Florida Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2021
After going 16-1 in the abbreviated season and rising to No. 1 in the Top 25, Florida figures to enter the 2021 season as the national championship favorite thanks to a wealth of returning talent and a top-five recruiting class.
Among the returners are righthanders Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich, who were surprisingly not drafted in June. With Mace, Leftwich, center fielder Jud Fabian, shortstop Josh Rivera and lefthander Hunter Barco, there will be no shortage of star power on the field for the Gators.
It’s shaping up to be a very exciting spring in Gainesville. In addition to their promise on the field, the Gators are moving into the new Florida Ballpark. The stadium will take its place as one of the best in the country, matching the program that coach Kevin O’Sullivan has built over the last decade.
As Florida looks to the spring, here are five questions it faced this fall.
With so much returning talent, will any newcomers breakthrough?
Florida returns nearly its entire team after racing out to a 16-1 record and the No. 1 ranking this spring. It also, however, brought in a top-five recruiting class for the eighth consecutive year.
The Gators purposely took a smaller class after realizing how much returning talent they would have and, as a result, have only 10 newcomers. That group still has star power, however, and O’Sullivan has always been very good at mixing in young players right away.
Colby Halter and Sterlin Thompson are two advanced hitters who figure to get in the mix somewhere. Both were infielders in high school but have the versatility to move around the diamond, which is important with so many returning players. Catcher Mac Guscette is also expected to contribute early, likely splitting time with Nathan Hickey.
On the mound, lefthander Timmy Manning has the most upside of any of the newcomers and he impressed this fall. His fastball was up to 93 mph, sitting 90-91, and his curveball is a real weapon. Righthander Franco Aleman, a junior college transfer, brings upside and experience and will carve out a role as well.
It will be up to O’Sullivan to find the right roles for the newcomers, something he’s been adept at over the years. This year’s class isn’t as large as what the Gators usually add, which will help everyone find the right fit.
“We only brought in nine freshmen and they all add value,” O’Sullivan said. “They all fit in. It was the right number of players for this class with everyone coming back. We had so many guys come back for another year, bringing in a big class wouldn’t have done those players justice.”
What’s the next step for Jud Fabian?
Fabian has been an everyday presence in the Gators’ lineup for the last two seasons after graduating high school a semester early to enroll at Florida in January 2019.
The center fielder has shown his potential on both sides of the game over the last two seasons and in the abbreviated 2020 season hit .294/.407/.603 with five home runs. Now, the third-year sophomore is one of the top prospects in the 2021 draft and a candidate to be the first college position player selected.
Fabian has five-tool potential and is still just beginning to turn his tools into on-field production. If he continues to do so this spring, it would be a boon for the Gators.
Fabian’s ability is no surprise to anyone at Florida. They’ve long seen what he’s capable of and the strides he’s made since arriving in Gainesville.
“People are starting to see what we’ve seen day in and day out,” O’Sullivan said. “People are starting to appreciate his defense and that he is an above-average runner. He’s been able to recognize spin and lay off it, that’s really the biggest development with young hitters when they come in. He’s been able to do that.”
With Florida’s rotation returning, what’s next for the trio?
The Gators had one of the best rotations in the country in 2020 in junior righthanders Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich and freshman lefthander Hunter Barco. All three are now back after an unexpected draft—even after the draft was shortened to five rounds Mace was still expected to be picked in the first couple rounds and Leftwich typically would have fit somewhere in the top five rounds—and give Florida a formidable set of starters.
Mace was excellent in the abbreviated season, going 3-0, 1.67 with 26 strikeouts and five walks in 27 innings. Leftwich was solid in 2020, going 2-0, 4.15 with 23 strikeouts and eight walks in 21.2 innings.
Mace and Leftwich both bring plenty of experience to the Gators’ rotation. Now in their fourth year in the program, they know what they need to do to succeed this spring.
“Both of their stuff was outstanding this fall,” O’Sullivan said. “Perform week in and week out and everything will work out.”
Mace and Leftwich returning means Barco doesn’t need to lead the rotation as a second-year freshman. He impressed early last season, going 2-0, 1.40 with 26 strikeouts and six walks in 19.1 innings.
His ceiling is the highest of the trio and as he continues to develop as a pitcher, he’ll take on bigger and bigger roles for the Gators. But with Florida’s depth, he and the rest of the rotation won’t need to shoulder the whole burden themselves.
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How will Florida manage its depth on the mound?
The Gators already had impressive depth on the mound in 2020. With the return of Mace and Leftwich and the addition of a strong recruiting class, Florida’s pitching depth is now unmatched.
In addition to its starters, Florida returns five pitchers who made at least four appearances and posted an ERA of 1.50 or better (Ryan Cabarcas, Tyler Nesbitt, Christian Scott, Ben Specht and Brandon Sproat). That group doesn’t include Jordan Butler, David Luethje and Nick Pogue, who bring plenty of experience to the staff. None of those pitchers are strictly one-inning relievers (though Cabarcas had only one appearance of more than one inning in 2020), which means O’Sullivan has maximum versatility in deploying them.
With that depth, Florida is well prepared for whatever shape the schedule takes in 2021—a typical arrangement with three weekend games and midweek games, a change to four-game weekends and anything in between. No matter how many starters Florida ultimately needs, it will have a bullpen loaded with pitchers capable of throwing extended outings.
Specht had worked his way into the closer’s role early last season and earned three saves while going 2-0, 0.75 in nine appearances. But he’s continued to improve and is unlikely to be limited to pitching just one inning at the end of games.
Instead, Florida will likely line up multiple pitchers who can work multiple innings to finish games, like Michael Byrne did so successfully during his career. Around them, the Gators will be able to mix and match in numerous ways, depending on the game situation.
“We want to use our best pitchers in as many high-leverage situations as possible,” O'Sullivan said. “The roles may be unique because we have that ability if guys perform. We have multiple guys who can close in the same kind of role as Byrne.”
What hitters are ready for a breakthrough?
While Florida’s depth on the mound is most apparent, its lineup also will run deep. With the exception of outfielder Austin Langworthy, Florida returns all of its regulars from the 2020 team and adds some strong newcomers.
O’Sullivan will have to manage the depth of the lineup much like he will have to with the pitching staff, but he has proven adept at that over the years. Twelve Gators in 2020 started at least six games and only Fabian started all 17 games. Things will probably look similar in 2021, with many players splitting time and playing multiple positions.
Mainstays from the 2020 team like Fabian, Kirby McMullen, Josh Rivera and Jacob Young are all back and will again play key roles in 2021. A few other returners are in a position to break through this spring.
Third-year sophomore infielder Kris Armstrong came to Florida as a two-way player but has since given up pitching. He had a standout fall at the plate and will get in the mix at first base. Third-year sophomore infielder Cory Acton also impressed this fall and is ready to bounce back after a slow start to the 2020 season.
With the emergence of Armstrong and the addition of newcomers like Halter and Thompson, the Gators’ lineup will have significant depth.