2001 FLORIDA GATOR BASEBALL PREVIEW
Gators Rise to Challenge, Prepare for 2001 Season
Experienced players. Depth. Work ethic. Power. Teamwork. Speed. Intangibles. The 2001 Florida baseball team has it all.
Whether those qualities translate into Florida's fifth College World Series appearance, 10th SEC Championship or 19th NCAA Regional appearance remains to be seen. But Florida head coach Andy Lopez has high expectations and is more excited to coach his 2001 Gators than any team in his 19 years as a head coach.
"We went through a difficult February last year and the guys came out with their heads high," said Lopez who enters his seventh season at Florida. "This year's team has already been challenged psychologically by overcoming all of the injuries we had last year and they're better for it. You can't coach intangibles and this group has it. Our confidence level along with the excitement of those guys returning healthy will be a big boost."
"We've got a lot of excitement with the upcoming year and it's justified excitement."
In a 2000 season that saw 14 players sidelined with injuries, Florida regrouped to win 30 of its final 41 games, appeared in its fourth NCAA Regional over the last five years and concluded the 2000 campaign with a 44-23-1 record. In addition, the Gators played in and advanced to both the SEC Tournament and NCAA Regional championship games. It was a season full of adversity and challenges and the Gators rose to every occasion.
Lopez has every reason to have confidence as his Gators return 22 proven letterwinners, six position starters and 10 pitchers from last year's squad.
Senior Jason Dill earned All-SEC First Team and All South Region honors after turning in yet another standout season at the plate (.356, 9 HR, 44 RBI). The infield looks experienced as junior second baseman Mark Kiger (.314, 54 walks, 22 steals, 57 RBI), sophomore third baseman Aaron Sobieraj (.361, 16 doubles, 25 RBI) and junior shortstop Kevin Estrada (.281, 22 RBI) all are back after successful 2000 seasons. Senior leftfielder Matt Siegel (.328, 31 RBI) and senior rightfielder Peter Nystrom (.332, 7 HR, 50 RBI) both return to the outfield along with junior centerfielder Matt Goss (.319, 3 HR, 15 RBI). Sophomore Brian Rose and senior Nick Trefry both are back to handle the catching duties, junior powerhitter Ryan Shealy will see action at first base, sophomore Pat Osborn should contribute in the infield and speedy second baseman Aaron Davidson returns from the sidelines after an injury ended his 2000 campaign.
"We've got tremendous depth in all areas," said Lopez. "This will be the deepest team I've ever coached."
On the mound, the Gators return 10 pitchers with proven experience. Senior Jeff Cardozo comes back after contributing a 6-2 record, 4.03 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 73.2 innings. Sophomore Joey Simon earned Collegiate Baseball Freshman All America honors after finishing 10-2 with a 4.32 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 77 innings last year. Junior Jay Belflower (7-3, 5.35 ERA, 5 saves) and seniors Eddie Rojas (6-0, 4.57 ERA) and Kenny Birch (6-0, 3.79 ERA, 3 saves) all return to the Gator bullpen which emerged as a team strength last year as the group combined for 12 saves and a 21-3 record. The hard throwing Belflower is expected to move into the starting rotation. In addition, three injured pitchers including starters sophomore Alex Hart and junior Jimmy Ramshaw, along with last year's closer senior Keith Brice, should be back to 100 percent by January. Several others including senior K.O. Wiegandt, Sobieraj along with lefthanded junior college transfers Robbie Wells and Keith Ramsey should also contribute.
The Gators must make up for the loss of consensus All America centerfielder Tim Olson (.394, 15 HR, 75 RBI), infielder Kurt Keene (.365, 6 HR, 61 RBI), catcher Tony Socarras (.300, 19 HR, 64 RBI) and righthanded pitcher Mike Smalley (6-9, 5.55 ERA, 76 K). Olson came up with several big hits and went on a school-record 27-game hit streak, Keene provided valuable leadership, Socarras led the Gators with 18 home runs and Smalley became Florida's No. 1 starter after transferring from Florida State.
"We lose leadership from Kurt Keene but I don't worry about leadership with this team," Lopez said. "We lost some home run power from last year but we'll compensate with some of the guys that are back. We'll miss Tim Olson but when Matt Goss is healthy, he's a very good centerfielder. We need Jason Dill from a productive standpoint. Hopefully Ryan Shealy can come into his own and we'll need everyone to step up."
The Gators will once again play one of the toughest schedules in the nation including eight non-conference showdowns with Miami and Florida State and the always grueling SEC schedule. Florida opens its 2001 schedule at McKethan Stadium against Miami on Feb. 3. The season kicks off on January 27 with the annual Alumni game.
