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Tennessee Baseball 2024 Season Pitching Preview

Photo By Ian Cox/Tennessee Athletics

Happy game week. We’re just two days away from Tennessee baseball opening its 2024 season. After taking a look at the infield and outfield the last two days, today we move on to a Tennessee pitching staff that has more questions entering the season than they have in a number of years.

The Vols lost two of their three weekend starters from last season’s team as well as top relievers Chase Burns, Camden Sewell and Seth Halvorsen.

Let’s dive into the 2024 group.

What We Know

Drew Beam Is The Lead Man

Drew Beam is the last man returning from Tennessee’s elite weekend rotation the last two seasons. “QB1” has been the Vols’ Sunday starter each of the last two years and while it was presumed that he’d step into the Friday starting role, Tony Vitello said they’ll use Beam on Saturday to open the season.

The Vols’ seventh-year head coach didn’t commit to using Beam on Saturday long term but that is the plan to open the season.

Despite a rough stretch early in SEC play, Beam posted a 9-4 record, 3.63 ERA and 1.32 WHIP last season and pitched his best down the stretch. The right-handed pitcher was dominant in NCAA Tournament wins over Charlotte and Southern Miss.

Being Tennessee’s top pitcher and potentially stepping into a bigger role presents a challenge for Beam, but his demeanor and mindset makes it hard not to trust him. After being one of a number of key pitchers the last two seasons, Beam is the lead man entering the 2024 season.

AJ Russell Stepping Into Larger Role

RHP AJ Russell earned Freshman All-American honors a season ago after posting an 0.89 ERA and .53 WHIP. The tall right-handed pitcher dominated last season but he threw just 30.1 innings and the majority were against lesser foes or in lower leverage situations.

But Russell will pitch nothing but high leverage innings against strong competition in his sophomore season. I would be shocked if Russell isn’t a weekend starter for Tennessee this season. But even if he doesn’t step into that role, he’ll be one of Tennessee’s top relievers.

The 6-foot-6 pitcher is taking a big step up. How effective he can be in it will be crucial for this Tennessee pitching staff.

More Left-Handed Pitching

As strong and deep as its pitching staff was last season, the Vols’ lacked reliable left-handed arms. That should change this season. Tennessee’s top two left-handed pitchers from last season, Kirby Connell and Zander Sechrist, are back.

Cal transfer Chris Stamos was impressive this fall and is almost guaranteed a meaningful bullpen role. I was high on redshirt sophomore Wyatt Evans entering last season before he missed the entirety of the season due to injury. The South Carolina native had some struggles this fall but still has an opportunity to become a bullpen contributor. Sophomore Andrew Behnke didn’t give up an earned run in 5.2 innings as a freshman.

Tennessee also brought in an abundance of left-handed freshmen who will get early season opportunities and could work their way into bigger roles by SEC play, most notably Matthew Dallas, Brayden Sharp and Dylan Loy.

More From RTI: Tennessee Baseball Outfield Preview

Questions Entering The Season

Who Emerges As The Third Starter?

This is the biggest question entering the season. After a few years of abnormal pitching stability, Tennessee is getting a dose of what pitching looks like for most college teams. Even the really good ones.

There’s no true obvious candidate for this third weekend starting spot. The favorites entering the season are LHP Zander Sechrist and RHP Nate Snead. Sechrist was the Vols midweek starter each of the last two seasons while also coming out of the bullpen in weekend series last season (2.05 ERA and 1.04 WHIP). The senior doesn’t have the highest ceiling but he is steady and could provide what Will Heflin provided Tennessee’s weekend rotation in 2021— a steady option to go through the opponent’s lineup two times.

Snead was one of Tennessee’s top transfers this offseason, posting a 1-2 record, 3.16 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in 42.2 innings out of the bullpen for Wichita State. The tall right-hander has high level stuff and has an extremely high ceiling.

Snead and Sechrist aren’t the only options though. Submarine RHP AJ Causey was a weekend starter at Jacksonville State and was effective while on the mound this fall. Causey brings veteran starting experience to Tennessee and is another option as a starter which would allow Snead to be a back end bullpen guy. 

Could freshmen Derek Schaeffer or Matthew Dallas become a weekend starter? Dallas missed most of the offseason with an injury and won’t be in that role to open the season but he is very talented. Schaeffer is also talented but either being a weekend starter would be at least a mild surprise.

Can Tennessee Develop Adequate Bullpen Depth?

Going back to the top of the last section. Tennessee baseball has had insane pitching depth the last few seasons. Credit recruiting, pitching coach Frank Anderson’s prowess and some fortunate breaks with COVID-19 eligibility that allowed guys like Redmond Walsh and Camden Sewell to return for extra seasons.

Stamos, super senior Kirby Connell (3.52 ERA in 15.1 IP) and junior RHP Aaron Combs (3.00 ERA in 21 IP) are definitive weekend relievers as are the pitchers who don’t earn the third weekend spot.

There’s especially optimism for Combs and Stamos who have shown the ability to be effective pitchers but their skill sets and stuff make them more prone to be relievers than starters.

Tennessee also has a number of freshman and junior college pitchers who could step up into a weekend reliever role. More on them below.

Which Freshmen Earn Weekend Roles?

Tennessee has a number of talented freshmen pitchers on this roster and with real questions about its pitching depth, there’s an opportunity for guys to earn real weekend roles.

As previously mentioned two sections ago, the left-handed Dallas and right-handed Schaeffer are the two freshmen most likely to earn a weekend role. 

While he’s not a freshman, sophomore junior college transfer Marcus Phillips is the next most likely young newcomer to earn a role out of Tennessee’s bullpen.

Dylan Loy, Brayden May, Bryson Thacker and Brayden Sharp are the other true freshman options. They’ll get opportunities but seem poised for midweek roles this season.

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