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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Rejuvenated and retooled: Florida’s rotation features several new arms

UF features one of the youngest bullpens in the nation

Florida baseball pitcher Alex Philpott pitches the ball in the team's opening night loss to St. John's on Friday, February 16, 2024.
Florida baseball pitcher Alex Philpott pitches the ball in the team's opening night loss to St. John's on Friday, February 16, 2024.

Florida baseball head coach Kevin O’Sullivan is never one to back down from a challenge. In fact, he embraces them.

When the Gators’ 17th-year head coach was asked about what excites him the most ahead of the 2024 season, he drew back from his usual reserved nature and, instead, responded passionately.

“Challenges,” O’Sullivan said. “I love the challenge of having a new roster and trying to figure out, ‘What are our strengths and what are our weaknesses?”'

The biggest challenge, he said, will be how the Gators navigate their usage of relief pitching. In particular, their reliance on inexperienced, freshman arms.

“We’ve got probably about five or six freshmen that are gonna have to help us on weekends,” O’Sullivan said. “We’re gonna need a couple of those guys to be able to pitch in some leverage situations and be able to bridge the gap from our starter to Brandon [Neely] at the end.”

Florida’s bullpen looks almost unrecognizable from its previous season — just seven relievers are back from 2023. There are 10 freshman relievers, and likely half a dozen are expected to contribute throughout the season. 

It could be a trial-and-error process to decide who will become a go-to arm in Florida’s bullpen.

“With freshmen, the biggest hurdle for them is learning how to deal with failure,” said UF assistant coach David Kopp. “So once they figure out how to deal with failure and regroup and move forward — those are the guys that will merge and really help us when it matters.”

Although not anticipated to pitch out of relief, few freshman pitchers in the nation are expected to succeed more than right-handed starter Liam Peterson. 

Peterson was ranked as the No. 34 overall player and No. 8 right-handed pitcher in the 2023 class by Perfect Game. He opted to play college baseball despite being ranked the No. 85 overall player in the 2023 MLB Draft.

“His pitch arsenal is very impressive,” Kopp said. “Whether you’re looking at it through your eyes or you’re looking at it through analytics, it’s all firepower stuff.”

It’s not often a freshman earns a role as a weekend starter under O’Sullivan. However, there is no denying the ability of Peterson. He wowed during Florida’s preseason practices and undoubtedly earned respect amongst his coaches. 

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In addition to Peterson, freshman relievers Alex Philpott, Luke McNeillie and Robert Satin appear primed for a significant role out of the bullpen in 2024.

A 6-foot-5 righty who wasn’t widely discussed during the fall, Philpott made impressive strides during the preseason and has been quite consistent in comparison to his peers. 

The right-hander made his collegiate debut on Feb. 16 against St. John’s. He entered during a bases-loaded jam in the eighth inning and walked a batter, allowing a run, but earned two strikeouts.

“Ideally, first outing or two, you’d like to bring him in a situation where he starts the inning,” O’Sullivan said. “We really had no choice.”

Florida also elected to go to Satin earlier in the inning, who was pulled after a four-pitch walk. Despite the lackluster, short-lived stint, everything seen from the left-handed freshman has trended toward an expectation he’ll be amongst the most used relievers in the bullpen. He “sticks out” among the Gators relievers due to his consistency, according to Kopp.

McNellie also appears poised to contribute heavily out of the bullpen and has the potential to start midweek games throughout the season. He was the No. 2-ranked right-hander out of Georgia and the No. 23 right-handed pitcher in the 2023 class by PG.

Overall, Florida’s staff feels quite confident in what they’ve seen from each of their freshman relievers.

“Every freshman has shown at some point in time, during the scrimmages in the fall and the preseason, a spot where you’re like:  ‘Wow. This guy’s got a chance to help us,’” Kopp said.

It’s clear the success of UF’s pitching will be largely dependent on the performances of its freshman relievers. However, there are several experienced veterans whom the Gators will also fall back on throughout the year.

The highest-prioritized player on that list is junior right-hander Brandon Neely.

Neely is back as Florida’s primary closer after speculation he might return as a weekend starter. The Seville, Florida, native blossomed as a starter during his freshman season but accepted a role out of the bullpen the next year. 

Neely was dominant as the Gators closer. He produced a 3.58 ERA and an SEC-best 13 saves, which ranked sixth nationally. The righty also held opposing hitters to a .223 batting average and tallied 72 strikeouts in 2023.

In O’Sullivan’s eyes, he’s just as important as having a reliable weekend starter.

“If you don’t have somebody that you can consistently trust to finish a game, it can lead to a fairly long season,” O’Sullivan said. “Having a guy like Brandon [Neely] and you know that more times than not he’s going to give you a chance to close it out in the most pressure situations. For me, that’s just as important of a role as having a really good Friday night starter setting the tone for the weekend.”

Florida’s bullpen will also feature key veteran arms in righties Ryan Slater and Blake Purnell.

Purnell, a redshirt junior, is expected to make a jump in usage after he experienced a dropoff in performance in 2023. After receiving All-American honors his redshirt freshman season, the right-hander logged a 9.28 ERA and nearly produced a 1:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 21.1 innings.

He pitched just one pitch in Florida’s season opener on Feb. 16. Purnell allowed St. John’s sophomore Jimmy Keenan to square up on his first pitch for a double, and O’Sullivan immediately elected to pull the redshirt junior. 

Slater is arguably the most important reliever behind Neely. The right-handed junior will reprise his role as a middle relief pitcher who is eligible to make starts during midweek contests. 

He is an inning-eater and usually the first guy to appear on the mound when a performance goes sour for one of Florida’s starters. In 59.2 innings in 2023, Slater made three starts and produced a 10-1 record with a 4.22 ERA.

He plays “an extremely valuable role” for the Gators, according to O’Sullivan.

While not publicly acknowledged by UF’s head coach, arguably one of the biggest changes Florida will overcome in 2024 is the losses of starting pitchers Hurston Waldrep and Brandon Sproat. The two were among some of the most successful pitchers in program history, which led to their selection in rounds one and two of the 2023 MLB Draft.

Waldrep and Sproat combined for 100 strikeouts each — the ninth duo to do so in Gators’ history — and Waldrep finished one strikeout shy of tying the single-season program record.

Sophomore lefty Cade Fisher will lead the rotation as Florida’s Friday starter, followed by Peterson on Saturdays and left-handed junior Jac Caglianone on Sundays. 

It was speculated Fisher might earn the opportunity for a starting role after excelling in a critical postseason start against the Texas Tech Red Raiders in the NCAA Regional round.

The southpaw pitched seven impeccable innings to save Florida from a first-round elimination and propel its long run in Omaha. He also produced several quality outings in relief during the tournament. 

Caglianone is the sole returner from the Gators’ 2023 starting rotation and will continue to pitch on Sundays. 

Last season, the 6-foot-5 lefty garnered national attention for his ability to excel on both sides of the field. Caglianone hit a BBCOR-era record 33 home runs and set a franchise record of 90 RBIs. In addition to his hitting prowess, Caglianone produced a 7-3 record on the mound with a 4.34 ERA and .190 batting average against.

The Gators’ (0-1) season continues with a midweek series against the University of North Florida Ospreys (1-1) at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Harmon Field. The game will be broadcast on ESPN+.

Contact Luke Adragna at Follow him on Twitter @lukeadrag.

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Luke Adragna

Luke Adragna is a third-year journalism student and the Florida Gators football reporter at The Alligator. He is a cat ethusiast and completes the NYT Daily Mini in less than a minute each day.

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