“You can’t have enough pitching, you know.” – Former Major League Baseball catcher, scout, coach, manager and general manager Paul Richards
Richards, who for decades was considered the leading expert on pitching in the majors, would have loved the dilemma facing University of Florida baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan in 2021. Thanks to an abbreviated 5-inning Major League Baseball Draft, O’Sullivan will have his Friday and Saturday night starters returning, giving the Gators an intact weekend rotation to go with every pitcher who got into a game during Florida’s 16-1 virus shortened season that saw UF finish ranked #1 in every poll.
This will be the deepest and most talented pitching staff in the country. While Richards’ axiom about pitching has held up as true throughout the years, it doesn’t say anything about finding enough innings to keep everybody happy, hence the problem O’Sullivan will face next season.
For now, at least, the weekend rotation will be Tommy Mace (3-0, 1.67 ERA in 2020) on Friday, Jack Leftwich (2-0, 4.15 ERA) on Saturday and lefty Hunter Barcourt (2-0, 1.40 ERA) on Sunday. In any other draft year, both Mace and Leftwich would have been high draft picks that figured to sign minor league contracts but in this shortened draft nearly every college player taken had very little leverage. Because the NCAA is giving back all athletes in spring sports their year of eligibility from 2020, both Mace and Leftwich will be fourth year juniors in 2020 so they will still have the option to return one more season when MLB drafts again next June. Barcourt will get his freshman year back and will be eligible for the draft in 2022.
Additionally, the Gators will return All-American closer Ben Specht (2-0, 3 saves, 0.75 ERA) and set-up long reliever Christian Scott (2-0, 1.20 ERA), both sophomores. Freshmen Tyler Nesbitt (1-0, 0.00 ERA) and Brandon Sproat (0-0, 1.50 ERA) both showed promise coming out of the bullpen and should be midweek starters next year.
As if O’Sullivan doesn’t already have a loaded pitching staff on his hands, he has six incoming freshmen (5 righties, 1 lefty) from a recruiting class Perfect Game ranked 5th nationally. The aces of the recruiting class is lefty Timmy Manning from Cardinal Gibbons in Fort Lauderdale, who regularly throws in the high 90s and has a wicked curve ball, and hard throwing righty LeBarron Johnson out of Jacksonville Paxon, who could double up as an outfielder with home run power.
But while pitching is a necessity, particularly in a league as competitive as the Southeastern Conference, it helps to have some hitting. Of his hitters and position players, O’Sullivan’s only loss so far from the 2020 roster is catcher/infielder Brady Smith, who signed a free agent deal with the Texas Rangers. Left fielder Austin Langworthy (.246, 1 HR, 8 RBI), third baseman Kirby McMullen (.278, 1 HR, 10 RBI) and utility infielder Nick Blasucci (.333, 1 RBI) were seniors but all three could return thanks to the NCAA ruling.
If Langworthy and McMullen return, the Gators will potentially have their entire lineup intact, led by right fielder Jacob Young (.450, 9 RBI) who will take a 16-game hitting streak into next season. Joining Young and Langworthy in the outfield will be center fielder Judd Fabian (.294, 5 HR, 13 RBI), who could be a first round selection in the 2021 draft.
In the infield, Jordan Butler (.333, 2 HR, 12 RBI) will platoon at first base with Kendrick Calilao (.262, 1 HR, 10 RBI) when he’s not taking a turn as the DH or pitching as a midweek starter or late inning lefty reliever. The Gators will be strong up the middle with shortstop Josh Rivera (.299, 2 HR, 9 RBI) and second baseman Cory Acton (.192, 1 HR, 4 RBI).
Nathan Hickey (.311, 4 HR, 7 RBI) will almost certainly start behind the plate.
Of the recruits, the Gators will almost certainly lose outfielder Zac Veen (1st round, Colorado Rockies) and third baseman Coby Mayo (4th round, Baltimore Orioles) to professional contracts but infielders Jordan Carrion and Sterlin Thompson will have a chance to play early and often as will Wyatt Langford, who can play infield, outfield or catch in a pinch.
As difficult as it might be for O’Sullivan to find innings for all his pitchers, it might be even more difficult to manage the entire roster unless the NCAA gives more clarity. Under current NCAA rules, Division I college baseball has 11.7 scholarships that can be spread among 27 players with a maximum roster of 35. Normally, roster management isn’t an issue for the Gators since they typically lose several players to the draft and free agency but no one from the 2020 roster was drafted and only one has signed a free agent contract. If Langworthy, McMullen and Blasucci all return and the NCAA doesn’t expand rosters for 2021, O’Sullivan will have some difficult decisions to make to get the roster within the limits.
One thing for sure, whatever potential headaches O’Sullivan has in getting his roster trimmed or finding enough innings for his pitchers, it’s a problem 95% of all the coaches in Division I would gladly take on if given the opportunity. The Gators will take the field at the beautiful new McKethan Stadium on the west side of the UF campus almost a mortal lock to start out with the #1 national ranking and preseason favorites to bring home the second NCAA championship in school history.