2021 Florida Gators baseball season preview: Position players

High expectations are nothing new for the Gators baseball program. They’ve advanced to the College World Series seven times under coach Kevin O’Sullivan, winning the national championship in 2017. They annually recruit as well as anyone in the country and churn out MLB Draft picks like a conveyor belt.

Still, this team feels a little different. Thanks to the cancelation of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 and MLB shortening its draft to five rounds, this is a super team. The unanimous No. 1 Gators return eight starters in the field, all three weekend starting pitchers and every key piece of the bullpen from a team that finished the truncated 2020 season ranked No. 1. And they’re adding another stellar recruiting class to the mix.

With all of that talent in place, Gator fans have every reason to expect nothing less than the program’s second national championship come June.

With the 2021 Gators set to embark on their journey Friday when they take on No. 21 Miami, it’s time to take an in-depth look at the team.

On Monday, we broke down the pitching staff. Today, it’s the position players’ turn in the spotlight. First, we’ll look at our projected opening day batting order and then analyze the starters and key backups by position groups.

Projected Batting Order

(With 2020 stats)

1. LF Jacob Young (.450 avg, 0 HR, 9 RBI)

2. CF Jud Fabian (.294, 5, 13)

3. C Nathan Hickey (.311, 4, 7)

4. 1B Kris Armstrong (.250, 1, 6)

5. 3B Kirby McMullen (.278, 1, 10)

6. DH Jordan Butler (.333, 2, 12)

7. SS Josh Rivera (.298, 2, 9)

8. 2B Cory Acton (.192, 1, 4)

    9. RF Sterlin Thompson (N/A)

Outfield

Overview: Young and Fabian have better job security than any other position players on the roster. We’ll start with Fabian since some are predicting him to be the first college position player off of the board in the 2021 MLB Draft. He’s a rare five-tool college player. After struggling against college pitching as one of the youngest freshmen in the country in 2019, he found his groove last season. Look for his power to jump even more this season into the 15-20 homer range. He’s likely start the season batting second, but he’s the type of player that can thrive at any spot in the lineup. However, his defense is probably still ahead of his offense at this point, and that’s not an easy feat to accomplish. He’ll gobble up any ball hit into the gaps with a decent amount of hang time, and runners would be foolish to challenge his arm. Young, meanwhile, is the most underappreciated player on the team, at least when it comes to preseason awards. Despite batting over .300 as a freshman in 2019 and posting an on-base percentage over .500 last season, he failed to make a Preseason All-SEC team. He doesn’t have much pop, but he’s a line drive machine who sets the table for the big thumpers behind him. Defensively, he’s capable of playing all three outfield positions and second base. He’ll start the year in left field. Right field will see a rotation. Thompson, a highly regarded freshman, has gotten the most work there this spring. The left-handed hitter started off slow offensively but picked things up over the past couple of weeks. He played third base and shortstop in high school but moved to right field due to the relative lack of depth in the outfield. He’s still a work in progress defensively. Kendrick Calilao (.262, 1, 10) will see some time in right field as well as first base. He’s got good power but swings and misses too much. He also doesn’t have a home defensively. Brock Edge has impressed with both his glove and his bat this spring and will likely play a key role as a pinch hitter and late-game defensive replacement.

Three Questions

    1. Will Fabian live up to the hype?

There’s no question that he has the skills, but due to various circumstances, we’ve yet to really see him take over games the way we thought he would when he decided to come to college. He turned down potential first-round pick money to enroll at UF a semester early. As could be expected given his youth, he batted just .232 in 2019 with seven home runs. He got off to a terrific start to the 2020 campaign but never got a chance to be tested by the best competition. Unfortunately, it looks like we’ll only get to see one season of Fabian at his best before he heads off to pro ball. Maybe he’ll turn in a monster season and make the long wait worth it.

