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Florida baseball to lose two signees to 2020 MLB Draft, enter 2021 utterly loaded

A combination of tremendous recruiting and a couple of fortunate returns could be a perfect storm for the Gators.

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Florida vs Texas Tech Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Just as Florida Gators baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan assembling fantastic recruiting classes of talent and molding the young men comprising them into excellent players have become traditions, so, too has the raiding of Sully’s stockpile and pipeline of talent by the MLB Draft become an annual event.

And even the 2020 MLB Draft, abridged to five rounds from its usual dozens and to 160 selections from more than 1,200 a year ago by the COVID-19 pandemic (and short-sighted greed on the part of MLB teams), was poised to leave the Gators in poorer position than they where when it began.

But that event has now come and gone, its first round on Wednesday night all but assuring a top-flight Florida signee will go pro and its second through fifth rounds on Thursday including a pick of a Gator-to-be that has already reportedly signed a professional contract — and O’Sullivan and the Florida program could be forgiven if they called the outcome in sum a dream scenario.

That’s the fallout of a draft that saw Florida signees Zac Veen (ninth overall to the Colorado Rockies) and Coby Mayo (a fourth-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles) get selected while frontline starters Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich did not: While Florida will miss adding two of the best players in O’Sullivan’s 2020 recruiting class to the nucleus of its 2019 team, that nucleus should return to Gainesville almost entirely intact, and perhaps bent on finishing its business from the abbreviated 2020 season with punctuation in 2021.

Neither signee being selected was a surprise. There might have been a bit of shock early on when Veen, a projected top-five pick before the draft, slipped to ninth, but that was a result of a cascade of decisions stemming from the Orioles selecting Arkansas slugger Heston Kjerstad with the second pick instead of one of the two players remaining from the draft’s consensus top three — Texas A&M pitcher Asa Lacy and Vanderbilt third baseman Austin Martin — after the Detroit Tigers snagged Arizona State’s Spencer Torkelson with the first overall selection.

And the Orioles picking Kjerstad also likely contributed significantly to their decision to take Mayo, who has already reportedly signed a contract with the team...

...that is worth more than $1 million more than the $565,600 slot value assigned to that No. 103 pick in this year’s draft.

And while Veen was ranked first among high schoolers and No. 7 overall by the pre-draft rankings and was and is considered a lock to go early and sign a pro deal, Mayo — ranked No. 139 — was a possible draftee who ended up being drafted by a team with plenty of money to spend after the selection of Kjerstad, widely assumed to be one that will be followed by Kjerstad signing for under the No. 2 pick’s $7.79 million slot value.

As attrition to the professional ranks by signees goes, too, these losses are likely less damaging than ones Florida has sustained throughout the O’Sullivan era. Veen is one of the highest-ranked commits that the Gators have ever lost, but he was never more than an utter longshot to make it to campus, but while Mayo is an elite prospect, that only puts him on par with a lot of other elites who have committed to Florida in recent years.

Arguably, Florida had three better signees than Mayo drafted last year — Riley Greene, Matthew Allan, and Hunter Barco were all projected first-rounders before the 2019 MLB Draft — and its recent history is rife with similar stories of talents opting for professional paydays over the grind of college baseball, a sport in which many players are still on partial scholarships. (Florida also got good news from a draftable signee, Colby Halter — No. 148 in the pre-draft top 200, who indicated he will come to campus after not being drafted.)

But the new wrinkle to the 2020 MLB Draft for Florida is what it didn’t entail — namely, any selections of players currently on the roster. Juniors Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich were both part of that MLB-produced top 200 prospects list — Mace sat nicely at No. 69, and Leftwich at No. 145 — and were considered likely selections, with Mace furthermore considered likely to depart Gainesville to the pros.

Neither player would hear his name over the course of the Draft, and so both are coming back to the team they were the Nos. 1 and 2 starters for in 2020. Only Mace’s decision is being reported as one — technically, he and Leftwich are both choosing to come back to campus rather than sign for peanuts as undrafted free agents — but that decision was likely made during the draft, as Gator Country’s Nick de la Torre explains:

Mace and Leftwich going unselected does break a streak of MLB Drafts with at least one Gator being selected that dated to 1995, and adds an asterisk to O’Sullivan’s phenomenal track record for churning out scores of draftees and pros.

It also bolsters the pitching staff of 2020’s No. 1 team to an absurd degree for 2021.

Mace and Leftwich returning, after all, slots the two most experience pitchers in Florida’s staff back into Friday and Saturday starter spots, but may not have changed the ownership of the title of team ace, given the magnificent start freshman Hunter Barco (2-0, 1.40 ERA) authored for his career in orange and blue this spring.

And besides Barco and Mace (1.67 ERA), four other Florida pitchers on the above list of potential returnees had sub-2.00 ERAs in 2020. That embarrassment of riches will certainly push out some players who simply could not crack a rotation and bullpen set to be as deep as 2021 Florida’s will be — like Nolan Crisp, who didn’t pitch for Florida in 2020 after a good freshman season in 2019, and announced a transfer to Georgia on Thursday.

But the thing about an embarrassment of riches is that even a jewel or two slipping off the mountainous mound shouldn’t matter much in the long run.

Though we’re obviously likely more than a year away from the end of Florida’s 2021 baseball season, it seems clear that the Gators will at least have the talent necessary for their long run to end in glory.