When slugger Jud Fabian was selected in the second round of the 2021 MLB Draft by the Red Sox and leadoff hitter Jacob Young was drafted by the Nationals, Florida’s outfield prospects appeared bleak heading into the 2022 season.
But Fabian shockingly turned down $2 million and returned for a junior season to patch up a dilapidated Gator outfield. Fabian’s surprise return leaves optimism in Gainesville that the Gators can avoid another disappointing season like 2021.
With the season less than a month away, expectations are not as high for Florida as in years past. The Gators have an extremely talented roster, but it is young and lacks experience. Having Fabian back is a boost that could help the Gators surprise a lot of people in 2022.
The Ocala native came into last season a projected top-five pick, but slipped down the board as he struggled with strikeouts.
Fabian mustered just a .249 batting average in 2021 and struck out 79 times in 269 plate appearances, a 29.3% strikeout rate. This raised concerns about his plate discipline and ability to hit professional pitching.
However, the Gators star center fielder is out to get his draft stock back into the early first round. A positive from last season is he showed tremendous power and on-base ability, posting a .924 on-base plus slugging (OPS) and 20 home runs in 59 games. He will have to show those same abilities while decreasing his strikeouts in 2022 in order to change scouts’ minds about him.
Fabian flashing this power more consistently will help both his draft stock and catalyze a UF offense that relied on him and Jacob Young at times last season. Young, who currently plays in the Nationals organization and Fabian combined for more than a third of Florida’s long balls in 2021 and no other player cracked double-digits.
Young’s departure leaves a gaping hole in the Gators’ lineup. They will need to replace his offensive production at the top of the order where he hit .315 with an .846 OPS last season. Florida will also be looking to replace Young’s solid defense in the outfield.
There is good news and bad news for the Gators. The good news is there’s plenty of youth in the outfield: Fabian is the only upperclassman, Sterlin Thompson is the only sophomore and there are five freshmen outfielders on the roster.
The bad news is there’s plenty of youth in the outfield: Fabian and Thompson will occupy center and right field for the majority of the season, leaving the competition for Young’s spot in left wide open.
Junior Kendrick Calilao is expected to get some starts in the outfield, but most of his playing time last year came at first base or designated hitter. However, since his freshman year, Calilao has struggled to receive consistent playing time and has yet to prove he can be a reliable everyday player. The Orlando, Florida, native appeared in just 39 games in 2021, making 28 starts.
That leaves the door open for an abundance of underclassmen to take grasp of the final outfield spot.
The most experienced candidate would be Tucker Talbott, who is entering his third year on campus. He has yet to appear in any games but is the oldest Gator outfielder after Fabian and Thompson.
However, head coach Kevin O’Sullivan could opt to go young in search of greater talent. Florida brought in another strong recruiting class in 2022, leaving O’Sullivan with four extremely talented true freshmen to pick from.
All four freshmen ranked in the top-10 among outfielders in the state of Florida coming out of high school. Ty Evans was ranked third, Michael Robertson fourth, Corey Robinson fifth and Matt Prevesk eighth.
While Florida’s youth may suggest the Gators are entering a transition year, it could also create an opportunity to take the country by surprise. If one of these young talents takes a stranglehold on the final outfield spot with a breakout year, their lineup will get a huge boost.
O’Sullivan has never been afraid to opt for talent over experience in his years at Florida. It is always a risk because Florida struggling to fill that third outfield spot could spell huge trouble for them offensively, but it could have huge rewards. If one player can assert themselves above the rest of the group, O’Sullivan may be cooking with gas in 2022.
Florida outfielders had three of the top five OPS’s on the team last season, so they will need to replace that production this season.
It will be interesting to keep an eye on the outfield rotation this season and what kind of production Florida gets from those spots — especially early on. It is certain to play a huge role in determining the potential of this year’s team and whether they can return to being among the best in the nation.
The first pitch of the season will be thrown on Feb. 18 when the Gators host the Liberty Flames at 6:30 p.m. at Florida Ballpark.