Stars Back In Tennessee’s Outfield, Competition Across Infield Entering 2022 Season

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Lombardi: The Over is in play for the Big Game

Tennessee enters the 2022 season facing the most lineup turnover of Tony Vitello’s four seasons in Knoxville.

Gone is the core of Vitello’s first full Tennessee recruiting class and the mainstays of the BaseVols’ resurgence: Max Ferguson, Jake Rucker and Connor Pavolony. 

Rucker and Ferguson started nearly every collegiate game in which they were healthy and after splitting time at catcher his first year, Pavolony was a full-time starter the last two seasons. 

Combine those losses with shortstop Liam Spence’ departure to professional baseball and designated hitter/emergency catcher Pete Derkay running out of eligibility, and Tennessee has to replace an abundance of production.

Tennessee lost its starter at four of the five infield positions including the top three hitters in its batting order.

There’s competition across the infield as returning reserves and newcomers from the Vols’ highly touted signing class compete for playing time.

The biggest question is how does Tennessee replace catchers Pavolony and Jackson Greer. The Vols landed West Virginia transfer Matt McCormick but the backstop ultimately decided to end his baseball career.

That put Tennessee in a hole and — in part — led super senior Evan Russell to move from left field to catcher. The fan favorite caught in high school before bouncing around positions his first year at Tennessee and settling in the outfield.

He’s separated himself as Tennessee’s starting catcher but the Vols are going to play multiple people there. Sophomore Charlie Taylor will be Tennessee’s second catcher with chances to earn starts on the weekend as well as the midweek.

“He wouldn’t be the player he is without self belief and almost kind of, I wouldn’t say arrogance, but without a great deal of confidence,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said of Russell. “He’s approached that position with humility despite his experience and that confidence. That hasn’t changed. He’s constantly asking questions, trying to improve in little areas, so overall, I haven’t seen one thing like throwing or blocking make a huge jump, it’s just kind of that inch-by-inch daily improvement and that attitude has not changed of how do I learn more? How do I get better repore with the pitchers? Whatever it might be.

“I’ll tell you this too. He’s been pushed by Charlie Taylor. Very very evident when guys do their work over Christmas break. Like I said, they’re kind of on their own. That’s a guy who did his work over the break. He’s someone that’s going to get a lot of action as well.”

We know Russell can hit, but the question is how good either of these players will be behind the plate. This fall, Vitello baptized his backstops by fire, running players incessantly. And there were times when they did so with success.

When looking at Tennessee’s fielding, finding stability and strong defense behind the plate is the biggest question.

This fall, Vitello said it feels like it’s Trey Lipscomb’s time at third base. Lipscomb — a member of that 2018 recruiting class previously mentioned — spent his first three years in Knoxville waiting behind Jake Rucker and impressing in opportunities against lesser opponents. In his first three years in Knoxville, Lipscomb is hitting .246 in 69 at-bats with his best (.310 BA) season coming a year ago.

Reserve infielder Jorel Ortega and junior college transfer Logan Chambers are other options at third base, though Chambers’ defense could limit his playing time.

The thick of Tennessee’s competition is in the middle of the infield. The Vols have worked an abundance of players and combinations up the middle of their defense. 

The most frequent contributors at shortstop are Logan Steenstra and Cortland Lawson. Steenstra — a junior college transfer a season ago — was one of the few reserve infielders that earned legit playing time last season.

While Liam Spence battled a hamstring injury, Steenstra started at shortstop for seven SEC games. The 6-foot-5 shortstop hit the ground running, hitting three-of-eight with three extra-base hits in a pair of wins over Alabama.

Steenstra eventually came back down to earth, hitting .292 in 48 at-bats and struggling with the fielding consistency you look for from your starting shortstop.

Lawson has just 14 at-bats in his first two seasons at Tennessee, but is a real threat to start at shortstop thanks to an impressive offseason.

At second base, the main contenders are junior college transfer Seth Stephenson and freshman Christian Moore. Stephenson — a 5-foot-9 infielder — is an elite base stealer and is “about as good of a runner” as Tony Vitello has ever seen.

If Stephenson gets on base, he might as well be on second. Outside of Vanderbilt’s Enrique Bradfield Jr, there may not be a better base stealer in the SEC than Stephenson. At his short height, Stephenson’s fielding range is limited while consistency at the plate will be another main question.

