The 2021 Gators baseball team is the perfect example of making something positive out of a terrible situation.
Last March, their 2020 season came to an abrupt end after just 17 games due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States. A team that had realistic national championship aspirations didn’t even get the chance to compete for a championship. McKethan Stadium closed its gates for the final time without a proper sendoff.
Now, the 2021 team stands to benefit from that heartbreaking day. These Gators are absolutely loaded. Thanks to the NCAA’s decision to give the players their season of eligibility back and MLB shortening its draft to five rounds, the Gators return all three weekend starting pitchers, all of their top bullpen arms and eight of their nine regular starters in the field. Oh, and they’re also adding a nine-man freshmen class that ranks among the best in the country.
“We’ve got three starters if maybe not four or five guys that could start in the SEC [on the mound], and those extra two guys are going to be coming out of the ’pen for us,” said senior third baseman Kirby McMullen, who was scheduled to leave after last season but opted to take advantage of the NCAA’s ruling. “We’re going to have a lot of guys contribute, and when it comes time to setting a lineup, we’re going to score a lot of runs, too. The offense is going to be able to help out the pitching, and the pitching’s going to be able to help out the offense, too.”
As is typical for a Kevin O’Sullivan-coached team, everything for the 2021 Gators will start and end on the mound. This was supposed to be something of a rebuilding year for the pitching staff, with righties Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich expected to sign professional contracts after last season. However, they both went undrafted in the truncated draft and opted to return to school.
Mace and Leftwich each rank among Baseball America’s top-140 draft eligible college prospects. Mace emerged as a legitimate ace in 2020, posting a 3-0 record with a 1.67 earned run average in his four starts. Lefty Hunter Barco, one of the highest ranked pitchers in the 2019 class, rounds out the rotation.
However, what will make this pitching staff truly special is the bullpen. Closer Ben Specht, and high-leverage relievers Christian Scott, Nick Pogue, David Luethje, Brandon Sproat and Ryan Cabarcas all return. Freshman lefty Timmy Manning was a top-100 high school prospect and would probably start from day one at 95 percent of programs around the country, maybe even more than that. He’ll likely struggle to even earn meaningful innings out of the bullpen as a freshman at Florida.
“It’s exciting just to have so many guys behind your back, especially [with] Jack and I starting,” Mace said. “We just kind of know that whenever we’re done with the game that the guys behind us will kind of close it out and make sure that we get that win or we come back and get that win.”
On the other side, the Gators return players that accounted for 148 of their 171 hits and 18 of their 21 home runs last season. They’re also adding a trio of freshmen that could put some pressure on the returners.
While stockpiling an embarrassment of riches is the goal for every coach, there are some challenges that come with having an extreme amount of depth. Perhaps the biggest challenge is role identification. O’Sullivan will have to decide whether to ride one of his prized starting pitchers or use a quick hook and let one of his flame-throwing relievers finish the job. And when he does go to the bullpen, who does he go to?
Not all pitchers are created equal. Some perform better in the ninth inning, others the sixth or seventh innings. Some excel at getting out of jams, while others are better when they inherit clean basepaths. O’Sullivan will tinker and experiment with different combinations over the first few weeks of the season. Don’t be surprised if a couple of his moves backfire and perhaps cost them a game or two. That’s simply something that happens when you have a ton of talent and a short time to figure out what to do with it. O’Sullivan is confident that he’ll eventually discover the winning formula.
“We’ve got some guys in the bullpen that are multiple inning types of guys,” he said. “We’ve got some flexibility that way, and we’ve had some guys go really good in the draft that have been hybrid type pitchers, where they can start, they can pitch in the middle or they can pitch at the end and pitch multiple innings. There’ll be plenty of innings to go around. We’ve had depth before, and I see it as a positive in the sense that you don’t need to lean on one or two guys or three guys and overextend them early in the year. We’ll figure it out as time goes on.”
The same concept applies offensively. If shortstop Josh Rivera, for example, gets off to a slow start at the plate, O’Sullivan will have to decide whether to pull him in favor of freshman Jordan Carrion, who impressed in the fall and went 3-for-4 in their first scrimmage of the spring on Friday.
“Sully’s going to have a hard time figuring out who he’s going to want to put in every situation, those tough situations,” McMullen said. “So, it’s going to take a little bit of time for him to figure that out. I think once we do figure that out, it’s going to work to our advantage.”
Another challenge that comes with having an overabundance of depth is team chemistry. There are going to be some players who get their feelings hurt. Some players might not agree with the amount of playing time they’re getting. O’Sullivan, of course, recruits as well as any coach in the country, so some of his players will be riding the bench for the first time in their lives. Finding a way to keep everyone happy, motivated and moving toward a common goal will be paramount.
O’Sullivan isn’t concerned. He said that the players will make those tough decisions for him. Those who perform the best will get more playing time, while those who struggle won’t see as much action. That level playing field is all you can ask for as a competitor.
“I don’t think we had the same lineup two games in a row [last year],” he said. “Everybody will get their fair shot, and what they do with their opportunity is totally up to them, but I don’t see it as a burden at all.”
The experts have taken notice of Florida’s depth. The Gators are ranked No. 1 in all four preseason polls that have been released so far. With almost everybody back from a team that went 16-1 and another stellar recruiting class in tow, fans have every right to expect nothing less than the program’s second national championship.
O’Sullivan isn’t ready to talk about that yet. He still thinks this team has plenty of question marks, particularly on the mound. UF ranked near the bottom of the SEC in pitching in 2019 before rocketing back to their normal spot near the top last year. They didn’t play a single conference game in 2020, however, which makes you wonder if their drastic improvement was a bit of fool’s gold generated by beating up on weaker competition.
McMullen said the players are motivated to prove that last year was no fluke.
“We all kind of know that we got off to that good start, that we were kind of on a good little roll and we kind of had that feeling that we had some unfinished business from last year,” he said. “Losing only [Austin] Langworthy and Brady Smith, it kind of feels like we should be able to get back to right where we were at. That’s definitely in the back of our mind, but we’re definitely just trying to go out there and play Florida baseball and win games every single day.”
The Gators have the depth to do just that. Maybe their national championship dreams weren’t crushed by COVID-19, and they were merely delayed.