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March 20, 2008

Wait 'Til Next Year

College Weekend Preview

by Bryan Smith

A lot stands out about the Ole Miss Rebels. Lance Lynn, all 260 pounds of him, stands out with a 4-0 record and 3 earned runs allowed in 22 innings. Scott Bittle stands out as one of the nation's best relievers. The arms of Cody Satterwhite, and Drew Pomeranz, and Nathan Baker stand out as perhaps the most top-heavy pitching staff in the nation. The Rebels 191 team strikeouts in 171.2 innings also stand out because of their abundance.

It's hard to find something that stands out about the Florida Gators, though, except their recent record. The Gators, who brought in Kevin O'Sullivan to coach after finishing 29-30 last season, stand out merely for sweeping Auburn in their 2008 SEC debut and beating Florida State on Tuesday. But the Gators' 20 team home runs, their 106 team strikeouts--those don't stand out.

If the Gators do anything exceptionally well, it's on the bases. Coach O'Sullivan's staff has rigorous base running instruction, and it's paid off: the Gators are 40-for-43 on the bases this season. Star Cole Figueroa is a perfect 9-for-9, leadoff hitter Avery Barnes was caught for the first time in ten tries by Buster Posey on Tuesday, and center fielder Matt dan Dekker is 6-for-6. "I wouldn't say we have blazing speed. But 1-9, the guys are all fairly good runners," Coach O'Sullivan said. "We pick our spots well. We work a lot on leads and jumps, and our coaches have done a really good job teaching the base running and how we want to play it."

Of course, this weekend, Florida further looks to legitimize itself against the Ole Miss Rebels and one of the nation's best defensive catchers in Brett Basham. Given much of the credit for the success of the Rebels starting staff, Basham draws rave reviews for his game calling, framing, and yes, pop times. However, O'Sullivan insists that catchers like Basham and Posey will not stop Florida from taking their chances. His bigger concern is on the other side of the die. "We don't have a lot of strikeout guys, so our main emphasis has been pitching and defense," O'Sullivan said. "Striking out six per nine means more balls put in play, which means we have to be sharper than most."

However, the Gators are well versed in the field, and thus far have met the challenges their staff provides. Amazingly, all four infielders played shortstop in high school, even first baseman Brandon McArthur. The key is up the middle, where the Gators boast a pair of stars in sophomore shortstop Cole Figueroa and freshman second baseman Josh Adams. O'Sullivan points out Saturday's triple play, Adams to Figueroa to McArthur, as a symbol of their importance.

Figueroa was a known commodity coming into the season, the Gators' projected leader after a wonderful summer and a .332/.383/.504 freshman season. Adams, however, is the surprise. Drafted in the 30th round last year by the Minnesota Twins, Adams opted for Florida, where he was actually teamed up with the man responsible for drafting him--former Twins scout and current Gators assistant Brad Weitzel. Adams is a gamer, and at .393/.479/.705, he might be the most valuable freshman in the nation right now.

In fact, the Gators have really been propelled by freshman. Adams has done everything for the Gators, playing six positions while maintaining his presence in the middle of their lineup. On the mound, heralded recruit Tommy Toledo has been a stabilizing force on Sundays. "We're down 2-0 in Miami in a series we want to get a win out of, and Tommy pitches well in a tough environment against a team that is, in my opinion, one of the best--if not the best--team in the nation," O'Sullivan said.

Toledo doesn't seem to be the only pitcher on the Gator pitching staff benefiting from O'Sullivan. Before joining Florida, O'Sullivan was considered one of the nation's best pitching coaches from his time at Virginia and Clemson. While Toledo's early dominance is one data point, most impressive could be the early pitching of Billy Bullock. In 2007, Bullock was a disaster at Florida, and his 6.31 ERA might have been lucky after allowing 82 hits, 24 walks and 11 home runs in 61.1 innings. He also struck out just 37 batters. Now, Bullock is the Friday night guy for the Gators, and might just be the lone strikeout guy on the staff.

