Tennessee baseball began its preseason practice Friday just 21 days ahead of the season opener at the Desert Invitational in Arizona.
The Vols are the No. 2 team in nearly every preseason top 25 including both D1Baseball and Baseball America. Tennessee returns an abundance of talent on the mound including its top four most used pitchers from last season.
However, Vitello’s sixth Tennessee team is looking to replace eight position player starters from last season’s SEC Championship team.
Here’s everything Vitello said as the Vols’ preseason practice begins.
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On the health of the team after being banged up in the fall
“Nothing unique other than the usual sore here or maybe a guy turns an ankle, and I’m just throwing out, I don’t have anything specific. Nothing than your usual knicks and knacks. You’d love to play a game in the spring when your team is 100% and it probably never happens, not only to us but everybody in the country. But fortunately for guys like (Kyle) Booker with a foot injury, C Scott, Jared Dickey suffers a minor fracture in his hand and then some setbacks we had a lot of them stemmed from guys just not being able to stay on the field with that rash of illnesses we had in the semester. Right now, most of that is behind us so we feel good about the fact that we’re out there, everyone is present on day one today but we also have a sense of urgency that we have a lot of work to do.”
On if Seth Halvorsen is on a load management type of deal
“No more than the other guys. I think with he and (Zach) Joyce, both of them have not pitched competitively in quite some time. They have faced hitters, about a week ago is when it would be, and then they would throw again in the scrimmage tomorrow so we’d be foolish, they’d be foolish if they didn’t say they need to get a little cozy out there with some outings, but otherwise those guys have utilized the free time that they’ve had and it’s tough when a young kid gets injured, but I think most coaches nowadays try and spin it and realize okay, if you can’t do this it stinks but it does mean you can dedicate more time to this, and both those guys have been on a mission literally from the instance they had an injury and had a few moments of being emotional about it and then have gotten after it. And they’re two as physical of pitchers as you’re going to find in the SEC and I think that’s going to support their health.”
On the difference in the pitching competition this season compared to last year
“I think this deal is a little different because you have some guys that are a little more proven. Blade (Tidwell) was sore at the beginning of last year and it just opened the door for a lot of guys, I don’t know if you’d call them wild cards but this time of year, maybe two weeks a little closer to the season a year ago we’re like I guess we’re going to lean on these freshmen pretty good and any coach, any sport, you’re going to have at least a cloud or a bubble over your head of different thoughts like which way is this going to go, how’s he going to handle pressure situations and things like that. I think for the bulk of the competition we kind of know what we got. It’s just a matter of where do we think guys help the team most and then how are the guys going to capitalize on the opportunities we give them starting in Arizona and then after. And then the freshmen, somebody is going to jump up. It may be a couple guys that jump up and grab important innings but it’s an interesting class. It’s probably, depth wise, as good as a class I’ve been around pitching wise. But also, I don’t know if you can call it COVID at this point,but we’re blessed with some good arms. Those freshmen are going to need to be patient and release there’s a natural progression here. Dollander is a good example. Last year, he had a great year. You look at his freshman year, like most freshmen, he needed to go through some things and learn some things so the bulk of the guys are experienced. We’ll find out where we think they fit in and the freshman class is going to be fun to work with. I know they’re ambitious so we’ll see which couple, two, three guys jump up and are able to grab some really vital innings for us.”
On the competition in the field being settled before the season or carrying into the pre-conference slate
“This team has a different story to write then other teams, again, across the country, but in particular on this campus then last year or the year before or the year before. I think something that this team has is a little bit more open competition position player wise. We said that at the beginning of last year and then some guys flat out took ownership of some of those spots. Jorel (Ortega) was one of three or four candidates to be the second baseman and he didn’t give us much choice starting on day one. So maybe that’ll happen with this club but I think moreso, for instance, we go to Arizona, I think you will probably see three different starting lineups in the outfield for those three spots. One guy might start in the outfield and then DH or Dickey is fully capable of catching. As of now, we’ve kind of stirred him more to the outfield just as of now. We’ve only been practicing a little bit but some combinations there.”
