Tennessee baseball concluded its fall practice earlier this week after over six weeks of action at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
There’s plenty of new faces on this Tennessee team and plenty of returners that are bound to see bigger roles this season making for an entertaining fall. The Vols won scrimmages against Wake Forest and Memphis as well as holding an abundance of intrasquad scrimmages.
I wasn’t able to watch the Wake Forest scrimmage but did watch eight instrasquad scrimmages and the scrimmage against Memphis in Jackson. Here are some notes from earlier in the fall before diving in to our final fall recap.
Tennessee’s pitching staff is the most established part of Tony Vitello’s sixth team in Knoxville. The Vols return their top four pitchers from a season ago including all three weekend starters — Chase Burns, Chase Dollander and Drew Beam — as well as top utility arm Camden Sewell.
Dollander saw a limited amount of action this fall while Burns, Beam, Sewell and Seth Halvorsen didn’t pitch in any scrimmages I was at. That isn’t overly surprising considering Sewell’s experience, Halvorsen returning from injury and Beam and Burns heavy workload as freshmen.
“We’re kind of in that individual phase and (Seth) Halve(rson) is in the same category,” Vitello said this week. “Right now he’s throwing off the mound. Coach A is able to just work with him, nothing else going on, use the technology as he sees fit. Drew Beam is doing the same thing right now. Throwing a little bit. Chase Burns is in that category.
“Chase Dollander just threw his last bullpen and we’ll shut him down so you guys have been great about coming out to the park and I’m not on y’all’s sites and all that but I assume you’ve been publicizing what’s been going on but there’s a lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes too.”
While many of Tennessee’s arms were limited this fall, there were a handful of impressive returners. Wyatt Evans looked strong all fall and capped it off with six strikeouts in four scoreless innings in a fall World Series start.
Evans dueled with LHP Zander Sechrist in game one of the fall World Series. Sechrist was Tennessee’s midweek starter a season ago and had a solid fall including a strong inning against Memphis and eight strikeouts in four one-run innings in the fall World Series.
LHP Jake Fitzgibbons looked better this fall than at any point in his Tennessee tenure. Vitello said Fitzgibbons feels like “his team is now” earlier in the fall and the junior will have a role in Tennessee’s bullpen if he can carry his fall success into the spring.
Combine Evans, Sechrist and Fitzgibbons with Kirby Connell and junior college transfer Jacob Bimbi and Tennessee has an abundance of left handed arms that will compete for innings out of the bullpen.
RHP Bryce Jenkins is a fellow junior college transfer that was impressive this fall. The former Hardin Valley and Cleveland State standout looked like a guy that can contribute this season but Tennessee’s pitching depth makes it far from a guarantee.
More From RTI: Everything Tony Vitello Said To Conclude Fall Practice
Let’s start at catcher where Jared Dickey is poised to be the Vols’ starting catcher this season. The redshirt sophomore utility man worked at catcher last season and was making strides before suffering a hand injury that cut his fall short.
As Vitello said this week, Dickey is “a real catcher. This isn’t a fun experiment.”
Behind Dickey is Charlie Taylor who looked much improved with his bat this fall. Taylor isn’t going to be an All-SEC bat by any means but made consistent hard contact and had a really nice day against Memphis.
Tennessee’s other two catcher options are sophomore Ryan Miller and junior college transfer Cal Stark.
“As the fall went on Cal Stark showed he’s much more capable with the bat than we maybe originally thought in scouting and he started accumulating innings behind the plate and then Ryan Miller’s always been capable with the bat but he’s starting to show, as you mentioned, that he’s capable behind the dish too.”
Blake Burke will be Tennessee’s starting first baseman after serving as Luc Lipcius’ back up and a designated hitter as a freshman. Burke’s power was jaw dropping a season ago and it looked just as good this fall. The left-handed hitter will lead Tennessee in home runs and will be in the race for the top home run spot in the SEC this season.
Sophomore Christian Moore had a similar role as Burke last season. Moore was solid but not elite with his bat this fall. The real improvements showed up in the field where he looks much more comfortable then he did a season ago.
“The fact that he wanted to be good up there is step one,” Vitello said of Moore. “That’s how it is for everybody. Take pride in something and be good at it. He clearly showed that, but he also started to tally up repetitions. … But if he was able to step back and see himself on video or from a coach’s perspective, it’s night and day from when he first entered here to what he is now. Therefore, the progress has been significant just this semester.”
Maui Ahuna got off to a slow start at the plate but heated up as the fall went on including a strong game one of the fall World Series. While the contact hitting wasn’t consistent, Ahuna flashed his power with multiple home runs. No matter what Ahuna does at the plate, the Kansas’ transfers glove is his biggest asset.
Alabama transfer Zane Denton had a similar fall, starting slow but finding his groove as it went on.
I expect those four to be the starters but redshirt sophomore Austen Jaslove really impressed this fall. The shortstop has a steady glove and looked better with his bat than expected.
Kavares Tears and Logan Chambers both kept themselves in the hunt to earn a consistent role this coming season. Both can play the corner outfield spots while Tears can play first base and Chambers can play second or third base.
The name of the game for Tennessee’s outfield this fall was competition and that’s just how Vitello likes it.
“What I like right now about the outfield is no one is going to be able to go home over winter break and say ‘I’m out there for sure,’” Vitello said. “There’s probably a handful of guys we know are going to make starts or might even be everyday guys in the lineup but it might be DH, it might be a corner outfield spot and they’re hoping to play center, so there’s a variety of options and a wealth of competition out there. That’s what I like.”
Kyle Booker and Christian Scott are the established returners in that room and both will have opportunities early in the season. An injury ended Scott’s fall early and Booker was really solid throughout the six weeks. While Vitello made it clear no ones role is set, if the season started tomorrow I’d predict Booker to start in center.
Cincinnati transfer Griffin Merritt was as good with his bat as anyone not named Blake Burke this fall. Merritt looked like a guy that was the AAC Player of the Year a season ago and can help the Vols at either corner outfield spot.
Then there’s the three freshman outfielders: Reese Chapman, Alex Stanwich and Dylan Dreiling. All three had their moments this fall but none had enough consistency to separate themselves as a clear starting options. Not that that’s any surprise given they are freshmen.
“They probably want now, now, now, now but those three freshmen in (Dylan) Dreiling, Reese Chapman and (Alex) Stanwich did some special things,” Vitello said. “If you take a step back and look at your career as a whole, those three kids could have a pretty exciting career on the whole and they just need to make sure they keep making strides this freshman year.”
Stanwich looks like a young Jordan Beck with his easy power and tendency to chase pitches out of the strike zone. Chapman really impressed me with his ability to hit for contact and his defensive instincts while Dreiling is patient at the plate and seemed to play his best towards the end of the fall.