    2. What happens with right field?

O’Sullivan has given no indication of which way he’s leaning. That decision will be something worth noting when the lineup comes out on Friday afternoon. Thompson adds power from the left side to the lineup but could cost his team some bases with his defense early in the season. Calilao has the edge in experience and defense but doesn’t have the offensive upside that Thompson has. O’Sullivan may very well platoon the two depending on the opposing pitcher until one of them claims the job outright.

    3. How far can Young extend is hitting streak?

Young has gotten a hit in 18 consecutive games dating back to the final game of the 2019 season. The cancelation of the 2020 season means that Young has the opportunity to extend his hitting streak into a third season. That almost assuredly would be the first time that’s happened in UF history, if not college baseball history. It’s also the second-longest streak of the O’Sullivan era. Can he keep the good times rolling in the new stadium?

Infield

Overview: McMullen is firmly entrenched as the starter at third base. He’s one of Florida’s best fastball hitters, and he has more power than his one long ball from last year indicates. He needs to improve at recognizing offspeed pitches and laying off of them, however. He’s worked hard to improve defensively as he enters his second season manning the hot corner, and the early returns in scrimmages looked positive. Prized freshman Colby Halter likely will be relegated to midweek games and blowouts, but he’ll take the reigns from McMullen next season. Armstrong will see most of the action at first base. He has the most power on the team, and, if spring scrimmages are an indication, he’ll finally tap into it this season. He’s better from the left side, though he does look improved from the right side. Calilao and Butler will likely play here some as well. The only unresolved positions in the infield are up the middle. Rivera started all but one game at shortstop last season, and Acton has started 73 games over the last two seasons, the last 15 coming at second base. However, Acton has underperformed offensively in his college career, and Rivera committed an error in all five spring scrimmages open to the media. Meanwhile, freshman Jordan Carrion has been a vacuum defensively and one of the Gators’ top hitters this spring. It’s probably a matter of when, not if, Carrion takes one of their jobs. Hickey is one of the top power hitters on the team from the left side and will start the majority of games behind the plate. Cal Greenfield hasn’t seen much action behind the plate this spring, but he’s been perhaps the most pleasant surprise at the plate. He’ll get his fair share of playing time. Mac Guscette isn’t up to speed offensively yet, but he’s solid behind the plate and figures prominently into the team’s future plans.

Three Questions

    1. How short will O’Sullivan’s leash be on Rivera and Acton?

Because Rivera was one of their best hitters last season, Acton would seem to be more at risk of losing his starting spot. Carrion hasn’t played like a freshman still trying to get his feet wet this spring. He plays clean on defense, gets on base more than almost every other player on the team and runs the bases well. He’s basically the infielder version of Young. O’Sullivan has demonstrated throughout his career that he isn’t afraid to hurt someone’s feelings by benching them for a freshman. Don’t be surprised if Carrion is in the starting lineup by the time SEC play rolls around. In fact, I’ll be surprised if he’s not.

    2. Where does Calilao fit in?

He’s an enigma. He led the team in RBI as a freshman in 2019 and tied for third last year. And yet, there might not be a spot for him in the lineup. Armstrong has emerged as one of their best hitters and is a switch-hitter, so O’Sullivan certainly doesn’t want to take him out. Thompson has impressed in his brief time on campus and will be difficult to beat out in right field. Butler and Greenfield will make it difficult to crack the lineup as the designated hitter. It’s a good problem to have for O’Sullivan and an unfortunate set of circumstances for Calilao.

    3. Will Armstrong finally show off his power stroke?

Armstrong is the most entertaining player to watch during batting practice. He blasts balls out of the stadium left and right like it’s nothing. But, he’s only hit two career homers in games that’ve counted. If he’s able to change that this season, the Gators will have a murderers’ row. Armstrong will get plenty of chances to hit multi-run homers with Young, Fabian and Hickey hitting in front of him. It’s his job to make sure that pitchers don’t work around the guys in front of him. He’s the key to this offense going from great to virtually unstoppable.

Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and has spent the last two football seasons writing for InsideTheGators.com. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Rays. You can follow him on Twitter @ehughes97.