"We've been to Omaha two times," Lopez said. "Our goal is to get back there and to win the national championship."
2001 POSITION BY POSITION ANALYSIS
Florida must replace departed junior Tony Socarras who provided leadership, solid defense, .300 hitting and 19 home runs as last year's starting catcher. Last year's backup Brian Rose looks to be the leading candidate to start at catcher. A redshirt sophomore, Rose played in 19 games (four starts) and hit .219 with a home run and three RBI. He possesses a strong arm, completed a successful fall and can hit. Senior Nick Trefry and freshman Mike Murray will also contribute behind the plate. Trefry has a full season of Division I experience under his belt while Murray is a gifted player who earned Collegiate Baseball First Team All America honors in his senior season at Westminster Academy.
"We have a good combination at catcher with Rose, Trefry and Murray," Lopez said. "Brian Rose has done more than an adequate job at catcher. He brings with him a good arm and he will throw some people out. Nick Trefry is a senior and he'll do fine. Then we have Mike Murray who was a freshman and high school All American last year."
Senior Jason Dill concluded fall drills as the starter at first base. The senior owns a .316 career batting average and is ranked among UF's all-time leaders in home runs (32), total bases (312), bases on balls (312) and runs batted in (126). Dill, who was named All South Region and First Team All SEC last year, has had an injury-filled career but reported to fall camp in the best shape of his career. As a freshman in 1998, Dill was selected to Collegiate Baseball's Freshman All America squad after hitting a UF freshman record 16 home runs. He will be counted upon for power in the middle of the lineup.
Junior Ryan Shealy also returns to the Gators as a DH/first baseman. Shealy, who has 11 HR and 36 RBI in 203 career at bats, provides amazing power to the Gator lineup. Last year he missed 43 games with an elbow injury, battled back to 100 percent with rehab but then had problems with his knee during fall practice. He should be ready to go for the upcoming season.
Freshman utility athlete Matt Maley and walk-on Jamie Keel will also see action at first base.
Junior leadoff hitter Mark Kiger returns to his second base post in 2000. Kiger, who started all 67 games in 2000 at second base, concluded a splendid year as he batted .314 with 8 HR and 57 RBI. He led the Gators with 22 stolen bases and ranked second in bases on balls (54). He also finished among team leaders in multi-hit games and multi-RBI games.
Junior medical redshirt Aaron Davidson (.265, 10 RBI, 10 steals in 10 GP as a DH) also returns after missing 58 games last season with a shoulder injury. Davidson who hit .357 in 12 fall intrasquads, will likely see action at both second base and designated hitter and bat at the top of the Gator lineup.
Freshman C.J. Smith and sophomore Aaron Sobieraj provide depth.
Kevin Estrada returns as Florida's starting shortstop. Last year Estrada, who transferred from Los Angeles Harbor J.C., contributed .281 hitting, one HR, 22 RBI, eight steals and slick fielding (13 errors in 258 chances). He was named to the NCAA Regional team and teamed with second baseman Mark Kiger to provide one of the nation's best middle infield defensive combinations. He also completed a successful fall (hit .326/2HR/9RBI) and the coaching staff believes fans will see a much improved Estrada in the spring.
"We went through and ranked all of our players after the fall and we ranked Kevin No. 1 in terms of value to our club," Lopez said. "He never takes off a pitch at the plate, he's always hustling and his work ethic is outstanding."
Backing up Estrada will be sophomore Pat Osborn when not playing third base.
Florida returns several players who will see action at third base this season as last year's starter sophomore Aaron Sobieraj and sophomore Pat Osborn return in 2001.
Osborn enters January as the starter at third base. He concluded a successful fall that saw him hit .375 with two HR and 11 RBI. As a freshman, Osborn played in 35 games (12 starts at 3B) with a .237 batting average and 11 RBI. Last year Gator fans only caught a glimpse of the multi-talented Osborn, who was rated as the eighth-best high school prospect by Baseball America prior to the 1999 MLB draft.
Sobieraj (.361/1HR/25RBI) started 46 games last year including 39 games at third base and contributed 16 doubles and 65 hits. He also is a successful pitcher and Lopez hopes to use him more on the mound.
"Pat Osborn had an exceptional fall," Lopez said. "Aaron Sobieraj started last year and did a great job but we would like to use Aaron in more of a pitching role this year."
Walk-on Jamie Keel provides depth.
Florida's outfield looks to be deep and talented as the Gators return two senior starters (Matt Siegel and Peter Nystrom) and several other experienced players. Siegel returns to his post in leftfield for his final season. The three-year starter who began his career at UF as a walk-on, has a career .322 batting average, 12 home runs, 86 RBI and 100 bases on balls in 142 career starts. Last year Siegel hit .328 with six home runs and eight steals. Nystrom returns after starting 52 games last year. He hit .332 with seven home runs and 50 RBI in his second season with the Gators after transferring from Clemson.
