Momentum has been building in a crescendo for Florida since the day Kevin O’Sullivan took over as head coach in the summer of 2007. He took with him from Clemson a reputation as a master recruiter and a pitching guru, and expectations for the program shot through the roof as soon as he was introduced.
It helped that O’Sullivan hired highly respected former scouts Craig Bell and Brad Weitzel as assistant coaches, giving the Gators a staff filled with veteran talent evaluators. Those hires sent a message that Florida was serious about building its program into a national power by out-recruiting the competition.
|TOP 25 CLASSES|
|The top 25 recruiting classes as ranked by Baseball America. Subscribers can get breakdowns
on each of the top 25 classes with a complete list of the team’s signees.
|3. Arizona State|
|4. Texas Christian|
|5. Cal State Fullerton|
|7. North Carolina|
|8. Mississippi State|
|10. Central Florida|
|11. North Carolina State|
|22. Oregon State|
The fruits of Florida’s tireless efforts on the recruiting trail were evident immediately, as the staff’s first recruiting class in 2008 ranked as the nation’s fifth-best. That class, led by slugger Preston Tucker and pitching stalwarts Nick Maronde, Alex Panteliodis and Anthony DeSclafani, played a crucial role in Florida’s run to super regionals and laid a strong foundation for the next two seasons. But last November, during the early signing period, the Gators outdid themselves, introducing a class widely hailed by evaluators across the country as the nation’s best.
Even after losing four players who ranked among the Top 200 prospects for the 2009 draft—three to professional teams and one to the junior college ranks—the Gators still landed far and away the best recruiting class in the nation. Four Florida newcomers ranked in the Top 200—twice as many as any other class. Two of those four, Austin Maddox and Mike Zunino, are the rarest of college commodities: truly elite catchers. Another, righthander Michael Heller, has one of the nation’s most electric arms. And the fourth, Brian Johnson, is one of two lefties in this class with All-America potential (Steven Rodriguez is the other).
“With 27 scholarship players, you have to go into it with a plan and recruit specific needs,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve always recruited heavy on the pitching side, but this was a nice mix. We tried to find some kids that were athletic and versatile defensively—that’s the key now with the 27 scholarship players, you want some guys who can run and hit, but maybe find some guys who can play different positions than they played in high school. The more positions you can play, the more marketable you are.”
The Gators have the unheard-of luxury of three top-flight catchers in Maddox, Zunino and last year’s elite backstop recruit, Ben McMahan. But all three are athletic enough to move around and play different positions at times so the Gators can get all of their bats into the lineup. Zunino might play third base one day, or Maddox at first, for instance.
Other key members of this class, infielders Nolan Fontana and Cody Dent and outfielder Kamm Washington, have even more athleticism and versatility. They also bring speed to complement the power bats in the class.
“Speed’s a huge thing for us, because when the bat goes into a slump, you’ve still got your legs to count on,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s an athletic group, and they’re all baseball players. Obviously recruiting in Florida where the kids play 12 months a year, you’ve got the luxury to be able to find baseball players, and that’s what they are.”
With a roster loaded with marquee talent and baseball savvy, all that’s left is for the Gators to get over the hump and return to Omaha for the first time since 2005. Few observers doubt them; indeed, scouts who see the way the Gators play and practice insist this coaching staff can do more than just recruit big-name players.
“I love that program,” one American League area scout said. “I love the way they treat their kids. They try to make men out of those guys. It’s a great program.”
Ranking recruiting classes is a grueling process. Hope springs eternal every fall for scores of college baseball programs, and there is no shortage of coaches who are excited about their incoming players. Through dozens of conversations with coaches and scouts this fall—not to mention countless more calls during our Draft Preview preparation this spring—we narrowed down our list to the top 25 classes (full breakdowns for all 25 are available at BaseballAmerica.com). But there are far more than 25 good classes; here’s a region-by-region look at some other schools that brought in above-average classes relative to a normal recruiting class at their school, in their conference or in their region:
• San Diego’s class was ravaged by the draft, with top signees Cameron Garfield, James Needy and Aaron Wirsch signing pro contracts in mid-summer and Evan DeLuca signing with the Yankees for a shocking $500,000 bonus as a 44th-round pick on deadline day. Still, the Toreros landed a pair of power arms in righthanders Sam Wolff (surprisingly polished for a South Dakota product) and Mike Dedrick (a projectable Utah product) and a freakish athlete in outfielder Matt Moynihan, who has plus-plus speed but is underdeveloped offensively. Throw in Arizona righty Andrew Walter and first baseman Jake Williams (the son of former big leaguer Matt and a premium defender with a questionable bat), and USD’s class easily rates as the best in the West Coast conference.