That's what makes Friday the most anticipated battle in this weekend's series. In one corner, there's Bullock, standing 6-6 with a 90-92 mph fastball and a much-improved slider. In the other, there's Lance Lynn, one of the nation's best pitchers who has made mincemeat of every team he has played. Florida is also aware that Scott Bittle might come in relief of Lynn. Bittle has pitched 21 innings this season and allowed just five hits and five walks. He has struck out 39, far more than half the batters he has faced. "Hopefully we'll put the ball in play," laughs O'Sullivan. "All of our players and coaches are well-aware of their ability on the mound. We'll have to battle."

Weekend Preview Notes

  • Outside of that, the most exciting series in college baseball promises to be Baylor traveling north to play the Missouri Tigers. Kendal Volz had a wonderful pitching duel against Oklahoma State's Andy Oliver last Friday--each pitcher struck out 10--but Missouri's Aaron Crow should prove even more difficult. For Missouri, this will be the opportunity to prove their offense will hit in-conference, because with Baylor's Shawn Tolleson having a coming out party last week, Baylor is the Big 12's second-best pitching staff behind Missouri.
  • Draft sleeper alert. Last Friday, Oregon State continued their season-long struggles against Nevada, losing the season opener. While the story could have been another disappointing Beaver loss, it should have been the fantastic one-hit, seven-inning shutout thrown by Wolfpack ace Rod Scurry. The 6-7 senior did not sign with the Mariners after falling to the 31st round last June, and I think it was a good decision. The right-hander doesn't go much past 90 mph with his fastball, but it has sink. Of the 64 outs he's generated so far this season--excluding caught stealings, sacrifice bunts and the first out of double plays--36 have been groundballs (56.25%) and 15 have been strikeouts (23.4%). A good sinker can go a long way in professional baseball, and given the downward plane Scurry throws from, it looks like he'd be a good, cheap senior pick.
  • By popular demand, I'm going to try and devote one note every week to a host of players I don't think I've read (or written) enough about. Miami freshman southpaw Chris Hernandez is at the top of the list, as he has stabilized the Hurricanes' weekend behind Eric Ericson. The polished lefty has allowed just 16 hits, three walks and three earned runs in his first 26.1 college innings. Indiana catcher Josh Phegley was an honorable mention of mine last September when I ranked the Cape's top Freshman, and he's continuing his brilliant play as Indiana placed third in the Fresno State-hosted Johnny Quik Tournament. The catcher has thrown out 40% of baserunners and is hitting .426/.508/.611 with just six strikeouts in 54 at-bats. Keep your eye on him. Finally, Tennessee Saturday starter Bryan Morgado was paramount to the Volunteers sweep of LSU, pitching a 7-inning complete game. The redshirt freshman now has 39 strikeouts against 8 walks and 16 hits allowed in 28 innings.

Last Weekend's Big Winner, Player Edition
Each week, I will attempt to pinpoint one performance that should be noted by draft nuts. Side note: if Kevin Goldstein beats me to it in the Monday Morning Ten Pack, we'll go with the backup choice.

3/14-16 Winner: RHP Zach Putnam, Michigan
3/7-3/9 Winner: LHP Tim Murphy, UCLA
2/29-3/2 Winner: SS Reese Havens, South Carolina
2/22-24 Winner: RHP Tanner Scheppers, Fresno State

As mentioned Monday, the weekend offered a host of different options for this position: Aaron Crow, Christian Friedrich, even a Scheppers repeat were all possibilities. But since Kevin hit both Crow and Friedrich's starts in his Monday Ten-Pack, the obvious choice became Putnam. After all, of the double-digit strikeout games on the weekend, Putnam's was against the best offense: Coastal Carolina. "Our scouting reports said they were a scrappy offense, that they were a team that runs a lot," Putnam told me yesterday. "Those teams always make me nervous, so I tried to focus on keeping guys off the basepaths, if not by strikeouts than by getting it on the ground and letting my defense behind me do the work."