Tennessee was giddy when no MLB team selected Moore in the 2021 MLB Draft, making the Brooklyn native destined for Knoxville. The excitement was well deserved. The second highest rated recruit to make it to Knoxville, Moore has an elite bat for someone his age.

Moore’s been incredibly impressive at the plate this preseason and in the fall. Like any freshman, consistency will be a question, but the 6-foot-1infielder is overflowing with talent.

“There’s been guys that have found a comfort level,” Vitello said of the middle infield. “Logan Steenstra, Christian Moore, Cortland Lawson, Seth Stephenson. Those guys have played very well in the middle of the field, but also Trey Lipscomb has the ability to play shortstop as well as anyone we’ve had here, but he’s also a dynamic third baseman. It’s kind of going to end up being what’s the best combination

So that’s a lot of names in the three open infield spots. Expect Tennessee to do a lot tinkering in the lineup in the pre-conference slate. The starting lineup on opening day may look a lot different than the SEC opening lineup on March 18.

Super-senior Luc Lipcius will be Tennessee’s starting first baseman, but there are a few other names to know there. Freshman Blake Burke gives Moore a run for his money as the best hitter in Tennessee’s freshman class. 

Lipcius was horrific against left-handed pitching last season. Burke is also a lefty, but he’s been better against lefties than Lipcius in scrimmages. Don’t be surprised to see Burke get opportunities either in that role or as the designated hitter.

“They’re not scared,” Vitello said of Moore and Burke in the fall. “You can tell they want to be here every day. So with that they’re anxious to learn, to work, to show what they can do, but also they’re not scared.”

The last name to watch for at first is freshman Kavares Tears. The Lewisburg native is raw and Tennessee still isn’t sure where his long term home is, but he can absolutely rake from the lefty batters box.

While the infield is full of new faces, Tennessee returns its top five outfielders from a year ago — though Russell is now playing catcher.

Drew Gilbert and Jordan Beck are locks to start at center and left field after combining for 114 hits, 25 home runs and 126 RBIs a season ago. 

With all the turnover in Tennessee’s lineup, Gilbert and Beck are the leading dogs entering their junior seasons. The outfielders had the first and second most RBIs on last season’s team and first and sixth most extra-base hits.

Vitello raved about Beck in the preseason, saying he’s “swinging the bat” as well as the fifth-year coach has seen.

With Russell at catcher, there’s an abundance of competition for the starting left field spot. 

Kyle Booker was incredibly impressive — .310/.382/.448 — in 58 at-bats as a freshman. The lefty outfielder has a strong glove and earned two hits off Arkansas’ star Kevin Kopps last season.

However, Booker has struggled in preseason practice and will be fighting to earn a consistent role when the season begins.

“Kyle came back with a very unique attitude,” Vitello said. “As we get closer to the season, you can see he’s one of a few guys kind of trying to press and do a little bit too much. In any sport, that’s one of the biggest don’t do its or thing that can shoot you in the foot. We need to get him to calm down and just be who he is, but one thing that does that, probably better than the coaching staff, is just game situations. He feels like a guy that when the lights come on, he’s at his best. His teammates do. The stats and video kind of back that up, but at the same time we have to go off of what we see in batting practice and then scrimmages and things like that to put guys in certain situations that they’ve earned or we feel like they deserve.”

Christian Scott was another effective reserve for Tennessee a season ago and the senior has stuck around Knoxville throughout an abundance of competition and a lack of playing time. The Clarkesville native had an impressive .415 on-base percentage in 42 at-bats.

Lastly, Logan Chambers is a threat to earn playing time at left field. Choosing Tennessee over Arkansas, Chambers’ bat made him a highly regarded prospect coming out of junior college. Finding a spot for him in the field has been the struggle, but Chambers has been best in the outfield.

With inexperience across the infield, expect competition and tinkering lineups between the highly-touted newcomers and veteran reserves looking to break on the scene. The Vols’ outfield is loaded with the team’s expected stars and potential breakout stars, as well.

Ryan Schumpert is a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since the moment he stepped on campus. Ryan spent three years with the Daily Beacon, the last two of which as the Sports Editor. Ryan also spent three years at Volquest providing strong Tennessee baseball coverage of Tony Vitello's resurgent program before joining RTI. While the bulk of Ryan's responsibilities involved beat coverage and writing, he also recorded podcasts for both the Beacon and Volquest. Ryan's work ethic, versatility, and strong writing skills are but three reasons why Vol Nation will be hearing from Ryan for years to come.