Opinion: Tennessee Baseball Will Turn the Corner in 2017

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    Photo By Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics

    When Dave Serrano was brought back for a sixth season at Tennessee, many were surprised.

    Serrano is the first to admit that his tenure hasn’t lived up to his expectations.

    “No, we haven’t won enough,” Serrano said in a May press conference. “We haven’t won enough that satisfies me, for sure. But with the direction in which I’m trying to take this program and how I’m trying to lead these young men, the winning is going to happen. I’m very confident about that. This is the only place I want to be.”
    This is the year that will all change.

    The Serrano era at UT has been mired in mediocrity, despite three straight SEC tournament appearances. But there’s something different about the 2017 squad. Serrano has always recruited well at Tennessee, bringing in a top-20 class every year he’s been in Knoxville.

    The 2016 signing class is Serrano’s first with no MLB draft exits since he came to UT. All 14 signees are on campus, and they’re already making a big impact in the first two weeks of the season.

    It all starts on the mound.

    “Pitching, pitching, pitching,” Serrano said at Tennessee’s first practice this past month. “We’re deep on the mound. I’ll say this, we have enough talent on the mound to be good. I’m in charge of the pitching, so if we’re not good it’ll be my fault.”

    RHP Zach Linginfelter is the most MLB-ready player in this class. The Sevier County native was ranked by Perfect Game as the No. 60 player in the 2016 class, and the No. 19 right-handed pitcher in the country.

    Despite being drafted in the 16th round by the New York Yankees, Linginfelter decided to be a Vol.

    Perfect Game’s scouting report on the tall righty is an impressive one.

    “Outstanding pitchers build, broad shoulders with a high narrow waist, very strong athlete. Balanced and directional delivery, high 3/4’s arm slot with big downhill plane to the plate, outstanding extension out front on release. Steady 93-95 mph fastball, very good life down in the zone, has the ability to work both vertically and horizontally with intent with his fastball. Slider improved with use and showed big two-plane break at times. Nice change up with tumbling action. Has all the pitches and an idea how to use them.”

    And that’s just your mid-week starter.

    To complement Linginfelter’s power, enter Garrett Stallings, another freshman righty ranked highly by Perfect Game. With a fastball consistently in the upper 80’s and a four-pitch arsenal that includes a nasty slider, Stallings is the perfect complement to Linginfelter out of the pen.

    Linginfelter got his first career win on Wednesday against Loyola Marymount, largely thanks to Stallings, who came in with the bases loaded and no outs in the sixth and struck out the side.

    Weekend starters Hunter Martin, Zach Warren and Will Neely have all shown at least one good outing so far as well.

    That’s a big reason to be optimistic about Tennessee in 2017. This is the most pitching talent Dave Serrano has had in Knoxville. He’s coached some superb hitters in Nick Senzel, Christin Stewart and Vincent Jackson, but UT hasn’t had a consistent ace to lead the way.

    The 2016 class has at least two guys who could fill that role within a year or two. Until then, Will Neely will look to build on his solid freshman season, where he took the ball on Sundays in SEC play. Here’s his Perfect Game profile:

    “Consistent low 90’s fastball, nice late tailing action down in the zone, tends to straighten when up, worked fastball to both sides of the plate. Short late breaking curveball, consistent tight spin and bite. Good feel for change up with late fading life. Holds velocity from the stretch and throws strikes with three quality pitches.”

    Neely caught fire late last season, including a series clinching victory over No. 4 Vanderbilt. In his first collegiate start, Neely went six innings, striking out five and giving up two earned runs on six hits. If he can keep up the momentum he had during the latter half of SEC play, Neely will be a tough guy to beat on Sundays this season.

    At the plate, Tennessee is replacing the majority of its order from last season. But so far, so good for this group which starts with redshirt senior Jeff Moberg.

    Before suffering a season-ending knee injury on March 14th, Moberg was leading the NCAA in runs scored (28) and second in the country with nine doubles in just 16 games. The second baseman took a medical redshirt last season, and is back at the top of the order for UT this season.

    Through seven games this year, Moberg is hitting .454 with two home runs and seven RBI. Behind him, the freshman class is off to a good start. Andre Lipcius is hitting .423 with three stolen bases. OF Justin Ammons has six doubles and a .393 average to start his career. Mix in those two with veterans Jordan Rodgers and Benito Santiago, and you’re looking at a dangerous lineup.

    I don’t expect that lineup to continue at that hot a pace, but the initial signs are already better than expected. Ammons and Pete Derkay (6-for-9, two doubles) were both named to the Tony Gwynn Classic All-Tournament Team. Those two freshmen give Serrano consistent lineup depth he hasn’t had.

    The two coldest hitters in the lineup, Benito Santiago and Brodie Leftridge, were the two hottest hitters at the end of last season. Those guys will heat up. And when they do, they’ll complement the hot-hitting newcomers even more.

    On the mound and at the plate, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Dave Serrano and the direction of the Tennessee baseball program. This team is capable of making the NCAA Tournament, and if pitching stays consistent and young hitters continue to produce in the middle of the order, UT will be playing in June.