Get ready for the start of the Vols’ 2020 baseball season with our position previews! We take a look at UT’s outfield next. Our previous preview looked at Tennessee’s pitching staff.
Juniors: Alerick Soularie, Zach Daniels, Evan Russell, Matt Turino
Sophomores: Christian Scott
Freshmen: LHP/OF, Drew Gilbert, OF/1B Jordan Beck, OF/LHP Zane Keener, RHP/OF Ethan Anderson
Garrett Crochet is the ace of Tennessee’s pitching staff. Junior left fielder Alerick Soularie is the ace of Tennessee’s lineup.
Accolades have rolled in for Soularie all offseason long, and rightfully so. The Houston, Texas native was named to Preseason All-American teams by D1Baseball, Baseball America, and Perfect Game, while also being named to the Preseason All-SEC First Team, as voted on by the league’s coaches.
Soularie’s long list of preseason accolades come following a breakout sophomore campaign. The Vols’ starting left fielder led the team in batting (.357), slugging (.602), and on-base percentage (.466) in 2019. He also finished second on the team in hits (70) and led the team in runs scored (52). Soularie hit 11 home runs and drove in 46 RBI for the season.
As a result of his play, Soularie earned numerous postseason honors in 2019, including first-team All-SEC recognition after finishing the year ranked in the top five in the conference in batting average, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage. He was also named a third-team All-American by D1Baseball.com and an All-America Honorable Mention by Perfect Game.
Last season, Andre Lipcius carried the torch for Tennessee’s lineup. This year, Soularie takes over that role.
A year after making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005, Tennessee is poised for another strong campaign because of its depth. Tony Vitello and his coaching staff have completely revamped the roster thanks to their ability to recruit. It’s evident when you sort through the possible combinations in the outfield.
The Vols return Soularie in left field but must replace their starting center fielder and right fielder following the departures of Jay Charleston and Justin Ammons to professional baseball. Charleston was drafted in the 26th round of the 2019 MLB Draft by the Kansas City Royals, while Ammons signed with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Tennessee will miss Charleston’s speed the most. The former Vol led the SEC and ranked sixth nationally with 41 stolen bases last season. Charleston scored 41 runs and covered quite a bit of ground in the outfield thanks to his speed.
Ammons started 156 games during the course of his three-year career as a Vol.
In center, Matt Turino, Christian Scott, and Drew Gilbert will battle it out to be Tennessee’s starting center fielder. As for the rights to be the starting right fielder, Drew Beck appears poised to take the keys. Turino, Scott, and Gilbert could also slide over and play right field if need be, however. As could Zach Daniels or Evan Russell, though they have primarily played in left field or suited up as the Vols designated hitter.
Soularie is penciled in to start in left field to begin the season, though he could see time at first base if need be. Regardless, left field is the only outfield spot that is locked up heading into the season.
As for the two other spots, Turino and Beck appear likely to start game one in center and in right, respectively.
Turino will likely platoon in center with Gilbert and Scott to begin the season until one separates from the others. Because of Beck’s ability to play other positions such as first base, Vitello could also slide Gilbert, Scott, Turino, Daniels, or Russell over to right. In that scenario, Beck would play first or be the designated hitter. For now, I’m penciling Beck in at right field.
Turino arrives from the junior college ranks where he had a decorated career with Jefferson College in Jefferson City, Missouri. The native of Toronto, Canada earned NJCAA Third Team All-America honors last season and was an NJCAA Gold Glove winner. He led the Vikings with a .356 batting average, 74 hits, 21 doubles, and 30 stolen bases as a sophomore.
As a freshman, Turino was a second-team All-Region performer, helping Jefferson College reach the NJCAA Division I College World Series. In 2018, Turino hit .354 with and had a team-high 18 stolen bases. He also hit seven home runs on his way to driving in 70 RBI.
Scott enters his sophomore season following a solid season in 2019. The Clarksville native appeared in 21 games, starting in seven. He batted .321, drew nine walks, and played good defense. His bat and the ability to cover ground in center has him in the mix for playing time.