On catcher depth and Charlie Taylor
“It affects how you feel in May and June, where if we’re fortunate enough – we had an umpire explaining our rule to our guys, and he brought up, ‘When you get in a Regional, when you get in a Super Regional,’ and that’s not guaranteed. We’re not guaranteed to get to Hoover, but you would like to have Plan A be, ‘Hey, we’re going to play deep into May, play in June,’ and it’s important how your body feels. We’re not NBA guys, so we don’t need the load management, but at that position where you’re squatting, depth is crucial. It’s very challenging to go through a whole year just being healthy. Coach Elander, when he was catching at TCU, he jumped and laid out full extension against a team, landed on a bat weight on the on-deck circle and was out for a few days. As tough as he is and you see how physical it is, it’s tough to go a whole year without missing a game because something pops up here and there. Depth is huge, and Charlie has certainly taken ownership. Last year, him being called upon in the Regional and the reaction he got from the fan base, and how well he played, too, gave him a lot of confidence. He has ridden hat horse so to speak to start off this year and taken some ownership of the position. By no means is he our starting catcher on Opening Day, but he will start in Arizona at some point. I feel confident in that.”
On how he handicaps the catcher spot with Dickey focusing on outfield
“When you recruit, kids should want to be challenged and should want competition, but it is kind of better for pitchers in particular. If a guy does well, he’s going to play, and at that catching spot, you can only have one guy, but we like to use two. We started out using Landon Gray and Pavolony. We have guys like Jared Dickey who can run, he can pinch-hit, he can play the outfield and he’s gotten better behind the plate. Unlike him being a left-handed hitter, Charlie is obviously a right-handed hitter, as is Cal Stark. Cal can do a lot of different things that we feel are good matchup-wise. Everybody throws a little different, and then you throw in in Ryan Miller, who is still learning the position. He is athletic enough to play corner infield, and he probably takes the most impressive BP out of anyone we have. It is kind of nice that each guy is different. If you see two guys as very similar, you kind of steer towards the guy that is the better version of Player A and Player A, but it is a nice complement of guys we’ve got back there.”
On under the radar players that are standing out post Christmas break
“You’d like to think the younger guys are more eager with their work ethic and almost overdo it. They’ll hang out in the cages for an hour-and-a-half when its kind of time to go home after Hour 1. Reese Chapman and Dylan Dreiling are two freshmen that showed up, and it was like, ‘OK, they did their work like you’d expect.’ The older guys, you never know if they’re going to get complacent or ‘I’ve been here,’ or ‘I’ll catch up,’ but Griffin Merritt and Andrew Lindsey are two guys that are older to the point where we tease them in team meetings about how old they are. They are both on the same level as Camden Sewell and Christian Scott, and yet, they both showed signs of (making) the most amount of progress if that makes sense. When they left and then came back, they were two of the guys that had the most notable difference just in how their bodies looked, how they moved around and how well prepared they seemed when they started picking up a baseball or swinging a bat.
On the freshman outfielders
“It’s an opportunity to bring up one thing. We kind of felt that we had a three-headed monster out there, and we still could with Stanwich, Dreiling and Chapman. Now, with Stanwich … he’s going to take a semester to get some things sorted out and then ideally is back here in the fall to join his two buddies. Those three kids are as talented as Drew (Gilbert) and Jordan (Beck), and now to kind of narrow the focus to the two I mentioned, guys that deserve playing time as of now in Arizona, Reese and Dylan have to be included in that conversation. Like Drew and Jordan, they’re the finally the wave of guys that we’re getting that say no to the draft. Not that it is wrong to say yes to the draft, but the SEC is littered with guys who could have went pro out of high school but are attracted to the conference. Fortunately, those numbers of guys are starting to stack up for us, and that’s the easiest way to describe Dylan and Reese. They were capable of doing that out of high school, and at the same time, they’re young, so they have a lot to learn. Exciting future for those two guys at those spots, and to be honest with you, they should be thinking the future is now.”
On finding an identity with so many new pieces
“Yeah, I worried about at the First Pitch Banquet, not remembering someone’s full name. We had them take the microphone and they introduced themselves. I guess this is a decent opportunity to thank everybody who came. We are outgrowing each building we are going to each year. We were in a huge space this year on campus, a believe spot in the union. We maybe have outgrown that. Pretty cool. Those guys all did a good job. That was a night where because they had a mic in their hands, some guys were able to do some things and come out of their shell and show who they are. That is really all it is about in terms of finding yourself, in terms of finding a team image. We could hand a T-shirt out to them if we wanted that says we are the Vols, we do this. Some people think we villains or whatever. Great. Throw a T-shirt on. That doesn’t mean you are going to be a certain way. Who you are every day is who you are. I think there is a noticeable difference in some of those guys the second semester. They realize when Frank (Anderson) says this, he is not only teasing you but he is getting a point across that this is an area you need to get better. If I bring a guy up in a team meeting with a joke included, it might actually be my way of praising him or saying he should be confident in this area. Just different examples that are not easy to illustrate. They are going through my head. Day in and day out, they just need to become comfortable.
