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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Florida’s outfield has loads to prove in 2024

The Gators have several decisions to make at outfield

Florida center fielder Michael Robertson celebrates his walk-off single during the Gators' 2-1 win over the Georgia Bulldogs Saturday, April 15, 2023.
Florida center fielder Michael Robertson celebrates his walk-off single during the Gators' 2-1 win over the Georgia Bulldogs Saturday, April 15, 2023.

Irreplaceable.

Keep it short and simple. Former Gators outfielder Wyatt Langford is irreplaceable. He was a generational talent that has only graced Florida’s locker room less than a handful of times in program history. 

Head coach Kevin O’Sullivan has referenced the exceptional ability of Langford many times, alluding to him as arguably the best player he’s ever coached. Langford showed that during his final season with Florida, posting a .373/.498/.784 slash line with 21 home runs, 57 RBIs and nine stolen bags.

It will be impossible to imitate Langford’s production, but the Gators have a flurry of promising options at each outfield position.

Centerfield

It will be interesting to see how centerfield play unfolds for the Gators in 2024. Florida’s previous starter, redshirt sophomore Michael Robertson, returns after immense struggles at the plate in the final half of the season. In 56 starts, Robertson hit just .231 with a shockingly low .280 slugging percentage. He lacked virtually any upside in the box and was often signaled to bunt, which he even struggled with as well.

On the flip side, Robertson is a great defender. He garnered national attention the previous season for a clutch, game-ending grab against Texas Christian University to send Florida to the College World Series. O'Sullivan heavily prioritizes players with in-program experience, but there are several newcomers who could compete with Robertson for the starting job.

Senior outfielder Jaylen Guy is a player worthy of a starting spot on most Division I rosters. Guy transferred to Florida during the offseason after five years with  Liberty University.. 

The Greensboro, North Carolina, native missed the entire 2022 season due to an arm injury and returned with a career year at the plate. Guy produced a .309 batting average with 25 RBIs and 22 stolen bags. In addition to his fantastic defensive ability, perhaps the most desirable trait he presents is his threat on the basepaths, which needs to be addressed after Florida lost infielder Josh Rivera to the MLB draft. The former Gators shortstop led the team with 18 steals in 2023

Left and Right Field

Senior left fielder Tyler Shelnut had never played past the infield dirt, but after a discussion with coaching staff midway through the 2023 season, Shelnut gutsily embraced the transition. 

It took some time for Shelnut to adjust defensively to the outfield. However, his bat remained unaffected by the change, and the Lake City, Florida, native closed the curtain on 2023 batting .277 with seven home runs, 30 runs scored and 28 RBIs.

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After prepping all fall and spring, Shelnut should be better equipped defensively to handle outfield duties. He’s made drastic position changes before, having once been a pitcher in junior college.

Gators right fielder Ty Evans was not expected to be a main catalyst during Florida’s 2023 CWS run. After hitting just .231 during the regular season, the Auburndale, Florida, native broke out when it mattered most. In Omaha, Evans hit .400 with five home runs and nine RBIs. He was expected to get the start in Florida’s opening weekend, but suffered a fracture during spring camp, which could sideline him for a few more weeks.

A player who can perform at each position beyond the infield dirt is freshman outfielder Hayden Yost. Yost was the lowest-ranked incoming freshman in the Gators 2024 class but has caught the attention of coaches throughout the preseason. 

In addition to his solid defense, Yost has a reliable bat and an even better eye at the plate. He hit .319/.481/.478 across 93 high school games and struck out just 28 times for a strikeout rate of 8.8%, which is impressively low.

Yost shouldn’t make an impact on opening weekend but could be slotted in later on if an injury occurs to one of Florida’s starters.

Another key reserve in addition to Yost is 6-foot-5 freshman Blake Brookins. Brookins was ranked No. 38 among outfielders in Perfect Game’s 2023 class. He has a plus bat and is quick despite his stature. Brookins hit 443/.564/.576 his senior year of high school with an impressive 1.209 OPS.

Sophomore utility player Landon Russell joins Shelnut as another junior college athlete O’Sullivan has high regard for. Russell is a speedy defensive specialist who attended Gulf Coast State in 2023. There, he hit .305 with six home runs, 39 RBIs and 18 stolen bags.

“He’s one of our best athletes,” O’Sullivan said. “He can play infield and outfield, so I’m anxious to get him back.”

It’s quite likely Russell might have made an impact early on, whether it be in the infield or outfield. However, the transfer will be sidelined for at least another three weeks after he suffered a UCL tear in his thumb and underwent surgery in January.

The Gators kick off their 2024 season against the St. John’s Red Storm at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Condron Family Ballpark. The game will be broadcast on SEC Network+.

Contact Luke Adragna at ladragna@alligator.org. 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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