Tennessee baseball’s six-week fall practice came to an end last week and the Vols’ seventh-year head coach Tony Vitello met with the media last Thursday to put a bow on fall practice.
It was an important fall practice for Tennessee as they looked to merge a number of talented returning players with talented newcomers. There was competition across the field and from the sound of it, most of it will continue when the Vols return for preseason practice.
Here’s some final takeaways from Tennessee’s fall practice based on what I saw over at Lindsey Nelson Stadium this fall and what Tony Vitello said last week.
Touted Transfers Live Up To Hype
Tennessee baseball brought in a decorated transfer class this offseason and its two biggest names— Clemson infielder Billy Amick and North Carolina State catcher Cannon Peebles— lived up to the hype.
In stats compiled from 13 intrasquad scrimmages (of varying innings) this fall by myself and a handful of other media members, Peebles hit 14-of-29 with four home runs and nine RBIs. And despite those impressive numbers, he didn’t often wow.
Peebles was just really solid and consistent throughout the fall. Something you want to see from any bat you’re going to rely on but especially at such an important position.
“He had the highest percentage of success this fall, and he’s gifted, and he works hard at it,” Vitello said. “But all of our guys are gifted and work hard at it to an extent. I think where he kind of separates himself is … he didn’t give away any at bats.”
Amick’s numbers — eight-of-25 with three home runs and seven walks — aren’t quite as eye opening as Peebles’ but they were impressive as well. The Clemson transfer’s bat lived up to the hype that his strong sophomore season earned.
But I’m still not sure where he ends up playing. With Zane Denton not practicing this fall, Amick got tons of work at third base. He wasn’t horrible there but defense at that spot was definitely a weakness of his game in my eyes. I didn’t see him play any second base (doesn’t mean it couldn’t have happened) and Blake Burke was once again one of Tennessee’s best bats in fall practice.
All that to say, I’m not exactly sure where Amick plays next spring. Maybe he ends up as a designated hitter like he did much of last season at Clemson. I’m not sure. But I do know he’ll be in the lineup.
What To Make Of The Shortstop Competition
Another newcomer I liked a lot this fall is junior college infielder Alex Perry. He worked at shortstop frequently and hit 10-of-30 though with a poor 14 strikeouts. But Perry looks the part and was very solid defensively.
The question at the shortstop spot is who can be the most consistent defensive option there. Tony Vitello listed a bunch of players in that category. Well he listed about everyone who played shortstop this fall: Perry, Christian Moore, Ariel Antigua, Dean Curley and Bradke Lohry— though he missed an abundance of time with an injury.
That indicates to me that there wasn’t enough consistency at the shortstop spot this fall. I will say, there weren’t never ending errors or anything like that but there were mistakes. Some of that is hard to quantify between the normal fall sloppiness and mistakes and consistent mistakes that become an issue.
Freshman Ariel Antigua can do the spectacular defensively and can absolutely hold up at shortstop despite his small frame, but inconsistency showed up too and he wasn’t the same defender every day.
One quote from Vitello about the shortstop competition did catch my eye.
“The bottom line is, I think all guys know the position,” Vitello said. “It’s still up in the air what the best combination is there. And it might not be who’s the best guy there, just who’s the best overall combination as valuable as a position we realize as it is.”
Christian Moore is what interests me about that quote. Moore is going to be in the lineup somewhere. If he’s close enough defensively to the best of that group, than playing Moore at shortstop gives Vitello a lot more lineup versatility. Which is important for the reasons discussed via Amick, Denton and Burke in the last section.
Shortstop was the biggest storyline entering fall and while nothing is decided there, my biggest takeaways is that Moore starting at shortstop is a more viable option than I thought.
More From RTI: Everything Tony Vitello Said To Conclude Fall Practice
Outfield Competition Just As Fierce
The infield competition is more interesting because of the number of moving pieces and potential versatility, but the outfield competition is just as fierce.
Hunter Ensley is the lone returning starter and while he didn’t have a good fall at the plate (four-of-29) he’s still the most proven player and particularly on the defensive side. The most talented Tennessee outfield hitters are corner outfielders and not center fielders. I’d be shocked if Ensley isn’t the opening day starter and I’m not overly panicked at his frustrating fall.
Freshman Holden Braunder made some really impressive defensive plays out in centerfield this fall and was a solid eight-of-26 (though 13 strikeouts) in the limited scrimmages I have stats from. He’s one of the more intriguing freshmen in terms of how he could make an impact this season. Does a lot of things well.
On to the corner outfield spots. Redshirt sophomore Kavares Tears started the fall red-hot and while he cooled down some he was still one of Tennessee’s best hitters, batting eight-of-28 with four home runs and a team-high 11 RBIs.
“I think he’s in a really good spot and he’s got good feedback for us,” Vitello said of Tears. “He’s sat and watched and learned and he knows himself very well. He’s coming a long, long way and whenever his time is done here, whether it’s this year or next year, the scouts will be the ones that decide that, not me. We’ll look back and he’ll be one of our favorites as far as just that timeline of progression.”
Dylan Dreiling looked like a potential breakout star in his freshman season and while he started zero-of-nine this fall, he started turning the corner and looked like a budding star while hitting six-of-29. Dreiling also performed well in scrimmages against Virginia Tech and Samford.
Then there’s sophomore Reese Chapman and Missouri transfer Dalton Bargo. Both can play either corner outfield spot and flashed at times this fall. Vitello has been complimentary of Chapman and his growth while Bargo has a high ceiling and versatility.
One thing to note here: all four of the corner outfielders I just mentioned are left-handed hitters. I asked Vitello about this, we’ll call it a conundrum, last week and he didn’t seem overly concerned. The seventh-year coach said Tears continues to improve against left-handed pitching and that the number indicated no difference for Dreiling this fall.
A number of talented players in the outfield who will get chances early in the season. Who grabs them will be entertaining.
Potentially An Opener?
We’re already at 1,200 words so I’m going to keep this section brief.
Drew Beam’s going to be the Friday night starter and I feel confident that sophomore A.J. Russell will be in one of the other weekend starter spots. But no one jumped out to me this fall as a possible third starter.
There’s a number of options and Wichita State transfer Nate Snead has the most potential, but he was up-and-down with some poor outings this fall. A number of other pitchers looked good but may be more suited to bullpen roles.
Vitello mentioned at the Knoxville Quarterback’s Club earlier this fall about the possibility of using an opener and touched on that more last week.
“We’ve got a lot of depth, we’ve got a lot of competition,” Vitello said. “If they all do their work the way they’re supposed to over the winter, we’ll have a lot of options for what you’re talking about. But I don’t think we’ll have those answers probably until March, April, who knows? And maybe it’s a deal where the whole year long we’re just kind of working and scrapping for wins and trying to figure out what works for us.”
I do wonder about freshman LHP Matthew Dallas. He is extremely talented and his a super high ceiling but I didn’t watch him pitch any this fall which leaves some intrigue there. Either way, the third starter spot could be an ongoing development over the course of the season.