“This team is this team. I like the unique challenges this team has. They are different from the 2020 roster. I bring that up, the 2020 roster, I don’t know where they had us but that was the only time I have been part of a team where we’ve kind of got something no one knows yet. For example, (Garrett) Crochet, a guy who can go straight to the big leagues. That team would have been deserving of a really high ranking. I think this team, maybe because of the 20 team and 21 team and so on, this team probably has been bolstered up a little bit too much. We need to center our attention on not do we fit in that top crop because first of all you are not going to know until conference play anyway. Start channeling our energy to who are we and what do I need to do to be the best version of us. We are right in the middle of that deal.”
On finding leadership
“I don’t know what Griffin will do and I don’t look at the internet stats other than if we are kind of trying to make a certain decision. We have our own little group of stats that we do probably like coach (Rick) Barnes does that aren’t even on the ticker tape in the arena. Having said that, regardless of what he does, I am astounded with how quickly he became a leader when he wasn’t even here last year. I think that is a guy that fills that role. I think Jared Dickey has been itching to be that guy. Christian Moore has such a strong personality you can almost feel it coming off of him. He is still finding out that other people, that is what they feel. Have an idea of how you want that to come off. I think there’s some leadership there. Blake Burke was such a good teammate last year in a year where he should be starting at first base but you have a 39-year-old Luc Lipcius playing there. He has to bide his time and probably more than most sophomores, kind of like is I want some ownership of this thing. Those are some few examples that area. The pitching is kind of easy to talk about. Guys now can I say have been there. I know what to talk about. It kind of all filters up to Camden Sewell. I wish Camden Sewell now could watch a video tape of Camden Sewell every day at the dorm and the field as a freshman. It is almost a different human being. Not that he was at a bad place then. He contributed for us then and was a great player, a great human being. Now, it is a deal where you almost feel like including in some of the coaching staff meetings. Some. Not all.”
On the left side of the infield with Alabama transfer Zane Denton and Kansas transfer Maui Ahuna
“You’d like to think up until a certain age that you don’t have to deal with real life crap. You’d like kids to be protected and shielded from some things. Certainly not his fault, just a bad set of circumstances for Zane where this happened, this happened, this happened and then he gets sick and has some time away. All of this while he’s trying to transition into a new environment. It’s just so awesome to see a smile on his face and kind of become one of the guys is one of his main goals right now. He can swing, he can play defense, he knows the league. Now that his body is kind of where it needs to be with Coach Q after a couple of illnesses and setback and time away last semester, but he had to deal with stuff even an adult shouldn’t have to, all in one semester. If anyone is eager to be out there on the field, it’s him.
“Maui is a super lovable kid. Everybody knows he’s highly-skilled, but same thing. You’re wrapped up in a culture and an experience for two years. You kind of feel like that’s who you’ve become and now you have to reverse it. It’s one thing about the portal. I don’t know if I should say this, but sometimes you have to take everything into consideration. Maybe the grass is greener on our side in his instance because there’s a coaching change. But you just don’t step on a campus and just because you’re a good player, ‘bam, here I am.’ There’s some time. Again, refreshing to see how he interacts and how he goes about his business with some of the things we do opposed to the first semester. Not that he’s doing anything wrong and he’s certainly well-schooled by Coach Price’s program coming in here, but it’s a new environment and those two guys need to reflect about what we’ve got going on and they’re starting to do that.”
On how important it is to make the volunteer assistant a paid position
“That’s a tough one to answer. I said on the radio off the cuff the first time I was asked about that, do you want me to answer honestly or pay ode to the great Mike Leach who we’re all missing, who had some great out-takes, or give the politically correct answer, but it’s somewhere in between. It’s sobering for the NCAA to step up and realize these guys need benefits and they need security health wise. They’re putting in just as many hours as the other coaches, so for them to be compensated the right way is huge.
“And then how you become — I probably got different jobs because of recruiting stuff and if you’re not allowed to recruit, how can you move up the ladder? There’s only a few ways to do it. So, really great for the individuals that will be hired across the country and then even at a mid-major, if they can’t pay that guy, you can still fill a role by giving a young kid an opportunity to prove themself — like I might have without luck, I would have been in that situation. So, there’s a ton of great things to come out of it.
“Then there’s always two sides to the argument. It would be great to have an additional coach. I’ve gotten emails. Some people in baseball don’t even realize yet that the volunteer position will go away and a full-time position will be added. It was kind of worded in a quirky way in a lot of articles that came out when that first happened. Like, ‘hey, this guy is now going to switch into that.’ Well, that’s not how it’s going to work. Everyone is going to get an opportunity to hire somebody and then the volunteer position — for some good reasons and some, like I said, you would love to have an additional coach, will evaporate.”