• Santa Clara brought in the No. 2 class in the WCC, led by 6-foot-5 outfielder Pat Stover, who brings power, speed and athleticism and should play immediately. Brock Simon, the younger brother of Broncos ace Thain, and two-way talent Rhett Nelson will be major factors on the mound, while outfielder Matt Ozanne and catcher Quinton Perry further upgrade Santa Clara’s athleticism.
• For the second straight year, Cal State Northridge landed one of the stronger classes in the Big West. Six-foot-6 lefty Bennett Parry has a quality three-pitch mix and rates as one of the top pitching recruits on the West Coast this year. Center fielder Ridge Carpenter, a transfer from Hartnell (Calif.) CC, has legitimate five-tool potential, and Alex Muren (the younger brother of Matadors lefty Drew Muren), will make an impact both as an outfielder and a righthanded pitcher.
• UC Riverside has developed a reputation in the West for finding diamonds in the rough and developing raw talent. Righties Mitch Patito and Trevor Frank are this year’s finds for the Highlanders—both have quality arms and fastballs that reach the low 90s. Outfielder David Andriese, the brother of UCR righty Matt, is a good athlete with power potential.
• Texas A&M is another team that lost its top recruits to the draft (Shelby Miller, Todd Glaesmann, K.C. Hobson), but the Aggies covered their losses pretty well. Texarkana JC transfer John Stilson (No. 127 in BA’s Top 200 prospects for the 2009 draft) might make a bigger instant impact than any recruit in the Big 12, thanks to a fastball that reaches 95 and athleticism that plays in the middle infield. Speedy JC transfer Andrew Collazo could step into the second base job and drive opponents crazy, and outfielder Tyler Naquin is one of the nation’s most intriguing sleeper prospects, with a sweet lefthanded stroke and a rifle arm in the outfield.
• Oklahoma State lost three players who were drafted in the top two rounds, but the 17-member class it brought in is filled with tough, gritty ballplayers who should fit nicely in Frank Anderson’s system. No player fits that mold better than outfielder/first baseman Devin Shines, the son of Mets third base coach Razor Shines. The biggest star in OSU’s group could be lefthander Andrew Heaney, who can run his fastball up to 92 and has advanced feel for pitching.
• Like OSU’s class, Baylor’s crop is filled with gamers and headlined by an advanced, competitive lefty in Josh Turley. Max Muncy and Logan Vick are versatile, blue-collar players with a knack for hitting.
• Nebraska’s class hinges on projectable, unpolished power arms like 6-foot-7 righty Thomas Lemke (an unsigned 10th-round pick), Kansas righty Kyle Giller and South Dakota righty Kyle Hander.
• Kansas brought in just six newcomers, but one of them is an elite recruit. Righty Tanner Poppe ranked No. 185 in the Top 200 and can deliver 90-93 mph heat effortlessly. A former three-sport star, Poppe has an athletic, projectable 6-foot-6 frame.
• As usual, Wichita State landed the best class in the Missouri Valley Conference. The headliner is ultra-projectable righty Tobin Mateychick, who already has reached 94 and will throw harder. Nathan Goro is a smooth infielder with a quick stroke who could be a star for the Shockers.
• Tulane was hit harder by the draft than any school in the nation in 2008, but the Green Wave fared much better this time around, landing a trio of impact recruits in Massachusetts righty Kyle McKenzie and Louisiana infielders Garrett Canizaro and Brennan Middleton. Don’t be surprised if Tulane starts six freshmen on the diamond and two more in the weekend rotation in 2010.
• Louisiana State suffered draft casualties late in the summer (Brody Colvin, Zach Von Rosenberg) but still landed a pair of premium arms in righty Mitch Mormann, a transfer from Des Moines (Iowa) Area CC, and Georgia prep lefty Forrest Garrett. But the Tigers’ class took a hit when athletic catcher Wes Luquette had Tommy John surgery that will sideline him in 2010.
