GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida baseball team won its first national championship in the program’s 103-year history on Tuesday, riding its quality starting pitching and shutdown defense throughout the College World Series.
Now some are starting to present the question: Can the Gators repeat as national champions next season?
“We’ll be good enough next year,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said Wednesday following the team’s post-championship celebration at McKethan Stadium. “We’ll see what happens. We’ll be talented enough. I’m going to try to enjoy this one for now.”
Be that as it may, the 2018 season will be here before the Gators know it.
New faces will be on the roster. New roles will be implemented. New challenges will be faced.
Here’s a look at what’s in store for the Florida baseball team in 2018.
Florida is expected to lose four players who were selected in the top-10 rounds of the 2017 MLB Draft earlier this month: Ace pitcher Alex Faedo, shortstop Dalton Guthrie, and catchers Mike Rivera and Mark Kolozsvary.
Faedo, who was selected 18th overall by the Detroit Tigers, has been Florida’s rock all season. He finished his final year with a 9-2 record and an NCAA-leading 157 strikeouts. He was named the Most Outstanding Player of the College World Series after going 2-0 in Omaha, Neb., with 22 strikeouts in 14 1/3 scoreless innings, and his name is scattered across Florida’s all-time record book.
Guthrie was a defensive stalwart at shortstop, sacrificing his body to make every play he could. He helped turn 30 double plays this year despite an injury to his throwing shoulder that limited him to designated hitting duties for three weeks. At the plate, he served as Florida’s leadoff hitter his first two years and the early going of his junior year before the shoulder injury.
Rivera has been one of the team’s leaders since he stepped foot on campus and has exemplified the grit and toughness the Gators displayed all season. He carries a bulldog mentality while on the field, working aggressively as a catcher while also knowing how to handle each of Florida’s pitchers when they are going through rough patches on the mound. O’Sullivan has referred to Rivera as the team’s “heart and soul.” He has the potential to be an everyday catcher in the big leagues.
Kolozsvary came to Florida three years ago as the No. 3 catcher behind Rivera and JJ Schwarz and was expected by most to be the starting catcher in 2018. Instead, he’ll instead be reporting to spring training after the Cincinnati Reds selected him in the seventh round because of his potential defensively behind the plate and in the batter’s box.
In addition to those four, seniors Ryan Larson and Frank Rubio have finished their four-year collegiate careers.
Larson was one of Florida’s few consistent hitters during the regular season. The outfielder had a .318 batting average heading into the SEC Tournament and finished the regular season with hits in 15 of his final 17 games. After hitting a walk-off single in the first NCAA Super Regional game against Wake Forest, Larson closed out the year on a 1-for-28 slump.
Rubio, a late-inning reliever for all four years, finished his final season with a 4.15 ERA over 30 1/3 innings.
While Florida is once again losing a bevy of talent like it does every year, O’Sullivan will still have a core group of player from this season to work with.
Let’s start with the pitching.
Sophomore Brady Singer (9-5, 3.21 ERA) is essentially a lock to move into the Friday-night role next season. He threw three complete games as a sophomore and gave up 2 earned runs or fewer in 10 of his starts that lasted longer than 5 innings. Some outlets have Singer projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft.
Classmate Jackson Kowar (12-1, 4.08 ERA this season) is expected to also stay in the rotation next year as either the No. 2 or No. 3 starter. The third spot in the rotation will likely go to either late-emerging freshman Tyler Dyson (14 1/3 IP, 1 R, 0.63 ERA in NCAA Tournament) or closer Michael Byrne (school-record 19 saves this season). Nate Brown and Garrett Milchin seem to be the top midweek starter options out of the returners. UF also has eight pitchers from its bullpen slated to return next season barring transfers.
From the position player standpoint, the Gators should be returning six players who started at least 50 games last season.
Probably the most surprising returner is slugger JJ Schwarz , who announced on his Instagram page Friday that he is coming back for his senior season after being selected in the 38th round of the MLB Draft. Schwarz has been the Gators’ top power hitter since he stepped foot on campus, belting out 37 home runs over the past three years. Schwarz was in a slump for most of the season before hitting a grand slam against South Carolina that turned his fortunes around. Florida can continue to play him at either first base or catcher, depending on how the incoming freshmen catchers develop (more on them in a minute).
As for the rest of the infield, starters second baseman Deacon Liput, third baseman Jonathan India and utility player Christian Hicks will all return next year. Liput, a sound defensive player who came on strong at the plate during the College World Series, will likely stay at second base. India will likely slide over to shortstop next season to replace Guthrie. Hicks should get time at both first and third base.
Power-hitting lefty Keenan Bell, who started 24 games last season, should get playing time at first base and designated hitter.
In the outfield, Nelson Maldonado and Austin Langworthy are the two main everyday returners. Nick Horvath, Florida’s top defensive outfielder and a cog in the front-end of the Gators’ bullpen, also returns. Blake Reese could also get looks at a corner outfield spot.
Who’s coming in?
O’Sullivan put together a 16-player recruiting class for the 2018 season — with 15 being from the state of Florida — but not all of them will be making it to campus.
Half of the class was selected during the MLB Draft. Two of those eight players — right-handed pitcher Sam Carlson (2nd round pick) and catcher Samuel McMillan (5th round pick) — have already signed professional deals. A third — catcher Zach Jackson (6th round pick) — is also expected to sign.
The highlight of the incoming class is Brady McConnell, a shortstop from Merritt Island, Fla. Baseball American ranked him the No. 39 overall prospect available in the 2017 draft due to his speed, glove work and chance to hit for power. If he can adjust to the college level early, McConnell could see playing time early in the infield.
Two others to look out for are catchers Calvin Greenfield and Brady Smith, who both could earn playing time early due to Florida’s lack of depth behind the plate.
The rest of Florida’s class that is could to make it to campus includes seven pitchers, two infielders and and outfielder. Four of those remaining 10 players were selected in the draft and have until July 7 at 5 p.m. ET to make a signing decision.
O’Sullivan has always had success on the recruiting trail. The Gators have had a top-8 recruiting class each of the last eight seasons.
What about the facilities?
The University Athletic Association has committed $30 million of its $100 million master facility plan toward renovations for the baseball team.
According to the initial plan that was announced in September, a central canopy will cover about two-thirds of the stadium’s seats. An extra four rows of seats will be added behind home plate, and about 400 club-level seats and the stands in left field will be elevated to be at the same height as the Dizney Plaza next to it.
First-year athletics director Scott Stricklin wrote in a letter to Gators fans on June 22 that more details on the baseball renovations — as well as softball — will be unveiled in the next few weeks.
“I know there are plans for a facility and that type of thing,” O’Sullivan said, “but it’s never hurt us in recruiting.”