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Monday, May 20, 2024

Kurland, Shelton set to lead middle infield for Gators baseball

Kurland is the lone middle infielder returning from 2023

Florida infielders Cade Kurland and Josh Rivera shake hands during the Gators' 6-2 win against Vanderbilt Saturday, May 13, 2023.
Florida infielders Cade Kurland and Josh Rivera shake hands during the Gators' 6-2 win against Vanderbilt Saturday, May 13, 2023.

Moving on from Josh Rivera isn’t going to be easy. 

The Gators’ former shortstop and sophomore second baseman Cade Kurland made up one of the most talented middle infields in college baseball in 2023.

Rivera, in particular, did it all. He was an elite defender, had a great eye at the plate and led the team in stolen bases. Rivera was selected by the Chicago Cubs in the third round of the 2023 MLB Draft after an impressive junior year. Now, Florida will turn toward a batch of newcomers to try and fill the shoes of its predecessor.

Shortstop

At the top of the pecking order is former Alabama shortstop Colby Shelton, who transferred to Florida during the offseason.

Shelton carries a distinct set of skills not commonly found in shortstops. The Alabama transfer hit 25 home runs during his freshman year, which led all NCAA true freshmen regardless of position. Additionally, he boasted an astounding .729 slugging percentage. His bat is by far his best asset, but the sophomore showed improvement with his glove throughout the preseason.

“There were maybe some question marks about whether he could play shortstop defensively,” head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said on Tuesday. “He came in with everyone wanting to talk about his ability to hit, but defensively he’s come a long, long way.”

Shelton’s biggest weakness is his rate of striking out, though he hasn’t struggled much during the preseason. In his freshman year, Shelton struck out in 24.5% of at-bats. A desirable strikeout rate is somewhere around or below 20%, but his consistency of earning hard contact during at-bats overshadows this minor concern. 

The most probable backup behind Shelton is senior Florida Atlantic transfer Armando Albert. 

Albert is a versatile defender with the ability to play middle infield, third base and in both corners of the outfield. He doesn’t have power quite like Shelton or Rivera, but the senior is very capable of getting on base and reached base in 31 consecutive contests at one point during the 2023 season.

It’s presumably a toss-up trying to predict the order of players who fall behind the Gators’ first two options. There are three solid selections.

Sophomore Landon Russell joins outfielder Tyler 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.

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“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. 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.

Freshman Sammy Mummau is a 6-foot infielder out of Palm Harbor, Florida. He was ranked as the 10th-best middle infielder out of Florida by Perfect Game and the No. 312 prospect in his class. Mummau is a quick, scrappy infielder who can cover ground further than most players. And despite his lack of power, he makes the most of his bat. He is a solid option at short but is likely better suited as a second baseman.

In addition to Mummau is freshman infielder John Martinez. Martinez was ranked as the No. 30 shortstop out of Florida by Perfect Game. As a freshman, he already has decent size at 5-foot-11 and around 200 pounds. However, there are several experienced players ahead of him, which will make it difficult for the first-year player to find playing time early on.

Second Base

Cade Kurland is back as the Gators starting second baseman after one of the best seasons among freshman middle infielders in all of college baseball. In 67 games, he produced a .297/.404/.555 slash line with 17 doubles, 17 home runs and 50 RBIs. D1Baseball ranked Kurland as the fifth-best second baseman ahead of the 2024 season.

“[This is] probably the most excited I’ve ever been for any season,” Kurland said Tuesday. “I’m just looking forward to it.”

The set of players behind Kurland likely mirrors the projections at shortstop, with Mummau potentially even moving up in line due to his long-term potential. Senior starting third baseman Dale Thomas is also a plausible option at either position due to his defensive prowess. 

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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