Beck, who I just mentioned as the projected starting right fielder by my estimation, chipped a bone in the back of his foot by fouling a ball off while taking batting practice back home during winter break. He’s since healed from the injury and is poised to be one of the SEC’s best freshmen in 2020.
The Hazel Green, Alabama native has impressed since the moment he stepped foot on campus. Beck was drafted in the 14th round by the Boston Red Sox, but he opted to play college baseball over life in the minor leagues. As a result, he adds a much-needed power bat to the Tennessee lineup.
As well as an all-state basketball player, Beck is a two-time Perfect Game Preseason All-American and three-time Alabama Sports Writers Association All-State selection. Beck led Hazel Green to its first-ever state championship in baseball as a junior in 2018. The former Trojan was named the 2019 Alabama Class 6A Hitter of the Year, 2019 Super 10 Player of the Year, and earned a spot on the ASWA Super All-State Team. As a senior, he hit .500 with 13 home runs, 52 RBI, 60 runs scored, and 16 doubles.
I talked about Drew Gilbert in my preview of Tennessee’s pitching staff on Monday, and I’m also mentioning him as a legitimate option for the Vols in center field in addition to what he can bring on the mound.
Gilbert has a rocket for an arm and covers a lot of ground, but what has impressed coaches more than they anticipated is his bat. The Minnesota native was selected in the 35th round by the Minnesota Twins in the 2019 MLB Draft, but he elected to attend college. Gilbert was a two-time Perfect Game Preseason All-American as well as a Gatorade Player of the Year finalist in 2018.
Ethan Anderson and Zane Keener are the two other freshmen outfielders on this year’s team. Anderson is slated to have a chance to earn early playing time.
Anderson, who will also pitch for the Vols, was a four-time Perfect Game Preseason All-American and was the 188th-best player in the country according to Perfect Game. He was a two-time Georgia Class 6A All-State selection and won the Silver Slugger Award in 2018 after batting .395 with seven home runs and 63 RBI.
Keener is a local product from the Christian Academy of Knoxville. He was the fifth-best outfielder in Tennessee according to Perfect Game and was a three-time Perfect Game Preseason All-American. The Knoxville native helped lead CAK to three-straight state championships and was a three-time Knoxville News Sentinel All-PrepXtra selection.
Zach Daniels and Evan Russell are the X-factors in the outfield.
Russell is going to play, and he’ll likely play a lot assuming he produces at the plate. But it likely won’t be in the outfield. Rather, Russell will likely begin the season as the Vols designated hitter, though he’s more than capable of playing in left field. More importantly, Russell is one of the key leaders on this Tennessee baseball team.
The Lexington, Tennessee native has played in 97 games during his career and made 85 starts. The junior started 50 games as an outfielder and designated hitter last season and set career highs in batting average (.274), runs (30), hits (46), home runs (six), RBI (39), walks (30), slugging percentage (.446), and on-base percentage (.382).
Russell is an X-factor because he can do a bit of everything. But Daniels is the biggest X-factor on Tennessee’s roster because he has the ability to be one of the most intimidating hitters in the SEC. The Stockbridge, Georgia native simply hasn’t put it together yet.
Daniels has hit .176 over the course of 66 appearances as a Vol, while hitting nine home runs and driving in 26 runs. The breaking ball has been Daniels’ kryptonite, but if he can figure out how to lay off, he possesses the type of power to lead the SEC in home runs and take Tennessee’s lineup to a different level.
Tennessee’s outfield was solid in 2019. This season, the outfield should be even better despite the departure of two starters, because it’ll be more versatile. Soularie is the heart-and-soul of the outfield, while Beck and Gilbert possess the potential to have All-SEC Freshman type seasons. Turino also has the ability and opportunity to be one of the best newcomers as a junior.
Then there’s the returning players. Scott and Russell are good players who are more than capable of getting the job done. If Daniels can take the next step and emerge as a true power threat, the possibilities for Tennessee’s outfield are limitless.
Vitello will have plenty of hard decisions to make in the outfield over the first month of the season, which is a great problem to have, and one the Vols haven’t had in quite some time.