GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A driving force behind the Florida baseball team posting the best regular-season record in program history last spring and reaching the College World Series for the fifth time in seven years was the Gators’ deep stable of dominant pitchers.
Most of whom are now playing professionally.
After having three of those pitchers selected among the top 47 picks in Major League Baseball’s draft last June and having five go in the first four rounds overall, the Gators are facing a significant rebuild of their pitching staff heading into 2017.
But as usual, coach Kevin O’Sullivan feels the program has the answers to most of those questions.
“I feel really good. Obviously knock on wood, we need to stay healthy, but with Faedo, Singer and Kowar, I don’t think anybody is going to feel sorry for us on the weekend,” O’Sullivan said Tuesday before a fall practice session. “You’ve got three right-handers that are big, they’ve got leverage and they’ve got really good arms and they’re all 92 to 96-97 (miles per hour).”
Alex Faedo, a 6-foot-5 junior righty, has ace-level stuff, 6-foot-5 sophomore righty Brady Singer will look to take the next step after a modest rookie season and fellow 6-foot-5 sophomore righty Jackson Kowar showed great potential in an injury-shortened season last spring. If all three pitch to their potential, the Gators should be set with their weekend rotation.
That rapid retooling is how a program is able to make almost annual plans for the College World Series, and O’Sullivan is banking that those top three and a mix of returners and newcomers are good enough to give the Gators a chance at returning to Omaha yet again.
But it can’t be understated what Florida lost from the 2016 team, which finished 52-16 and was ranked No. 1 in the country for much of the season.
Flame-throwing A.J. Puk (2-3, 3.05 ERA and 101 strikeouts in 73.2 innings) was drafted with the sixth overall selection by the Oakland A’s. Trusted reliever Dane Dunning (6-3, 2.29 ERA, 88 Ks in 78.2 IP) came off the board with the 29th overall pick, by the Washington Nationals. Logan Shore (12-1, 2.31 ERA, 96 Ks in a team-high 105.1 IP) was drafted 47th overall by the A’s. Closer Shaun Anderson (3-0, 0.97 ERA, 13 saves, 60 Ks in 46.1 IP) went in the third round to the Boston Red Sox. Lefty reliever Scott Moss (3-0, 1.57 ERA, 31 Ks in 23 IP) went in the fourth round to the Cincinnati Reds. And fellow lefty reliever Kirby Snead (3-1, 2.78 ERA, 33 Ks in 35.2 IP) followed later in the 10th round, to the Toronto Blue Jays.
“I mean it’s big shoes to fill, but it’s exciting,” Kowar said. “Those were hard-working dudes so they kind of set a precedent, which you want a little bit of pressure. I think that kind of pushes you to be better than you could be without it so I think it’s exciting.”
Kowar went 3-0 with a 3.37 ERA and a 44-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 34.2 innings last spring before missing the end of the season due to a collapsed lung. He didn’t pitch after April 19, but he had surgery to fix the problem and after having the same procedure on his other lung as a senior in high school. The pitcher dismissed the significance of the condition.
“It was not as big of a deal as people make it. It kind of sounds a little more scary than it is. It’s a little more routine,” Kowar said. “I had a chance to try to push it off to the end of the season, but I felt like I needed to take care of it then. The surgery went really well and I was ready to go in Omaha. So I kind of bounced back pretty quick, and then I was able to spend the summer here and gain the weight back that I lost and get bigger and stronger. Hopefully it turns out to be a little bit of a blessing in disguise in the end. …
“I’ve got them both taken care of so no more issues now.”
As for what caused the lung issues, Kowar quipped: “It’s just me being tall and skinny, I guess.”
With regards to his comfort on the mound, the sophomore said he’s adding a slider to his fastball-changeup repertoire to give him the third pitch he feels will allow him to take the next step in his progression.
Faedo, meanwhile, is the most experienced of the Gators’ returning pitchers after throwing 104.2 innings last season (second only to Shore) while going 13-3 with a 3.18 ERA and a sterling 133-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Singer went just 2-2 with a 4.95 ERA in 22 relief appearances and one start, totaling 43.2 innings, but O’Sullivan sees him as a key cog in 2017.
“They all bring something a little bit different to the table,” O’Sullivan said. “Obviously Alex has got the plus slider with the plus fastball, and Brady’s got as good a sink on his fastball as I think I’ve ever had and his slider has been really good and his changeup is certainly coming along really well with where he’s at. And then Jackson’s slider is coming on, and you guys know how good of a changeup he has. So they’re all a little bit different, but as far as the bullpen, I knew going in that we were going to have to redo the bullpen a little bit so to speak and figure out a couple positions on the field.
“But we return 7 of our 9 hitters so we’re not that far off. We’ve just got to figure out the bullpen. I think that’s probably the biggest thing.”
With regard to the other pitching pieces he has to work with to plug those remaining voids, O’Sullivan has been impressed with freshmen lefties Andrew Baker and Austin Langworthy through the start of fall practice.
“I expect them to play right away,” he said.
Freshmen righties Tyler Dyson and Nate Brown also have given encouraging performances so far.
“I really didn’t expect the type of velocity (Dyson is) throwing with — 92-95 — and I think he’s got a chance to be really, really good down the road. Really good,” O’Sullivan said.
Among the Gators’ other returning pitchers, Kowar highlighted senior righty Frank Rubio (3-1, 4.46 ERA in 34.1 innings in 2016) and redshirt-freshman righty MacGregor Hines as guys who could emerge this coming season.
Asked how ready he feels the Gators are in general to replace those key losses on the mound, Kowar didn’t hesitate.
“I think really ready,” he said.
Florida may have to put the puzzle back together, but there is real confidence that all the necessary pieces are there.
It’s still October, though, and some of those remaining questions concerning the bullpen may come into clearer focus come February as the newcomers continue to acclimate.
“It’s pretty nerve-wracking, to be honest, when you first step out there,” Kowar said. “I mean, I gave up 5 earned (runs) my first outing in the fall. So you don’t really know until you kind of get more in the scrimmages and especially once they get in the real games. But I think the freshmen look, for the most part, no one’s been too like overwhelmed with the situation, so they look pretty good.”
Indeed, it’s a tall task replacing so many pitchers drafted so highly, but not an overwhelming one for this Florida team.