Florida State coach Mike Martin is used to making wholesale replacements year after year with his baseball team. But few challenges will be as daunting as the one he and his assistants face this season.
Gone are the team’s top four hitters, including St. Louis Cardinals first-round draft pick James Ramsey and former Palm Beach Central standout Devon Travis (a 13th-round pick by the Detroit Tigers). The group combined for 30 home runs, 76 doubles, 201 RBIs and scored 252 of FSU’s 459 runs.
FSU has reached the Super Regionals in 12 of the 14 years since the format was introduced — including five in a row. But if the Seminoles are to return to that round and again challenge for a College World Series spot, they will need significant contributions from a group of 15 newcomers.
“I’m anxious; I’m ready to get started,” said Martin, who begins his 34th season as FSU’s coach today at home against Rhode Island. “Just looking forward to seeing how we develop as the season goes along. We’re going to experience some ups and downs. We do every year.”
While the loss of the team’s top four hitters could have been softened by the return of the Seminoles’ top two pitchers, FSU coaches learned two weeks ago that sophomore right-hander Mike Compton would have Tommy John surgery on his elbow and miss the season. Compton went 12-2 with a 2.87 ERA, earning freshman All-America honors a season ago.
“He will definitely be missed but we also see this as an opportunity for someone else to step in and fill the No. 2 spot in the rotation,” Martin said.
FSU’s unquestioned No. 1 starter is sophomore Brandon Leibrandt, who was 8-3 with a 2.82 ERA as a freshman in 2012. The son of former major-leaguer Charlie Leibrandt is a control pitcher who keeps the ball low and finds success by inducing ground balls.
Leibrandt doesn’t overpower hitters with his fastball, but in 99 innings he had 83 strikeouts and allowed just 29 walks. He has added about 10-15 pounds in the offseason and has also been working to add a fourth pitch, a cut fastball.
“I feel heavier in a good way,” Leibrandt said. “Stronger, a little more explosive and hopefully it will relate to a little more velocity.”
Leibrandt will pitch today.on Friday as FSU opens the season at home against Rhode Island. Senior right-hander Scott Sitz (4-3, 3.72 ERA) and sophomore right-hander Peter Miller (5-2, 3.89 ERA) will start in the games on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
The pitchers will have a familiar face behind the plate. Former Port St. Lucie High standout Stephen McGee, a junior, returns after catching all 67 games last season.
But FSU lost three of four infielders and has just senior Justin Gonzalez back at shortstop. Gonzalez is FSU’s returning leader in home runs (nine), hits (54), runs (42) and RBIs (42).
The 6-foot-2 Gonzalez weighed just 165 pounds when he arrived in Tallahassee as a freshman, but he now weighs in at 205 pounds.
“When you put on that weight you don’t have to try as hard,” Gonzalez said. “You just let the pitcher supply the power. Putting an extra 40 pounds behind that swing definitely helps out a lot. Balls will carry more and hopefully find the gaps.”
FSU’s outfield is still a work in progress, and Martin said he’s looking at a number of platoon situations. Right fielder Josh Delph, who is FSU’s leading returning hitter at .267, could lead off. Freshman DJ Stewart has impressed coaches, and could also earn a starting job in center field.
Jameis Winston, who is vying for the starting quarterback job on FSU’s football team this spring, will also make his college baseball debut. Winston could play left field and might close games after FSU lost Robert Benincasa, who had 16 saves and was drafted by the Washington Nationals last June.
“Jameis Winston has been very impressive,” Martin said.
FSU will also lean on a few junior-college standouts to fill some of the gaps. Brett Knief could start in the outfield, Marcus Davis could be the designated hitter or left fielder and Casey Smit could see playing time at first base.
“Knief, Davis and Smit will be counted on to play a lot this year,” Martin said. “It is good that they have gotten some experience at the junior college level. But they are still freshman as far as I am concerned until they’ve played a few games. It is a lot different at this level.”
Local players for FSU
Giovanny Alfonzo;Lincoln Park Academy;5-11;175;So.;INF
Stephen McGee;Port St. Lucie;6-3;230;Jr.;C
Alvin Swoope;Treasure Coast;5-8;175;Fr.;INF
Dylan Silva;American Heritage;6-1;215;Fr.;LHP