Tennessee baseball is back this week and we continue our season preview series today by taking a look at the Vols’ position pitching entering the 2023 season.
The Vols’ returning pitching production is the main reason they enter the season as the No. 2 team in the country as they appear poised to post the nation’s best team ERA for the second consecutive seasons.
While there’s few questions about Tennessee’s weekend rotation, there’s plenty of questions about who will emerge as the reliable arms in the bullpen.
Let’s dive in.
This is the easiest section and most obvious. Chase Burns, Chase Dollander and Drew Beam made up the nation’s top starting rotation a season ago and they’re back for more yesterday.
Utility man Jared Dickey said Tennessee “probably has the best pitching staff in America. I think I can say that pretty confidentially” and the starting rotation is the reason why.
Dollander and Burns are consensus preseason All-Americans after brilliant debut seasons at Tennessee. While Dollander is one of the top college pitching prospects in years, Burns is looking to follow up a strong freshman season with an even better sophomore campaign.
While Burns was Tennessee’s Friday night starter for most of the 2022 season, Dollander is poised to take over that role this season while Burns will slide into the Saturday spot.
Drew Beam is the third and often forgotten about member of the room. The Murfreesboro native posted even better numbers that either Dollander or Burns for the first 10 weeks of the 2022 season but his arm broke down late in the season and he struggled down the stretch.
Beam posted over six innings in his first five SEC outings before failing to throw over five innings in a single outing the rest of the season.
Some of that was inevitable due his lack of innings pitched in high school — COVID-19 ended his junior year before he had Tommy John surgery his senior season — but he also doesn’t have quite the high-end stuff that either of his counterparts are.
While there’s more questions about Beam, even if he’s not as good as the pitcher we saw for most of 2022 he’ll be one of the SEC’s top arms.
“I hate to say it but they’re probably not going to get a ton of innings because of how good are starters are,” Dickey said of the Vols’ bullpen.
Definitive Major Roles Out Of The Bullpen
Despite Dickey’s accurate quote, Tennessee will slowly work all three starter pitchers into the season and that will create opportunities early in the season for the Vols’ long list of bullpen arms.
Camden Sewell never being a consistent weekend starter for Tennessee is a true testament to how strong the Vols’ pitching staff has been because the super senior has been an elite bullpen arm for years and has shined in his limited starting opportunities.
Sewell will be the most used arm out of Tennessee’s bullpen and after being a long inning, middle reliever last season, the right-handed reliever could fill a plethora of roles this season. Th Cleveland, Tennessee native is fully capable of serving in a heavy usage role like Sean Hunley did in 2021, but the Vols’ depth makes it unlikely he’ll be asked for that many innings.
Still, Sewell is Tennessee’s top bullpen arm and will have a major role on the 2023 team.
LHP Kirby Connell is the only other top reliever from the 2022 season that is back. The soft throwing left-hander posted a 1.66 ERA and 0.80 WHIP in 30 appearances last season and should see even more critical opportunities this season— especially in the season’s offset.
Missouri transfer Seth Halvorsen is the only other reliever I feel confident enough to place in this section. After missing the entire 2022 season with an elbow injury, the former Missouri ace is finally healthy and has all the talent. A high end fastball leads the way for his repertoire and should make him highly effective in late inning opportunities.
“That stuff is going to keep inching along and so is that comfortability,” Tony Vitello said. “He’s one of those guys who I think will naturally progress and in May, you all will look back with the fan’s eye or the critic’s eye, and say ‘this guy looks even better than he did at the start of the season.’”
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Competing For Weekend Innings
This is as long winded as a list as there is. There’s plenty of talented pitchers who are capable of earning roles but there’s only so many innings to go around. The pre-conference slate will be extremely important for this group as they try to make the most of limited opportunities.
Let’s start with the right-handed pitchers. There’s a lot of similarities between Andrew Lindsey and Zach Joyce. Both are hard throwers with mid-to-upper 90s and haven’t pitched in a year (Lindsey) or two years (Joyce). The talent for both guys is clearly there but putting it all together and finding consistency will be challenging.
Vitello mentioned junior college transfer Bryce Jenkins as one of the newcomers he’s most excited to watch. The Knoxville native and junior college transfer was extremely effective in fall ball pounding the strike zone and took complete advantage of the opportunities he received.
Perhaps freshman J.J. Garcia belongs in the “midweek warriors” category but he was impressive enough in the fall to land in this category. He doesn’t have the firepower Joyce, Halvorsen or Lindsey have and he could get easily get buried by the Vols’ depth, but he’s the freshman I’m most excited to see and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him get some high leverage opportunities come SEC play.
The competition amongst left-handed bullpen arms is even more deep and interesting. Vitello raved about junior college transfer Jacob Bimbi who was one of Tennessee’s top arms in the fall and has continued that success in preseason practice.
“Jacob Bimbi is pretty good,” Vitello said. “The last few times out, yeah, the last four times out, in my mind, and we’ve tried to ramp up the kind of game like scenarios where they have to come straight out of the pen and things like that so he’s certainly done well.”
Sophomore Wyatt Evans impressed me as much as any pitcher in this group during fall practice and while his success has slowed down in the preseason he will have a chance to prove it on the field. As Vitello said Tuesday, Evans will “be in the mix.”
Jake Fitzgibbons has dynamic off-speed stuff and has the ceiling to be one of Tennessee’s best relievers. However, offseason hype has been consistent for Fitzgibbons in his first two years. Going out and proving it in games is the next step.
“His stuff is so good, it’s always there,” Vitello said. It’s about the piece being in play we’ve talked about already, go play. Play ball.”
Lastly there’s Zander Sechrist who was a strong midweek starter as a sophomore last season. He could settle back into that role but he’s looking for a larger one this season and I wouldn’t rule it out.
Most of these pitchers could potentially earn bigger roles if they impress early in the season but it would be an upset with the arms ahead of them.
Junior Hollis Fanning is the most likely to earn a larger role due to his experience while freshman left-handed pitcher Andrew Behnke and junior college transfer Turner Swistack had their moments during the fall.
Freshmen A.J. Russell and Austin Hunley are two other freshman arms I’m excited to watch and likely have big roles coming in future seasons. But for now, midweek outings are where they’ll earn most of their opportunities.
Hunter Sloop, Shawn Scott and Aaron Combs round out the pitchers on Tennessee’s roster and if you show up to Lindsey Nelson Stadium on a Tuesday night you could see either on the mound.