Junior Matt Goss enters the season as the starter in centerfield after a solid fall. The junior started 18 games last year and hit .319 with three home runs and 15 RBI. Senior Jason Dill could see action in rightfield, junior David Klebonis will play centerfield and Mark Kiger has outfield experience. In addition, three talented newcomers- junior Keith Ramsey and freshmen Ben Harrison and Matt Fisherman provide depth.
"Matt Siegel is as good as any young man that I've ever coached," Lopez said. "Matt Goss has really looked good in centerfield and has shown some pop along with Peter Nystrom in right. Jason Dill could also see action in rightfield."
The Gators have several options at designated hitter. Aaron Davidson gives the Gators speed, solid hitting and a high on-base percentage, Jason Dill hits for average and power and Ryan Shealy provides unprecedented power.
Overall, Florida's pitching looks to be a strongpoint as 10 hurlers with experience return to the squad. Five pitchers are back who threw at least 60+ innings last year and four pitchers return that started at least five+ games.
Senior Jeff Cardozo (9-7, 5.21, 18 GS, 130 K in 164.0 career IP) returns with three years of experience. Last year Cardozo went 6-2 with a 4.03 ERA and struck out 62 batters in 73.2 innings and 10 starts. Sophomore Joey Simon (seven starts in 2000) is also back. Simon was named a Collegiate Baseball freshman All America after leading the Gators with a 10-2 record and finishing with a 4.32 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 77.0 innings. Hard throwing junior Jay Belflower (8-7, 6.54 ERA, 114 K in 141.2 career IP), who took over the closer's role and led the Gators with five saves last season, should move back into the starting rotation, a role he had as a freshman in 1999.
Sophomore Alex Hart (3-5, 7.81 in 53.0 career IP) and junior Jimmy Ramshaw (1-1 in 4 appearances last year) both return from Tommy John surgery and medical redshirts. Both were in the starting rotation before injuries ended their seasons. Junior college transfer Robbie Wells (Pensacola J.C.) could also see action as a starter
Last year the bullpen became a major strength as it compiled a 21-3 record and 12 saves. The bullpen should be a major strongpoint again in 2001 as Florida will combine its top three returning relievers with several talented newcomers.
Short reliever junior Jay Belflower (7-3, 5.35 ERA, led team with 5 saves) returns to the bullpen but is expected to move into the starting rotation. Middle relievers Kenny Birch (6-0, led team with 3.79 ERA, 3 saves) and senior lefthander Eddie Rojas (6-0, 4.57 ERA, 1 save) both return after combining for 27 percent (12-0 record) of UF's wins in 2000. Junior Keith Brice (7-3, 3.93 ERA in 68.2 career IP) who was last year's closer before suffering a season-ending injury, two-way player sophomore Aaron Sobieraj (1-1, 10 appearances) who is expected to see more mound action and senior K.O. Wiegandt (4.58 career ERA) all return to the bullpen with talent and experience. Junior Kevin Coleman (8 career appearances) also is back after rehabbing an elbow injury.
The Gators also added several talented newcomers in junior college transfers Keith Ramsey (lefty) and Ben Hedgecock, freshman walk-on Jay Hollenkamp, who impressed the coaching staff during fall drills and freshmen righthanders Scot Drucker, Mike Mlotkowski, Ryan Sadowski, T.J. Stanton, Pat Rumble along with freshman lefthander Matt Bomeisl.
WHAT FLORIDA RETURNS
52.9% (36 of 68) of game starts
84.1% (37 of 44) of wins
71.4% (433.2 of 607) of innings pitched
71.0% (338 of 476) of strikeouts
91.7% (11 of 12) of saves
61.8% (1496 of 2419) of at bats
59.2% (336 of 567) of runs scored
60.0% (470 of 783) of hits
46.4% (39 of 84) of home runs
53.6% (273 of 509) of RBI
62.3% (66 of 106) of stolen bases
39.9% (728 of 1821) of putouts
65.3% (514 of 787) of assists
52.6% (61 of 116) of errors
51.8% (1411 of 2724) of total defense
64.7% (22 of 34) of last year's playing roster
76.9% (10 of 13) of pitchers who pitched in '00
54.5% (12 of 22) of players who batted in '00
60% (6 of 10) of total starters (including DH)
55.6% (5 of 9) of field starters
PRESEASON DEPTH CHART
(This chart depicts which players will play at each of the positions. It is not a depth chart)