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Wednesday January 22, 2014 Five questions as the Gators baseball team prepares to open camp

O'Sullivan

Gators coach Kevin O'Sullivan, right, is entering his seventh season at UF.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The UF baseball team’s longer-than-normal offseason ends Friday when the Gators open camp. The season opener is Feb. 14 as Florida hosts Maryland to start a three-game series.

Instead of finishing their season in late June in Omaha, the Gators’ 2013 season came to a screeching halt at Bart Kaufman Field in Bloomington, Ind. Florida lost back-to-back one-run games to Austin Peay and Valparaiso in the Bloomington Regional.

UF’s string of three consecutive trips to the College World Series was over. Five consecutive losses to close the season dropped the Gators to 29-30, their first losing season under head coach Kevin O’Sullivan. The power-challenged lineup hit only 28 home runs -- or 47 fewer than in 2012 when they led the nation.

While it was a subpar season compared to the high standards of recent seasons, O’Sullivan guided the Gators back to the NCAA Tournament for the sixth consecutive season, which ties the longest streak in school history.

Based on preseason projections, that record should fall in 2014.

In other words, the Gators are expected to be back. Maybe not all the way back to Omaha, but back in the mix as a real contender when the postseason starts.

The first major preseason poll to be released is from Collegiate Baseball. The Gators check in at No. 16, the only team ranked in the top 40 that didn’t finish with a winning record last season.

One reason the Gators will likely be ranked in the other major polls is because of this ranking: No. 1 recruiting class in 2013.

O’Sullivan boosted the roster with the addition of 17 newcomers, a signing class that PerfectGame.org also ranked No. 1 in the country.

Of course, the Gators must go out and do it on the field for the preseason pundits to be proved correct.

That task begins at McKethan Stadium three weeks from Friday when Florida baseball opens its 100th season.

Let’s take a look at five questions surrounding this year’s Gators:

--Which newcomer could make biggest impact? The biggest one – literally and figuratively. At 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, freshman A.J. Puk is an imposing figure on the mound or at the plate. Puk bats and throws left-handed and arrived at UF as one of the country’s top two-way prospects after a celebrated prep career at Washington High in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Puk’s fastball is clocked in the 90s and he is a versatile athlete, having played quarterback in high school prior to opting to play baseball full-time. Puk has a similar skill set to that of former Gators 1B/P Brian Johnson, who was a first-round pick of the Boston Red Sox in the 2012 MLB Draft.

Karsten Whitson

--Can Karsten Whitson anchor the starting rotation? The redshirt junior has been in the spotlight since he signed with the Gators after passing up a multi-million dollar signing bonus with the Padres coming out of high school. Whitson (photo, left) won eight games in 2011 and was named National Freshman Pitcher of the Year by Perfect Game. He owns a 12-1 career record with a 2.69 ERA. However, due to various injuries, Whitson has pitched only 33 1/3 innings the past two seasons. The good news is that Whitson is healthy and projected as the No. 1 starter.

--Who is the player the Gators need to stay healthy and in the lineup? Sophomore shortstop Richie Martin is expected to bat leadoff and tighten up the infield defense. Martin suffered a finger injury last season and could not play the field for 20 games. The Gators reeled off a season-high eight consecutive wins when Martin returned before faltering down the stretch. Martin’s baseball IQ and leadership qualities will be important to the club’s success.

--Who will supply the power? The Gators scored two or fewer runs in 15 of 59 games a season ago (25 percent). They were 0-15 in those games. While no one expects this group to match the power totals of the 2012 team that featured boppers Mike Zunino and Preston Tucker, the Gators will need more than 22 home runs from the eight position players returning. Catcher Taylor Gushue, third baseman Josh Tobias and outfielder Justin Shafer can hit for power and second baseman Casey Turgeon hit five home runs a season ago. Puk has home-run potential as well, which should increase as he develops physically.

--How is the bullpen depth? The bullpen was a key weapon for the three consecutive Florida teams to make the CWS. Injuries and performance derailed the relief corps last season. Fortunately for O’Sullivan, the return of right-hander Keenan Kish and lefty Corey Stump adds depth. Both missed the majority of last season to injuries. Right-hander Ryan Harris is slated to fill the void left by the departure of closer Johnny Magliozzi (4-2, 2.67, 12 SVs) and a talented pool of freshmen that includes right-handers Dane Dunning and Brett Morales could factor into the mix. The trio of Eric Hanhold, Jay Carmichael and Danny Young also figures prominently in the pitching plans. All three have started and relieved during their careers.

Bottom line: The Gators have plenty of familiar names from a year ago and another year of experience should only help the team’s core group. However, O’Sullivan has high hopes for the talented freshman class and how quickly they adjust to the college game will play a critical role in how the 2014 season plays out.

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