It's funny Putnam mentions strikeouts and groundballs, because there might not be a pitcher better in the nation at generating a combination of the two. Scouts give Putnam credit for the best sinking fastball in the nation, a hard sinker that Michigan radar guns had touching 95 mph in the Coastal Carolina start.

"I have never really figured out [what causes the sink]. I don't tend to think a lot about arm slot and things, I just sort of get the ball and throw it, but people have always talked about the movement." Outside of the fastball, Putnam figures to have his most successful season yet with the development of a splitter that has proven to be an out pitch complementing his premiere sinker-slider combination. "I think I've gotten to the point where my repertoire complements my fastball. With the splitter and the slider, it's all about keeping the ball down, especially in the Coastal Carolina start, where the wind was gusting out and if you got a ball up in the air, it might go out."

After sitting out his opening start with shoulder tightness, Putnam seems to be making up for lost time. In all, he doesn't have a ton of pitching experience--no summer league experience after his freshman season, limited innings at the Cape last summer--but scouts have seen all they need to in Putnam's two-way athleticism, sinking fastball and newfound splitter. If this success continues, expect Putnam's stock to rise fast.

Last Weekend's Big Winner, Team Edition
Similarly, each week I will point out one team that proved itself worthy with a big weekend series win. Hint: you might read about them first in Monday's Weekend Review.

3/14-16 Winner: Florida State
3/7-3/9 Winner: California
2/29-3/2 Winner: Stanford
2/22-24 Winner: Long Beach State

As mentioned above, Florida is perhaps deserving of this space after sweeping Auburn last weekend. Florida State has been down that road already. And while Florida's mid-week 6-1 victory over the Seminoles means something, Mike Martin's 1500th win in the midst of a sweep of Georgia Tech means more. We underrated the Gators, to be sure, but their ceiling isn't Omaha. We underrated Florida State, too, and their ceiling is a national championship.

Like always, the Seminoles can hit. But even this accomplished program has rarely had an offense this good, as seven regulars currently have a slugging percentage above .550. The team, as a whole, is currently hitting .348/.468/.569. The on-base percentage stands out most significantly, and is led by freshman Tyler Holt, who has amassed 25 walks in just 18 games, good for a .534 on-base percentage. Another freshman, first baseman Dennis Guinn, has been the difference between 2007 and 2008. Guinn currently leads the team in OPS with a .381/.506/.762 line, showing bat control, patience and power. While stalwarts Buster Posey (1.164 OPS), Tony Delmonico (1.063) and Jason Stidham (1.072) have been fantastic, Guinn has been the difference maker for the offense.

For the pitching staff, which looks great even with longtime Seminole ace Bryan Henry moved onto pro ball, the difference has been sophomore Matt Fairel. After a good freshman season in the bullpen, the decision to move Fairel to the weekends has proved essential. The 6-3 right-hander has won each of his four starts, and has allowed just three earned runs in 27 innings. Jimmy Marshall and Buster Posey are fantastic in the bullpen, so the key will be finding consistent success from star transfer and Friday night ace Elih Villanueva (4.21 ERA) and accomplished veteran Ryan Strauss (4.57) pitching around Fairel.

Florida State usually faces an easy non-conference schedule, so rarely do we have a good idea of the caliber of the Seminoles team in March. But with sweeps of Auburn and Georgia Tech already on the resume, Florida State surely belongs in the same breath as ACC enemies North Carolina and Miami. Deep offenses like this, when combined with the top-heavy pitching staff the Seminoles possess, can be dangerous clubs in May and June.

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bryan's other articles. You can contact Bryan by clicking here

Related Content:  Matt Adams,  The Who,  Ten Pack,  Lance Lynn,  All-star Weekend

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