Gators Baseball Preview: Part I – New Identity

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series previewing Florida’s baseball team. Part II of the series is scheduled to run Friday. Fans may need time to adjust to the Florida Gators’ baseball, version 2013.

Coaches will, too. This season’s team will take on a completely different identity when it takes the field Feb. 15 for a season-opening home series against Duke.

Gone are familiar faces such as Mike Zunino, Preston Tucker, Hudson Randall and Stephen Rodriguez. In their place a talented crop of newcomers will mix with veteran returners to try to make a fourth consecutive College World Series trip.

The odds will be stacked against them. Collegiate Baseball has the Gators No. 24 in its preseason rankings, a far cry from last season’s team that topped many preseason polls. Baseball America’s poll should be out in the next week or so.

With the season opener a month away, visited with coach Kevin O’Sullivan to find out his take on this season’s team. In this team preview, we’ll break down offense, defense and pitching.

In the past few seasons, “Sully” sent several batters up to the plate who could change a game with one swing. While this season’s club has a few who can club it, the make-up of the squad will be much different offensively.

“Every year your offensive philosophy changes to the personnel you have,” O’Sullivan said. “This year’s personality is different from last year’s because the personnel is different. For us to try to run a lot last year, that was not the strength of our team.

“This year, it could be and it should be for us to be successful.”

Of the 75 home runs hit last season, 61 were hit by players that are no longer with the team. Of the 360 RBI, 245 were hit by former players. That accounts for 81.3 percent of the homers and 68 percent of the RBI from a year ago.

Stolen bases, hit-and-runs and bunting people over to manufacture runs may not be as exciting walk-off home runs, but that’s what it will take to get the job done. And wining games, no matter how, is O’Sullivan’s job.

“We’ll run more and we’ll be more active on the base paths — We’ll stress it much more,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ll have to do some things like hit-and-run, but we’re not going to be a team that is anemic at hitting home runs, either. We’re not going to hit as many as we did last year, but we’ll have our fair share.

“That’s just not going to be the focal point of our offense like it was last year.”

That said, look for speed right off the bat in Florida’s lineup. True freshman shortstop Richie Martin impressed throughout fall ball. He’s a line-drive, contact hitter who “sprays” the ball to all sides of the field.

As a fielder, Martin showed plenty of range during fall by backhanding grounders deep in the hole or chasing high-hoppers down up the middle. He also has a strong enough arm to make all the throws needed from the shortstop position, so he will serve as a solid replacement to Nolan Fontana. He has above-average arm strength, but the key is how quickly he gets rid of it.

“If the season were to start tomorrow, (Martin) would probably be our leadoff hitter,” O’Sullivan said. “There are a lot of things that goes into that. He competes pitch to pitch. He doesn’t give up on an at-bat and it’s always going to be a competitive at-bat. He can really handle the bat as far as drag bunts and push bunts. He’s really, really advanced.

“He handles the bat as well as any young player we’ve had I think.”

Once he reaches first base O’Sullivan said he’ll likely give Martin the green light to run to start the season. That means he trusts Martin to decide on his own when to steal and when to stay.

“When he gets on base, he’s very disruptive,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s got great instincts. He might be one of those guys that we haven’t had here in a while that can steal 30-plus (bases) in a season.

“We just haven’t had that in a long time because those guys are hard to find.”

Making up the other side of the middle of the infield at second base will be Casey Turgeon, who became the ninth Freshman All-American in O’Sullivan’s six seasons a year ago. He batted .357 during UF’s seven NCAA tournament games and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Gainesville Regional after going 6-for-10 with five RBI, four runs, two doubles, a homer and a pair of walks in three games.

For the season, the left-handed swinging Turgeon batted .281 with 35 runs, 30 RBI, 11 doubles, three triples and four homers. O’Sullivan said Turgeon is “arguably our best all-around player” and he will be counted on for leadership despite just being a sophomore.

Martin and Turgeon work well together and will turn dozens of double plays this season.

Josh Tobias could end up in the outfield but ideally will play third base. If he’s needed in the outfield, Cody Dent or Zack Powers depending on how Powers’ “arm comes back” from shoulder surgery that caused him to redshirt last season.

Tobias has better than average speed to cover ground whether in the outfield or at third. He also has a strong enough arm to make all the throws needed. He was the third consecutive Florida third baseman selected to the SEC’s All-Freshman team (Austin Maddox in 2010 and Powers in 2011 are the others) after he batted .252 with 26 runs in 44 starts at the position last season.

No matter where Tobias plays in the field, he should be a key cog in the offense. He added muscle in the offseason that helped the sophomore hit with much more pop and confidence during fall ball. Last spring, Tobias had just seven extra base hits (five double, two triples), a number that should increase this spring.

“For me, he’s one of the keys to our offense,” O’Sullivan said. “I feel like he has the ability to hit in the middle of the order. It’s just a matter of him going out there and doing it.

“When we start breaking down our team, player by player, he is one of those guys that, quite frankly, in order for us to be where we need to be, we really need him to have a solid year.

“He doesn’t have to be off the charts, not that he’s capable of that, but we don’t need to put the pressure on him to try to do that. Josh has every capability to be a huge lift for our team.”

Be on the lookout for Part II of this series on Friday as we highlight the rest of Florida’s lineup and dive into what could be a deeper pitching staff than a year ago.

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Mike Capshaw brings a wealth of experience to the Gator Country team. He’s been overseeing all editorial aspects of and Gator Country magazine by managing our team of staffers, interns and freelancers. He is now moving into a bigger role as a reporter by covering the football and basketball beats as well as providing coverage of all sports on campus. Mike’s 15 years in the business has included more than six years of covering SEC sports and recruiting at a daily newspaper in Arkansas. He has also helped launch a newspaper, magazines, websites and even a sports talk radio show. Because Mike puts family ahead of his career, he left the place where he was established when his wife received an opportunity to further her career at UF. He took a leap of faith that he could find a job in the Gainesville area and worked for a year at a newspaper group before joining the Gator Country family in November, 2011. Mike has won Florida Press Association awards for Best Sports Game Story and Best Sports Feature Story in the past two years as well as a company-wide award at his former newspaper group that includes some 60 publications, for Excellence in Sports Reporting. You can follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeCapshawGC.