2020 Tennessee Baseball Position Preview: Infield

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(Photo via Caleb Jones/Tennessee Athletics)

Get ready for the start of the Vols’ 2020 baseball season with our position previews! We take a look at UT’s infield next. Our previous preview looked at the Vols’ outfield, and our first preview looked at Tennessee’s pitching staff.

Seniors: 1B Pete Derkay

Juniors: 1B Luc Lipcius, OF/1B Alerick Soularie, INF Liam Spence

Sophomores: 3B Trey Lipscomb, 2B Max Ferguson, SS Jake Rucker, SS Austin Knight

Freshmen: OF/1B Jordan Beck, INF/RHP Cortland Lawson, INF Joel Ortega, INF/RHP Ethan Payne, INF/RHP Tyler Wade, RHP/INF Ga’von Wray 

New-Look Infield

Tennessee’s infield will feature new faces this season in at least two positions, possibly more.

The Vols are tasked with replacing their best player from a season ago following the departure of third baseman Andre Lipcius to professional baseball. Lipcius started in 61 games at third for the Vols before being drafted in the third round by the Detroit Tigers. At the plate, he batted .308 with a team-leading 17 home runs and 58 RBI. Lipcius also had a team-high 73 hits.

To Lipcius’ left stood Ricky Martinez, the Vols sure-handed shortstop that departed to professional baseball as well. Martinez was selected in the 18th round of the 2019 MLB Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks after hitting .279 with 62 hits, 28 RBI, and a team-leading 18 doubles.

The Hot Corner

Tennessee has plenty of options to replace both Lipcius and Martinez, however. Lipcius’ replacement at third is more apparent than Martinez’s replacement at short, though.

Sophomore Trey Lipscomb is expected to be the starting third baseman game No. 1 for the Vols. Lipscomb, who sat behind Lipcius last season, is poised for a breakout season. The Frederick, Maryland native was ranked the No. 5 overall player in the state of Maryland in 2018 according to Perfect Game, and he was the No. 1 shortstop.

Lipscomb appeared in just 12 games last season, making one start. In 14 appearances at the plate, he picked up one hit. Lipscomb had a terrific offseason and tore the cover off of the ball during fall practice. His hot hitting continued as spring practice began, and now he’s poised to start on Opening Day.

Austin Knight, a sophomore infielder, will also push for starting time at third as he has had a strong fall and continued to impress as spring practice began. Knight also had an impress summer, where he batted .314 with 28 runs, 17 RBI, and 13 stolen bases for the Kalamazoo Growlers in the Northwoods League. Last season for the Vols, Knight recorded one hit in 12 at-bats.

Up the Middle

Knight could also push for playing time at shortstop, but Liam Spence or Jake Rucker appear poised to be the quarterback of the defense.

Spence arrives in Knoxville from Central Arizona College, where he helped lead the Vaqueros to the NJCAA Division I National Championship last season. During his two years at Central Arizona, the Australian native hit .363 for 106 runs, 26 doubles, nine home runs, 61 RBI, and 26 stolen bases.

Rucker, on the other hand, led all freshmen last year in playing time for the Vols in 2019. The Greenbrier, Tennessee native started 54 games, primarily at second base, batting .273, driving in 28 runs, and scoring 26 runs. Rucker will be a staple in Tennessee’s lineup, whether he plays at third, short, or second.

If Rucker ends up playing shortstop, expect to see sophomore Max Ferguson play second. The Florida native flashed potential last season before breaking his wrist, which ended his freshman campaign. Ferguson primarily played first base last year, but he showed potential at second base over the offseason as he has added much-needed weight. Last year, Ferguson hit .231 and drew 19 walks.

The Other Hot Corner

Tennessee has two true first basemen, but seven different players who could play first base. In addition to Luc Lipcius and Pete Derkay, Jordan Beck, Alerick Soularie, Ferguson, and Lipscomb can all play the position, and all could potentially see time there.

Lipcius and Derkay appear to be the primary options at first, however. Lipcius was the hottest hitter on the team to start 2019 before breaking his foot. In just 16 games, Lipcius set career-highs in runs (15), doubles (4), triples (2), home runs (3), RBI (14), and walks (10). For his career, Lipcius is hitting .264 in 69 games.

While it may be more likely that Ferguson or Beck play first if Lipcius isn’t in the game, Derkay has seen plenty of action over the course of his career. The senior has appeared in 158 games for the Vols, hitting .259 with four home runs and 71 RBI. Derkay is the most experienced player on the roster and could see playing time at first, catcher, or designated hitter.

Behind the Plate

Derkay will serve as the Vols emergency catcher while Connor Pavolony and Landon Gray guide Tennessee’s pitching staff from behind the plate.

Pavolony will be the primary catcher. The sophomore has taken a huge step forward over the offseason both on the field and as a leader in the clubhouse. As a freshman in 2019, the Woodstock, Georgia native split time with Gray, but he emerged as the No. 1 catcher towards the end of the season. He hit .228 in 34 starts, driving in 17 runs, hitting two home runs, and scoring 20 runs.

Gray is one of a few seniors on this year’s team. The Texas native hit three home runs in his first season on Rocky Top last year. After a strong summer playing for the Westhampton Aviators, Gray will serve as the backup to Pavolony to begin the season, though he’ll likely start at least one game each weekend. Last year, Gray hit .163 at the plate with 11 runs batted in and a .989 fielding percentage.

X-Factor

The X-factor of the infield is Pete Derkay. As the most experienced player on the Vols’ roster, he’s capable of producing at first base, catcher, and as the designated hitter. Derkay is one of the team’s leaders in the clubhouse, and though there’s not a clear path to playing time at the moment, he’s just an injury or two away from being thrust into the lineup. If he can produce, he gives the Vols another power bat and just adds to the deep bench that Tony Vitello already possesses.

Newcomers

In addition to Spence, Tennessee’s infield welcomes two newcomers, both of which are freshmen.

Ethan Payne arrives in Knoxville from Germantown High School in Memphis. According to Perfect Game, Payne was the 26th-best player in the state of Tennessee. He was named to the 2019 Commercial Appeal All-Metro second team as a senior and as a junior.

Cortland Lawson is the other freshman in the Vols’ infield. The Potomac, Virginia native ranked as the 280th overall player in the country and the No. 2 overall player in the state of Virginia according to Perfect Game. Lawson spent three seasons at Paul VI Catholic High School before playing his final season of high school baseball at Dominion High School.

Final Thought

Vitello may have an idea of who will be in the lineup opening weekend, but he has no idea who will remain in the lineup throughout the season. The Vols’ 2020 infield is inexperienced, but it has potential. Lipscomb, Rucker, Ferguson, Lipcius, and Pavolony are expected to lead the way, but if they don’t, Knight, Spence, Derkay, and Gray will be given every opportunity to earn a spot in the starting lineup.

Similar to the Vols pitching staff and outfield situation, the infield has more depth than we’ve seen in awhile. Now it’s up to Tennessee’s coaching staff to piece the talented group together and maximize its potential.

Ben McKee
Ben McKee is a graduate from the University of Tennessee and has a degree in Journalism and Electronic Media. He grew up an Army brat and lived in Alabama for a bit, but he bleeds orange. He covers Tennessee football, basketball, baseball, and the Lady Vols for RTI, and he's also a co-host on the RTI Live Show and RTI Podcast. You can also hear Ben on the morning sports radio show "The Swain Event." He's the producer and co-host along with former Vol wide receiver Jayson Swain.

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