On a veteran team, newcomers are providing competition

It feels weird to say that the UF baseball team’s consensus top-10 recruiting class is flying under the radar. And yet, that’s exactly the scenario that the group faces.

Much of the hype surrounding the unanimous preseason No. 1 Gators focuses on the players that they’re bringing back. Thanks to MLB shortening its 2020 draft to five rounds and the NCAA giving players their year of eligibility back following the cancellation of the 2020 campaign, Tommy Mace, Jack Leftwich and Kirby McMullen will be playing in the new Florida Ballpark this year instead of a minor league stadium near you.

Indeed, the veterans will play a large role in shaping how successful the 2021 team will be. However, while there likely isn’t an instant starter in the 10-man class, several newcomers will play important roles as well.

Unlike most of Kevin O’Sullivan’s classes, this crop of newcomers is headlined by a trio of position players.

Shortstop Jordan Carrion is a dependable defender, and he impressed with his bat during the fall. He produced three hits in a scrimmage open to the media last week. He’ll likely start the season on the bench, but, with incumbent starter Josh Rivera having committed an error in each of the three open scrimmages, he might not stay there for long.

Colby Halter is a productive left-handed hitter who’s adjusting to a new defensive position. After playing in the middle of the infield in high school, he’s backing up McMullen at the hot corner at Florida. He’s made some nice defensive plays so far this spring.

“He plays the game the right way,” third-year sophomore outfielder Jacob Young said. “He runs hard, plays it hard, every pitch kind of guy. Like every other freshman, he had some growing pains at the plate, but he handled it really well. He’s seeing the ball a lot better, I think, in the spring. He’s put some really good at bats together already.”

At 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, Sterlin Thompson projects as a future middle-of-the-lineup batter for the Gators. However, he’s adjusting to playing right field after being a shortstop and third baseman in high school. Because Thompson can help this team with his bat and the Gators have less depth in the outfield than in the infield, the coaches moved him to right field to give him a better chance to get on the field. He’s still a work in progress, as he bobbled a ball that led to a run in one of the scrimmages.

“He’s learning the outfield,” Young said. “Luckily, he has a lot of people to kind of teach him and a lot of time to practice it, but at the plate, he can swing the bat. So, if you can do that, I think there’s always a spot for you. So, I think he’s really focusing on that, and then he’ll just get better defensively.”

Of course, there will be roadblocks ahead for the three talented hitters. In high school, they may have faced one pitcher all year who threw 95+ miles per hour, and off-speed pitches aren’t as big of a part of the high school game. Now they’re tasked with facing pitching staffs that are almost entirely composed of elite arms every single game. As a veteran, Young said he feels an obligation the help the youngsters out.

“They try to prepare you in the fall, but it’s hard,” he said. “Luckily, we have the guys that can kind of prepare you the best with the arms that we walk out there, but getting into an actual stadium filled with people and seeing back to back to back SEC starting arms is something that you kind of honestly just got to play through. You’ve got to see it, and you’ve got to live with the failures and kind of take the goods whenever they come. I think it’s something as an older group – we have a lot of older guys – I think we can really help them out and kind of teach them and mentor them and kind of walk them through it as the season goes.”

While the freshmen hitters figure to steal the spotlight, O’Sullivan still managed to nab a pair of pitchers with dynamic stuff. Lefty Timmy Manning is unusual for a freshman in that his curveball is better than his fastball. He’ll likely be a matchup guy this season with the potential to be the Gators’ ace and a first round draft pick down the road if he can locate his fastball more consistently.

“He’s looked really good this fall and spring, and he has one of the best breaking balls I’ve seen, and then he’s also one of those kids that nothing really affects him,” Leftwich said. “He’s very mature out there, and he has some attitude, which is really good.”

Manning was the prized jewel of the class, as Perfect Game ranked him as the No. 89 high school prospect. He threw a no-hitter as a senior at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Fort Lauderdale and followed it up by carrying a perfect game into the final inning in his next start. He’s more of a pitch-to-contact type of pitcher, as his fastball tops out in the upper 80s or low 90s.

“I think he committed maybe when he was a freshman,” O’Sullivan said. “I remember him in camp, and he just spun the ball differently. You could just tell that at some point when the fastball got better and he got more physical that he had a chance to be really good. But the breaking ball’s just different. It’s not one of those breaking balls where it’s just swing and miss versus left-handed hitters. He gets it under the barrel on right-handers as well.”

While Manning is more of a long-term project, junior college transfer Franco Aleman will be one of their top bullpen arms right away. He started his career at Florida International in 2019 before spending last season at St. Johns River State College. He was a top-100 high school prospect, according to Perfect Game, and he brings versatility to the Gators’ pitching staff. He can pitch late in the game, throw multiple innings or even start if needed. If not for the unexpected returns of Mace and Leftwich, Aleman likely would’ve been in the weekend rotation this season.

“Fastball’s anywhere from 92 to 95,” O’Sullivan said. “Obviously, he’s a big, physical kid; he’s probably about 6-6 and throws straight downhill. He’s got a really good feel for secondary [pitches]. His breaking ball is really improved, and his changeup’s really improved. So, he’s going to be one of those main guys as well.”

Though this isn’t O’Sullivan’s largest or most heralded class of newcomers, they will likely have to produce in a major way at some point for Florida to win a national championship.

But that’s still way down the road. In the meantime, they’re pushing the veterans to be the best versions of themselves in practice.

“It’s brought out good intensity in scrimmages and practices,” Young said. “Everyone knows they’re fighting for a job, and there’s nothing safe. So, I think it’s actually good to kind of get those competitive juices flowing before we actually play a different team.”

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.