Editor’s note: College Baseball Nation is joined by guest writer, Owen Surett. Owen Surett is a college student who resides in North Carolina. Owen covers College Baseball for his media outlet, College Baseball USA (@ColBaseUSA on Twitter), which was founded in Fall of 2019. He is passionate about various aspects of the game, including analytics, player development, and player evaluation.
After having one of the best drafts of any program from a ‘getting guys back’ perspective, Florida heads into 2021 with the highest expectations of any team in America as they prepare to open their brand-new state-of-the-art ballpark.
“I think our expectations are the same every year,” Head Coach Kevin O’Sullivan said in a media appearance. “That’s to get back to Omaha and put ourselves into position to win a national championship, SEC Championship. That’s our goal every year.”
The lineup will be headlined by young superstar OF Jud Fabian who will be repeating his sophomore year in 2021. The Ocala native should provide elite production both in center field and at the plate. The industry expects Fabian to come off the board in the top 5 picks of the 2021 Draft (maybe even at number one, which is where College Baseball Nation has him ranked). Sophomore Jacob Young is just as good of an athlete as Fabian if not better. Young hit an impressive .450 in the brief 2020 campaign (60 AB’s) and will be in the mix at one of the up-the-middle positions if O’Sullivan opts to move him out of right field.
Behind the plate the Gators are in good shape as well, with both repeating-Freshman Nathan Hickey and veteran Cal Greenfield as options. Hickey started the bulk of games at catcher in his freshman year, but Greenfield has plenty of big-game experience.
A large portion of the thump in the middle of the order should come from Kirby McMullen and Kris Armstrong. “Kirby Barrels” began his Gators career on the mound but has transitioned into primarily a position player. The graduate student had some clutch hits in the Miami series early on in 2020. Armstrong, a 6-4 230 lbs. switch-hitter, is expected to play first and provides a dangerous bat for the Gators.
Earlier this fall, a Florida scrimmage was featured on the SEC Network, offering a chance to see the team in action. The scrimmage was dominated by the Gators' wealth of pitching talent, but let’s start with the offensive highlights.
Infielder Josh Rivera, a player out of IMG Academy who impressed in his brief freshman season, was one of the standouts of the night. Left-handed hitting second baseman Cory Acton is a solid bat as well who the Gators hope to get significant production out of in a full version of his sophomore year. Newcomer SS out of American Heritage HS Jordan Carrion has impressed this fall, especially with the glove. There could be some competition in the infield, especially when you factor in other potential impact newcomers Sterlin Thompson and Colby Halter. As always Florida has a glut of talent that will be fighting for playing time this spring.
The weekend rotation seems set in stone, and it very well could be the best in college baseball. Veteran RHPs Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich return for what would be their senior years to lead the rotation. Big lefty Hunter Barco is on pace to get the Sunday spot once again after spending most of his abbreviated freshman season in that role. Mace is 6-6 with a full arsenal of pitches. In the broadcasted scrimmage, he pounded the zone with strikes while locating well and generating quick outs. Leftwich also looked comfortable, hitting 95-96 mph with good feel for the slider. Hunter Barco was a bit spotty with command in his first inning but bounced back in his second inning.
O’Sullivan recognizes the importance of experience for his team. “We talked about the depth in our pitching and our bullpen, but I think the one thing that kind of gets lost is the amount of experience on our team. Getting back (senior) Kirby McMullen and some of these older guys, Cal Greenfield (catcher), Tommy Mace (Friday starter), Jack Leftwich (Saturday starter) and the list goes on and on. We’ve got a lot of experience on our team and hopefully that will help us in the spring.”
The Florida bullpen will be loaded as well. Flamethrowers Christian Scott, Nick Pogue, Brandon Sproat, and closer Ben Specht will be the leaders. Keep an eye on incoming freshman lefty Timmy Manning who I could see carving up hitters late in games with his hammer curveball. Sully also brings in 6-6 junior college righty, Franco Aleman, who looks to work a significant role on the Florida staff. Currently, three Florida pitchers are ranked in College Baseball Nation’s College Top 50 (24. Mace, 43. Specht, and 50. Leftwich).
The Gators exceeded expectations before the season was shut down, finishing 16-1 and winning their first 16 games before losing what ended up being the season finale to Florida State on March 10. However, O’Sullivan is not hanging his hat on past laurels. “Last year is last year. Obviously, it was difficult because we were off to such a good start, but it was a circumstance that everybody had to deal with. We’re just looking forward to having a successful spring.”
The Florida Gators are on track to be one of the top teams in the country, once again. Kevin O’Sullivan’s 2021 squad has a chance to rival all of the great teams he has fielded over the years, which sure is saying something. If one thing is certain, no team in the country is going to feel comfortable looking over and seeing orange and blue in the opposite dugout and especially not on the mound.