Nelson Maldonado

Nelson Maldonado is still nursing a lingering arm injury from late last season and will likely start the year as Florida's designated hitter.

There are holes.

Along the infield, at catcher and in the outfield, Florida’s baseball team, coming off its first national title, lost six players to the MLB Draft and two more to graduation.

To fill those spots and try to repeat as champions, UF is turning to some fresh faces, starting with Brady McConnell.

McConnell was selected in the 33rd round of the 2017 draft by the Reds, but he had a higher rating than his slot suggests. McConnell was awarded the ranking of 29th-best high school player in the country by Perfect Game, which wrote of McConnell, “5 tool player with a huge ceiling.”

The two players directly in front of and behind him in those rankings got taken in the second round, which should tell you McConnell’s draft-day slide wasn’t talent based.

Coach Kevin O’Sullivan apparently agrees. He said that although McConnell — who hit .372 as a senior at Merritt Island High School — has been battling an illness lately, he’s still the favorite to start from day one at shortstop. And if not, he’ll start at third base.

McConnell is replacing Dalton Guthrie, who started at shortstop for UF the past two years and was taken by the Philadelphia Phillies in the sixth round.

If McConnell does end up at third base, last season’s third baseman, Jonathan India, will slide over to shortstop.

Staying in the infield, Florida will be without seasoned second baseman Deacon Liput to start the season. Liput was suspended in the offseason for undisclosed reasons, and although he’s back with the team now, O’Sullivan said he’ll miss an undisclosed number of games.

His replacement will be junior Blake Reese, who hit .233 in 40 games last season.

“Blake Reese had a really good fall,” O’Sullivan said. “So I would anticipate him being able to start at second base, and he’s earned the right to do that.”

First base was voided by JJ Schwarz, who will play catcher in the absence of Mike Rivera and Mark Kolozsvary, who were selected in the sixth and seventh rounds, respectively.

Sophomore Keenan Bell, who started seven games at first base in 2017, should be the everyday guy this year. He hit .283 with 12 RBIs in 92 at-bats last season.

On his days off, Schwarz will be relieved by a combination of freshman catchers Cal Greenfield and Brady Smith or junior transfer Jonah Girand. Girand, the most experienced of the trio, hit .256 last season at Seminole State College while Greenfield (No. 6) edged out Smith (No. 9) in Perfect Game’s high school catcher rankings.

“Nothing to complain about,” junior pitcher Brady Singer said of this team’s young infielders. “They’re all hard-nosed kids who play hard and work hard. I’m excited to see them get out there and play.”

In the outfield, the Gators only lost senior Ryan Larson. The trio of sophomore Austin Langworthy (LF), senior Nick Horvath (CF) and junior Nelson Maldonado (RF) started together eight times last season, so that seems like the logical group to start this season.

The one exception could be Maldonado, who is still nursing a lingering arm injury sustained late last season. O’Sullivan said Maldonado will likely start the season as Florida’s designated hitter — he hit a team-best .299 last year — which leaves an outfield spot open for a newcomer. O’Sullivan hasn’t said who the contenders are, but one likely option is Wil Dalton.

A sophomore who transfered from Columbia State, Dalton hit .392 last season with 15 home runs, good for the second-most in school history.

Another option is freshman lefty Jordan Butler, who will also likely contribute out of the bullpen. He’s a Team USA alumnus and was drafted in the 34th round by the Yankees.

“We do have a lot of young guys,” Langworthy said, “and there’s just a lot they haven’t learned. Coming in your first year — especially in the SEC — it’s a big learning curve.”

Those new faces will need to adjust to that curve quickly for Florida to return to Omaha.

Follow Ethan Bauer on Twitter @ebaueri and contact him at [email protected].

Ethan Bauer is a general assignment sports reporter for the Alligator as well as the Florida Gators correspondent for the Miami Herald. He has previously covered cross country, women's basketball, football and baseball. He has worked at the paper since Sp