Tennessee baseball isn’t going to be the Oakland A’s with Mark McGuire or Jose Canseco this upcoming season. In the words of UT head coach Tony Vitello, the NCAA wouldn’t allow that with testing.
Though the Vols won’t out-slug anybody this season — though Vitello is all for his team proving him wrong — Tennessee does have the potential to be a very dynamic offense. They can be an offense that can run, be disciplined at the plate, hit for average, hit for a little bit of power, and be more aggressive despite being passive in the past.
“With the offense we have, guys are returning from last year, the junior college guys are older, so I feel good about the maturity level physically and mentally of our guys,” Vitello said last week during a preseason press conference. “But the greatest unknown we have is where does everyone fit in in the lineup.”
The top of the lineup is nearly set in stone for the Vols, though Vitello says not to quote him on it. Justin Ammons will likely lead-off while Jay Charleston and Andre Lipcius hit in the two, and three-hole, respectively, like they have in scrimmages this year.
Tennessee returns six of its top seven hitters from last season, but the trio of Ammons, Charleston, and Lipcius is the unquestioned heart of the lineup.
Last season, Lipcius was Tennessee’s best hitter. On the year, he led the team in batting average (.315), home runs (7), RBI (42), and total bases (96). Lipcius started 55 of the team’s 56 games at shortstop.
As for Charleston, he started 55 games and not only led the Vols with 21 stolen bases, but also tied for first in the SEC in that category. Charleston also led Tennessee with 65 hits and 42 runs scored.
Ammons hit .274 as Tennessee’s starting right fielder and led the team with three triples. He finished the season with 58 hits, 22 RBI, and eight doubles.
Past the trio at the top, Vitello doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable with the depth of the starting lineup. The Volunteers return six of its top seven hitters from last season but have to replace some key pieces up the middle – specifically in centerfield and at catcher following the loss of Brodie Leftridge and Benito Santiago.
“One through nine, I think we can be really strong age-wise in a lot of variety,” Vitello said of the starting lineup. “It could be a pretty diversified portfolio that is a strength for us, but there’s still a lot of unknowns.”
Though the Vols are replacing a lot of production in center and at catcher, Vitello still anticipates being strong up the middle. Just look at teams that make it to the College World Series in Omaha. Those teams aren’t necessarily made up of All-Americans up the middle, but it is usually the source of defensive strength of nearly every team in Omaha.
“Whether it be a guy who can hit or not, that’s secondary in those three positions,” Vitello explained. “You’d like a guy that brings both to the table, but you have to have a guy at shortstop, if it’s a routine ground ball, you know it’s an out.
“We have that in Ricky Martinez – a junior college player. We also have Andre Lipcius who, by the end of last year, proved that not only was he a great hitter, but he can do that as well.”
With shortstop addressed, that leaves centerfield and catcher as the other two key positions that need to be sorted out.
Behind the plate, Tennessee will likely be suiting up one of two newcomers. And with the pitching staff a source of strength for the Vols, their best friend will be how the catchers are helping them this year.
“The guys that have solidified themselves as the two best catchers are Landon Gray and Connor Pavolony,” Vitello said. “The friendship and the competitive battle those two have formed has been a delight. It doesn’t always work out that way, but they’ve helped each other in a lot of different ways.
“(Gray and Pavolony are) a nice complement to one another because one is a junior from a junior college – Landon – and he’s left-handed. Connor is a freshman who is a right-handed hitter.”
Pavolony arrives in Knoxville as the No. 91 overall prospect in the country according to Perfect Game. As a senior at River Ridge High School in Woodstock, Georgia, the six-foot catcher batted .408 with 10 home runs.
Gray, on the other hand, arrives from Weatherford College. In junior college, Gray hit .313 at the plate with six homers as a sophomore following a freshman season in which he hit .344 with seven home runs and 50 RBI. Prior to JUCO, the Gransbury, Texas native was drafted in the 38th round of the MLB Draft by the Philadelphia Phillies out of high school.
“And don’t sleep on Pete Derkay,” Vitello reminded the media when discussing his options behind the plate. “He’s caught here, he can play first base, he can play left field, he can DH.
“He’s healthy this year, which he wasn’t last year. I think we’ve got a lot of depth there as well as a lot of talent.”
In center, the plan entering the season was for Charleston or sophomore Zach Daniels to roam around. But according to Vitello, freshman Christian Scott is messing that plan up.
Scott, a freshman from Clarksville, hit .460 as a senior with 65 runs scored. Tabbed as the eighth-best outfielder in the state of Tennessee, he helped lead his high school, Rossview, to a 2018 state championship title. Scott was a three-time All-Mid State selection from 2016-18.
“He’s (Scott) performed as well as any of those outfielders the last few weeks,” Vitello said. “Behind closed doors, we encourage those guys to try and hunt down and steal innings from veterans, and that’s what he is slowly trying to do, and at some point, he’s going to be in the mix out there.”
Although the bottom half of the lineup isn’t necessarily solidified, one thing is clear – Vitello has options. Depth that Tennessee baseball hasn’t had in quite some time. Is it where needs to be? Probably not. But it’s good enough to where the Vols should make a run at making the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s nice we have that competition at each of those positions. Depth makes you feel better, makes you sleep well at night,” Vitello said. “But it also makes guys better because they know they don’t have anything every day. They have to earn it.
“For now, that’s the case at those three positions. I feel confident in any of the guys we mentioned, and there’s even a couple of names we’ve left off that I wouldn’t lose any sleep over if they had to fill in at short or one of those spots.”