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.”