• Second-year coach Scott Norwood and recruiting coordinator Dirk Kinney turned over nearly the entire roster at Arkansas-Little Rock, bringing in 27 newcomers, including 20 junior college transfers. Kinney reports that nine of the new arms can reach or exceed 89 mph, giving the staff a much-needed boost. The best arm belongs to righthander Daniel Golden, whose three-pitch repertoire is highlighted by a 90-93 mph fastball.
• Florida State’s class didn’t quite crack the top 25, but expect third baseman Jayce Boyd to be one of the ACC’s best power hitters for the next three years. Five-foot-9 second baseman Devon Travis packs strength into his compact build and is a strong defender with excellent range and hands; he’ll be a star for the Seminoles.
• The real sleeper class in the Sunshine State belongs to Stetson, which landed three freshmen with chances to be cornerstone players. Righty/third baseman Kurt Schluter has legitimate two-way talent, first baseman Chris Curran has a chance for huge lefthanded power, and shortstop Ryan Lashley has plus speed, a strong arm and power potential.
• The best class in the Southern Conference is Georgia Southern’s. The Eagles landed the best haul in school history, as five of their six drafted players showed up on campus. Michigan outfielder Victor Roache might be raw, but he’s an athletic specimen, but huge raw power and plus speed. Rashawyne Payne and Arthur Owens add more athleticism, while righties Chris Beck and Ryan Sadler have serious upside and already reach 93 mph.
• Coming off the first regional appearance in school history, Georgia State kept its momentum going with the top class in the Colonial Athletic Association. The headliner is unsigned sixth-round pick David Buchanan, who flashes 96 mph heat and a hammer curveball but lacks feel for pitching. The Panthers also snagged the No. 2 prize (after Matt Duffy, who went to Tennessee) from Vermont’s now-defunct program in speedy outfielder Mark Micowski.
• As head coach Jim Toman heads into his third season, Liberty looks poised to make a run at regionals after bringing in the best recruiting haul in the Big South. Seven of Liberty’s new arms have touched or topped 90 mph in the fall, led by righties Cameron Giannini and Keegan Linza. Outfielder Michael Robertson could be an elite leadoff man with plus speed and a good contact bat, while catcher Jerry Neufang brings a power bat.
• Auburn and Alabama each brought in a marquee recruit. The Tigers found a gem in 6-foot-5 righthander Garrett Bush, who can run his fastball up to 95 and has feel for two decent breaking balls. Georgia prep product Matt Taylor was expected to provide a lefthanded presence in Alabama’s weekend rotation, but his plus speed, strong defense in center field and quick bat will make him a valuable two-way player.
• South Carolina was hit hard in the draft, but the Gamecocks still did well in recruiting coordinator Chad Holbrook’s first class. Christian Walker is a huge power hitter in the Phil Disher mold, and Florida juco transfers Robert Beary and Andrian Morales will stabilize the Gamecocks up the middle. Righty Ethan Carter is the wild card; lean and projectable, Carter has reached 93 mph in the past with a good breaking ball, but a stress fracture hampered him in the spring. He looks like a future closer or ace.
• Kent State had plenty of holes to fill and plugged many of them with the best recruiting class in the Mid-American Conference. The headliner is Jason Bagoly, a physical 6-foot-4 catcher with power and arm strength. Six-foot-3 righty Christian Lockett has an 89-92 mph fastball and a clean arm action that suggests he’ll throw harder, and righty Addison Dunn has a lively heater with average velocity and good feel for a breaking ball.
• The top class in the Horizon League is Wright State’s. Lean righthander Max Friedman has a lively 88-93 mph fastball and good changeup and looks like a future ace, while similarly projectable lefty Cody Kopilchack has been up to 92. Shortstop Justin Kopale garners comparisons to former Raiders star Justin Parker for his size, infield actions, arm strength and bat speed.
• St. John’s landed the top class in the Northeast, led by hulking righty Kyle Hansen (176), the younger brother of former Red Storm All-American Craig Hansen. The 6-foot-7 Hansen has reached 94 mph and flashed an average slider at times. Connecticut righty Matt Carasiti also has projection and current arm strength, with a fastball that has reached 92. Outfielder Jeremy Baltz has above-average raw power from the right side.
• Despite its geographic disadvantages relative to the rest of its conference, Boston College continues to recruit quality ACC-caliber players. Its jewel this year is righty Andrew Del Colle, the top prep pitcher in New Jersey this spring thanks to a strong, durable delivery, a fastball that has reached 93 and a good downer curveball. Catcher Matt Watson is a polished lefthanded hitter with some power potential.