Tennessee baseball is back this week and we start our season preview series today by taking a look at the Vols’ position players and lineup.
Tony Vitello’s sixth Tennessee team has to replace all eight starters in the field from last season’s team creating an abundance of question marks and competition.
Still, there’s an abundance of returning talent and a handful of incoming transfers that stabilizes a number of positions, particularly in the infield.
Let’s dive in.
Tennessee’s catcher plans for the season were thrown off kilter before fall practice even begun. LSU beat the Vols out for highly touted Air Force transfer Paul Skenes and incoming Austin Peay catcher Jack Alexander opted to sign an undrafted free agent deal instead of coming to Knoxville.
That made redshirt sophomore utility man Jared Dickey the likely candidate to be Tennessee’s starting catcher, but Dickey’s hand injury four weeks into fall practice staved off his development and led to the Vols “steering” him back to the outfield.
Knoxville native and junior college transfer Cal Stark is the leader to get the most weekend starts behind the plate this season. Stark has a strong bat, one that’s truly better than you’d expect for a catcher and is still solid defensively.
While Stark has earned a lead in the coaching competition, it isn’t big enough to expect him to catch all three games in a weekend series.
Redshirt sophomore Charlie Taylor was the midweek catcher a season ago and earned multiple starts in the Knoxville Regional. Taylor is Tennessee’s best defensive catcher and I expect him to earn a weekend start to open the season. Vitello said as much earlier this preseason.
“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,” Vitello said of Taylor. “He has ridden that 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.”
Taylor’s big flaw is his bat as he just hit .056 last season. The Georgia native looked better at the plate this fall and while he’s not going to turn into a superstar I expect him to easily clear the .100 marker.
Redshirt freshman Ryan Miller is the third catcher in the room and has a solid bat but real defensive limitations. He’ll earn midweek work but is unlikely to catch innings in SEC contests.
Dickey could also see playing time behind the plate if needed.
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Luc Lipcius, Jorel Ortega, Cortland Lawson and Trey Lipscomb are gone. However, there’s few questions about who still start in the infield.
Vitello said it best about new starting first baseman Blake Burke earlier in the preseason.
“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,” Vitello said. “He has to bide his time and probably more than most sophomores, kind of like is I want some ownership of this thing.”
Burke hit .326 and 14 home runs in just 95 at-bats as a freshman. He’ll look to follow up that impressive first act in the middle of Tennessee’s lineup.
Second baseman Christian Moore had a similar role as Burke in his freshman season— earning back up playing time in the field and plenty of designated hitter starts. In that freshman campaign, Moore hit .305 with 10 home runs and 36 RBIs.
The right side of Tennessee’s infield insists of talented underclassmen while the left side is veteran transfers.
Kansas shortstop Maui Ahuna was D1Baseball’s No. 4 transfer and earned a pair of Preseason All-American honors. Ahuna is a special player defensively and hit .396 with a .479 on-base percentage and 28 extra-base hits in his sophomore season.
While expecting those type of numbers in the SEC is unrealistic, Ahuna is still a strong bat and could fill a number of spots in the Vols’ batting order.
Alabama third baseman Zane Denton is returning to his home state for senior season. The switch hitter hit .263 with 13 home runs and 48 RBIs for the Crimson Tide last season including three home runs in a series loss at Tennessee. Denton’s left-handed power should bode well for the short right field wall at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
So what about some depth pieces to know?
Redshirt sophomore Austen Jaslove was impressive this fall at shortstop and looked like a realistic replacement for Ahuna following the season. His versatility allows him to provide depth at multiple infield spots.
Logan Chambers and Kavares Tears could both play in the corner outfield spots but given the Vols’ depth, their path to real playing time feels more likely in the infield in the midweeks or due to injuries.
Tennessee is high on Chambers despite a disappointing first season in Knoxville after transferring in from junior college. Tears has a sweet swing and real power in his left-handed swing. The redshirt freshman didn’t play last season but is poised to back up Burke along with Ethan Payne this season.
While there’s few questions about who will start in the infield, there’s tons of them in the outfield and there will likely be six players earn multiple starts before SEC play starts.
Not only has Tennessee been steering Dickey to the outfield but they’ve been giving him real run at centerfield this preseason. It will be surprising if he sticks there but he’ll start some where with designated hitter being a potential option as well. The redshirt sophomore earned a Preseason Third Team All-American honor after hitting .380 with seven home runs and eight doubles while battling injuries last season.
Cincinnati transfer Griffin Merritt got off to a slow start in fall practice before catching fire the final month. That fire has continued into preseason practice as the reigning AAC Player of the Year looks poised to carry his success over to the SEC.
Merritt can play either corner outfield spot with left field being most likely, and what he played most at Cincinnati, and could be a staple in the middle of Tennessee’s lineup.
Kyle Booker was my prediction for a breakout season last year but never turned the corner in his sophomore season, in part due to an injury that sidelined him early in the season. The junior from Southaven, Mississippi impressed in fall practice and could earn starting time at center or right field.
Then there’s the freshman duo in Tennessee’s outfield: Reese Chapman and Dylan Dreiling. Both were big time recruits and have sky high potential. With Drew Gilbert and Jordan Beck gone, these two could be the next two great Tennessee outfielders.
While there’s no easy path to playing time this season, Vitello made it clear they can make a big impact this season.
“They were capable of doing that (going pro) out of high school, and at the same time, they’re young, so they have a lot to learn,” Vitello said. “Exciting future for those two guys at those spots, and to be honest with you, they should be thinking the future is now.”
Both flashed their potential and showed inconsistencies in the fall as you would expect from young players. Chapman has been particularly impressive but both will have chances to earn playing time.
Super senior Christian Scott is the consummate professional at the college level and the forgotten man in Tennessee’s outfield. The Clarkesville native has never broken through as a full-time starter but has earned spot starts throughout his career and is a strong defensive substitute and pinch runner.
Scott’s ceiling isn’t as high as the five other names we discussed, but he will get his chances early in the season to win a starting spot.
Colby Backus, Hunter Ensley and Payne will have opportunities in the midweek but are unlikely to break through as serious contributors.