Image credit: Catcher Mat Nelson (Photo courtesy of Larry Novey/Florida State)
The Mike Martin Jr. era began last spring at Florida State, as he took over the program following his father’s 40-year run as head coach.
The Seminoles were off to a solid 12-5 start when the season was halted. They had just upset top-ranked Florida, 2-0, in Gainesville, snapping an 11-game losing streak against the Gators. Their rotation featured C.J. Van Eyk and Shane Drohan—who would both go on to be drafted in June, making them one of just a handful of teams that had two starting pitchers drafted.
Now, Florida State enters 2021 with the core of its lineup back and the 11th-ranked recruiting class on campus. All the pieces are there again for the Seminoles to compete at the top of the ACC.
As Florida State looks to the spring, here are five questions it faced this fall.
Who will step up at the front of the rotation?
The Seminoles lost both C.J. Van Eyk and Shane Drohan in the draft, leaving two open spots in the rotation. While replacing those two won’t be easy—particularly Van Eyk, who was the team’s ace and the 42nd overall pick in the draft—Florida State has several intriguing options.
Righthander Conor Grady returns as a fourth-year junior who has made 51 appearances (12 starts) and thrown 108.1 innings for the Seminoles. He was the team’s Sunday starter in 2020 and saw his velocity increase this fall, as his fastball regularly reached 93 mph to go with a good changeup and slider. He’s likely to again be a part of the rotation.
Lefthander Parker Messick last spring impressed as a reliever as a true freshman, going 1-1, 0.77 with 19 strikeouts and two walks in 11.2 innings. He’s now pushing for a spot in the rotation. Second-year freshman Doug Kirkland came to Florida State as a catcher/righthander but is now focused on pitching and has taken a step forward on the mound.
Florida State also brought in a strong group of newcomers on the mound, led by freshman righthander Carson Montgomery, the highest ranked player on the 2020 BA 500 to go undrafted. Lefthander Wyatt Crowell didn’t come to Tallahassee with as much hype, but impressed this fall with a low-90s fastball from a low three-quarters slot and two good offspeed pitches.
Hard-throwing righthander Hunter Perdue isn’t technically a newcomer, as he came to Florida State last fall as a junior college transfer but missed the 2020 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. He was a starter in junior college and, now healthy again, has the stuff to reprise that role in Tallahassee.
While the Seminoles this year don’t return an ace, they have a plethora of starting options and should have no problem building a strong rotation.
Who will Florida State rely on in the bullpen?
Like with its rotation, Florida State will have options in the bullpen. Veterans Tyler Ahearn, Chase Haney, Clayton Kwiatkowski and Jonah Scolaro are all back, having pitched in a lot of games for the Seminoles during their careers.
Haney is an especially important piece of the puzzle to return. He’s made 109 appearances for the Seminoles and is 13-4, 2.89 over four seasons. He has made more than 30 appearances in a season three times and last year was leading the nation with 12 appearances in 17 games when the season was halted.
What Florida State hadn’t landed on in 2020 was a closer. The Seminoles had just two saves as a team, with Ahearn and Messick each earning one in multi-inning relief appearances.
Will Florida State find a traditional closer in 2021? It will certainly have options. Any of the relief veterans or potential starters who don’t end up in the rotation could move to the back of the bullpen. In time, someone is likely to establish themselves as closer.
“Last year we didn’t have a clear-cut guy to wrap up ballgames,” Martin Jr. said. “We figured we’d play it by ear and see who could do it. This year, three to four guys are competing for that.”
Can Florida State improve defensively?
The Seminoles last year posted a .950 fielding percentage as a team, committing 32 errors in 17 games. While the sample size was still relatively small, Florida State ranked last in the ACC in fielding.
Florida State typically isn’t an elite defensive team—it hasn’t posted a fielding percentage of better than .970 since 2011—but it will need to improve on its 2020 defensive performance to reach its ceiling.
The Seminoles return Jackson Greene and Nander De Sedas, who in 2020 started every game up the middle. Dylan Simmons and Cooper Swanson, who combined to make 11 starts at first base, are back, as are Tyler Martin and Logan Lacey, who combined to start the last seven games at third base. To that mix, the Seminoles added a few newcomers. Vince Smith leads the freshmen class and can play anywhere on the infield, with classmate Richie Morales and first baseman Casey Asman, a junior college transfer, giving the Seminoles more options.
Florida State last season had not settled on a consistent starting infield and, as such, nothing is guaranteed going into 2021. The pieces are there for an improved infield defense in the spring and simply getting more consistent play out of the infield would be a step in the right direction.
How does Florida State set up behind the plate?
While the infield is still taking shape, Florida State is set behind the plate with third-year sophomore Mat Nelson. He hit .250/.410/.383 last season and started all but two games behind the plate.
Nelson could have been drafted in June as an eligible sophomore but opted to return for the Seminoles. He’s a steady defender who managed Florida State’s staff well.
Nelson is locked back in as the starting catcher with freshman Sebastian Jimenez and third-year sophomore Colton Vincent, a junior college transfer, also in the mix behind the plate. Developing one of them as a backup will be important, especially in an uncertain season.
Nelson has been a reliable all-around player for the Seminoles. If he can take a step forward offensively to hit for a bit more power, it would be a welcome development, but his on-base skills and acumen behind the plate make for a valuable combination.
What’s next for Florida State’s high-powered outfield?
The Seminoles return one of the best outfields in college baseball. Fourth-year junior Reese Albert is back in center field after opting out of the draft. Third-year sophomore Robby Martin returns in right field and has first-round potential, as does classmate Elijah Cabell in left field.
Albert’s decision to return was significant. He hit .242/.407/.516 with four home runs last spring and he’s been a constant force in the Seminoles’ lineup throughout his career. He was limited last fall due to shoulder surgery and now, with a full healthy offseason, he should be ready to take a step forward this spring.
Cabell also could have been drafted last year as an eligible sophomore, but instead is back in Tallahassee for his third season of college baseball. He has big raw power and hit seven home runs last spring. He’s added 25 pounds to his 6-foot-2 frame and has been hitting balls further than ever this fall. There is a fair amount of swing and miss in his game and he struck out in more than a third of his plate appearances, but his middle-of-the-order presence is still formidable.
Martin hit .324/.439/.412 last spring and is the best all-around hitter of the three. He’s a constant in the lineup and has the offensive tools to be a first-round pick.
The three outfielders form the core of the lineup and how they play will go a long way in determining what kind of offense the Seminoles have.
“Any time you can run out Albert, Cabell, and Robby, they’re tried and true,” Martin Jr. said.