior Bryson Barber (6-1, 225) are expected to see action this weekend as well. Barber, Austin Pride, or Barnes should combine with a couple of the true freshman to give Pat McMahon plenty of options in the DH spot. Obviously, they can also assist in pinch-hitting roles.
All-American Bryan Augenstein (6-5, 225) will take the mound on Friday night. He was 9-6 last season with a 3.07 ERA, earning second team All-SEC honors. His first start of the 2005 season was a beauty. Augenstein cruised through the first 23 batters before giving up a two out single to Cincinnati left fielder Brian Szarmach in the top of the eighth inning.
He will be followed in the Gators right-left-right rotation by southpaw Stephen Locke (6-1, 185) who returns after undergoing Tommy John surgery in September of 2005. Locke was outstanding as a true freshman earning Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-American honors.
Hard throwing right hander Billy Bullock (6-6, 215) of Riverview High School is expected to take his turn in the rotation on Sunday afternoon. Bullock chose the Gators over Texas and Georgia Tech. He was selected in the 20th round of the 2006 Major League Baseball draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Florida bullpen figures to be in good shape with several experienced pitchers. Right-handers Josh Edmondson (6-1, 195) and Kris Gawriluk (6-0, 205) will join left-handers Steven Porter (6-3, 215) and David Hurst (6-1, 203) to form the early nucleus of the pen. Several other pitchers are expected to challenge for opportunities too- so expect others to join the mix.
First pitch is scheduled for 6:30pm tonight. The Gators will return to action at 2pm on Saturday and 1pm on Sunday. Come out and see the polished new digs. There is a lot to be excited about this season.