After CWS exit, Florida goal to replace core, sustain success

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Florida's Deacon Liput, right, bumps fists with Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan after he scored a run against Texas on a single by Jonathan India in the first inning of an NCAA College World Series. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Florida’s fourth straight College World Series appearance ended short of the ultimate goal, repeating as national champions.

The Gators still accomplished plenty during the 2018 season. Florida won an SEC regular season title and made it back to Omaha while finishing with a 49-21 overall record. UF was 41-11 through its first 52 games and was ranked No. 1 in major polls for most of the season before going 8-10 in its final 18 games, which included its season-ending loss to Arkansas on Friday night in the CWS semifinals.

Now comes the hard part. Florida must replace the core of players who helped put together a remarkable four-year run, in which the Gators went 205-74 while reaching at least the CWS semifinals in three of the last four seasons.

They’ve set the standard,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “And when we first got here 11 years ago, that was the goal, to get to Omaha and have the expectations.

“Now I think it’s even a step further. I think the expectation is to win a national championship, and that’s not easy to do. That’s a credit to our players, our staff. And like I said, it’s really disappointing right now. But we’ve got a really good core of young players on our team.”

Two-thirds of UF’s starting rotation, junior righty ace Brady Singer and junior Jackson Kowar, will more than likely leave for professional baseball. Singer was a first-round pick of the Kansas City Royals (18th overall), while Kowar was a Royals’ supplemental first-round pick (33rd overall). In addition, UF will be losing a handful of key position players — senior center fielder Nick Horvath, junior third baseman Jonathan India (first-round pick, Cincinnati Reds), junior shortstop Deacon Liput (10th-round pick, Los Angeles Dodgers) and senior catcher/first baseman JJ Schwarz.

Junior designated hitter/outfielder Nelson Maldonado and junior second baseman Blake Reese are expected to come back for their senior years, which will give next season’s lineup some needed experience. The status of junior righty closer Michael Byrne, UF’s all-time saves leader with 35, also remains up in the air. Byrne, drafted in the 14th round by the Reds, may choose to return for his senior year, possibly as a starting pitcher, which is where some scouts project him at the next level.

Freshman right-handers Jack Leftwich and Tommy Mace gained valuable experience during the postseason and should be able to step into rotation spots next season. Florida also will be looking for a bounce-back season from sophomore righty Tyler Dyson, who dealt with injuries and inconsistency during his sophomore season. Dyson lost his weekend rotation spot in April and didn’t make an appearance for the Gators after May 8, finishing the year 5-3 with a 4.47 ERA. Freshman lefty Jordan Butler (6-2, 4.10 ERA, 60 K in 52.2 IP) was a dependable power arm for the Gators out of the bullpen and could step into either the closer’s role or the rotation next season.  

At the plate, the Gators will be helped by the return of sophomore outfielders Austin Langworthy (.290, 4 HR, 21 RBIs) and Wil Dalton (.262, 19 HR, 60 RBIs). Freshman Brady Smith showed in the College World Series that he’s capable of replacing Schwarz at catcher next season, while sophomore Keenan Bell will get another chance to lock down the first base job full time. Bell is an excellent defensive first baseman, but after batting .224 as a sophomore, needs to show more consistency as a hitter. Freshman shortstop Brady McConnell showed promise early in the 2018 season before being sidelined with a wrist injury and will have an opportunity to replace Liput at shortstop.

Florida has another loaded incoming freshman class projected to arrive on campus. A number of those players, however, could choose to go directly to the major leagues out of high school. Four of UF’s incoming 14 commitments were taken within the first two rounds of the Major League draft — outfielder Connor Scott, catcher Anthony Seigler, right-handed pitcher Mason Denaburg and right-handed pitcher Lyon Richardson. Any one of those four would be an impact player should they decide to put off professional baseball and play for the Gators.

“We’ve got a really good recruiting class again,” O’Sullivan said. “I think the outing by Jack (Leftwich on Thursday) night was awesome. I think Brady Smith has grown up overnight behind the plate and with Tommy Mace and what Jordan Butler have been able to do on this stage, I think it’s a great foundation.”

5 COMMENTS

  1. Leftwich and Mace look like solid weekend pitchers. Dyson is a wild card. Butler can be a good lefty on lefty reliever and mid week starter. I would definitely like to see Byrne come back and see if he can be a starter. After that they are going to have to hope the Mcmullen brothers develop and some of the incoming freshmen who have committed actually show up. Definitely need to work on the offense though. Need some guys who can hit the ball consistently especially with runners in scoring position. That really hurt them in the CWS.

  2. I became a Gator baseball fan during grad school in the mid-90s. I became obsessed with the team featuring Eckstein, Ellis, Wilkinson, Rigdon, etc. Those guys set a new standard for the school. But what Sully has done and continues to do on the field, while bringing in boys who are solid student athletes, just fills me with joy. Four commits going in the first two rounds? Just par for the course now. Who’s next? India comes out of nowhere this year. I think Reese is going to become a really good hitter next year, along with Maldanado and Langworthy, to keep things moving forward. Leftwich is going to win more than ten games and Butler is going to get better command of his crazy stuff. I’m curious about the football team, but I can’t wait for either the basketball or baseball teams to start playing again.

  3. NWIA TB, if you look at the comment sections for the football articles, you can see the level of interest is off the charts for football in general and recruiting specifically. And it isn’t just in season, it’s year round. I know baseball and basketball get less publicity, so they’re harder to follow in the off-season, but can you imagine what these comment sections could be like if Sully and Mike White keep building their programs? It would be amazing to have a similar level of interest in baseball and basketball recruiting that football gets. There’s no reason we can’t generate the same level of baseball interest as LSU and the same level of basketball interest as Kentucky. Go Gators!

  4. Scott, Seigler, and Richardson have already signed contracts and are definitely not coming. Should be just a matter of time for Denaburg, as the Nats haven’t signed anyone over slot and have plenty of $$ to throw at him.

  5. Based on the players that we know are back next year, and not factoring in incoming freshman class, here are my suggested position players.
    Catcher: Cal Greenfeield. Excellent defensively and potential to be a solid hotter. Highly rated out of HS
    1B: Kenan Bell. Excellent defensively and with potential to up his game at the plate and has power
    2B: Blake Reese. Have to work on his defense but seems ready to hit in the .275- .280 range.
    SS: Brady McConnell. Highly rated out of HS and ready to play at high level
    3B: Brady Smith. Played third in HS and has very strong arm for 3B. Ready for a big season at bat.
    RF: Will Dalton. Needs to work on defense and swinging at breaking balls out of the zone but should have another solid year.
    CF: Andrew Baker. Two-way play, fast and can cover a lot of ground and has a pither’s strong arm.
    LF: A. Langworhy. Reday to have big year. expect he can hit in the .320 range and add more power
    DH: Nelson Maldonado. Solid.

    Pitchers: Leftwich, Mace, Dyson or Byrne, Butler, Hunter McMullen. Hunter Ruth. Ruth was highly rated player in HS and is recovering from surgery but enormous potential. Baker can also be spot pitcher, if needed. Note: Jordan Butler also a two-way player and although more valuable as a pitcher he can be used as pinch hitter or DH, as needed.

    Would revise list based on potential of incoming freshman class and JuCo transfers.

    In any event the makings of a very strong team, especially f youn pitchers continue to develop.