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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

2023 Gators Baseball Preview: Infield

2023 Florida infield features familiar faces, has plenty to prove

Florida catcher BT Riopelle swings his bat in the Gators' second Spring scrimmage Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023.
Florida catcher BT Riopelle swings his bat in the Gators' second Spring scrimmage Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023.

The Florida Gators baseball team heads into the 2023 season with experience across their infield. 

Juniors Colby Halter and Josh Rivera will anchor the left side of the infield, with Halter expected to see most of his time at the hot corner. Rivera has been a steady presence at shortstop throughout the last two seasons. He hit nine home runs and drove in 32 runs to go along with a .255 average in 2022. 

Halter split time at second and third base during his freshman season in 2021 and played 43 of his 65 games at second base last year. He was seen mostly at leadoff or near the top of head coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s lineups last year. He hit .240 with eight bombs and 27 runs batted in. 

The Jacksonville, Florida, native will move back to third following the additions of freshman Cade Kurland and Coastal Carolina transfer junior Dale Thomas, who both could see time at second. 

“We have a lot of options, but they're good options,” O’Sullivan said. “We've got more depth than we probably had in the past.”

Sterlin Thompson was drafted as an outfielder by the Colorado Rockies with the 31st overall in last year’s Major League Baseball draft. He played roughly a third of his games last year at second base, leaving the position open following Halter’s transition back to third.

Kurland graduated a year early from Berkeley Prep in Tampa, Florida. He earned the Florida Dairy Farmers Class 3A Player of the Year his senior season. 

Thomas is coming off career highs in numerous offensive categories after his three seasons at Coastal Carolina. The junior — who played third and second base during his time as a Chanticleer — set new personal marks last year with 62 hits, a .284 batting average, 13 home runs, 15 doubles and 49 RBI in 2022. 

The Gators’ defense improved from 2021 to 2022. Florida committed 70 errors and recorded a .968 fielding percentage in 2021. UF cut its errors down to 45 and improved its fielding percentage to .981 in 2022. 

O’Sullivan praised the growth in Rivera's defense over the last few years and noted Halter’s sure-handed presence in Florida’s defense. 

“Where [Rivera] was his freshman year to where he is now, it's like he's like a totally different player,” O’Sullivan said. 

Sophomore Deric Fabian, the younger brother of former Gator Jud Fabian, is looking to build off a freshman campaign in which he handled the lion’s share of third base time and hit just .218. Fabian, along with Halter and Thomas, possesses versatility with their infield play. 

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It’s unclear where Fabian will be utilized the most this season. O’Sullivan said in a Monday press conference that Fabian can play all four infield positions, but it’s too early to identify a platoon situation. He notably spent time at first base — the only infield spot he had not played in live games — during the Gators’ preseason scrimmages. 

With Kendrick Calilao and Kris Armstrong out of the picture, the only returning Gator who saw time at first last season is senior BT Riopelle. Riopelle only played 16 games at the position and is lined up to be the team’s starting catcher for the second year in a row. 

He was one of the best-hitting catchers in the Southeastern Conference last season, smacking 15 homers — the third most on the team — and knocking in 55 runs.  

UF has a pair of two-way players that have the physical prowess to handle first base. Jac Caglianone, a 6-foot-5-inch sophomore, turned heads last season, particularly when he started the last 27 games at designated hitter. The Tampa, Florida, native hit .288 with seven homers and 27 RBI. 

Freshman Yoel Tejada Jr. will be a name to keep an eye on. Listed as a first baseman and right-handed pitcher, the Davie, Florida, native kept his commitment to the Gators after being drafted in the 19th round last year by the Pittsburgh Pirates. 

Tejada Jr. will likely focus more on his pitching but could be a valuable asset offensively thanks to his ability to switch hit. 

Santa Fe College transfer Tyler Shelnut is a former two-way player himself but elected to devote himself to being a position player after his freshman season. The junior hit .333 a year ago and tied for the Saints’ lead in home runs with 19. He saw time at first and third base during preseason scrimmages.

Aside from Riopelle as the Gators’ regular backstop, Florida has sophomore Rene Lastres and freshmen Luke Heyman and Salvy Alvarez as options behind the dish. Lastres played in nine games last year and hit a pinch-hit, two-run home run in his first career at-bat against Georgia State Feb. 26. 

Heyman is a product of Lake Brantley High School in Altamonte Springs, Florida, and was ranked as the sixth-best catching prospect nationally and second in Florida by Perfect Game

Alvarez hit .526 as a senior at Montverde Academy in Miami. He’s considered by Perfect Game to be a top 25 catching prospect in the nation. 

Florida opens up its 2023 season at Condron Ballpark against Charleston Southern at 7 p.m. Feb. 17.

Contact Ethan Eibe at Follow him on Twitter @EthanEibe.

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Ethan Eibe

Ethan Eibe is a second-year UF sports media major and covers Gators baseball for The Alligator. Outside of his writing, Ethan is a play-by-play broadcaster for UF student radio and has spent two summers announcing professional baseball with the Alpine Cowboys. He is a long-suffering Miami Marlins fan.

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