Tennessee Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2021
Tony Vitello has helped engineer a turnaround on Rocky Top over the last couple of years. In 2019, the Volunteers got into a regional for the first time since 2005, and in 2020, they finished the season 15-2, suggesting they might have been ready to make another leap.
The level of play in the SEC is high enough that it’s extremely tough for a program that was down as long as Tennessee to get things turned around, but right now, it looks like that’s exactly what's happening.
These five questions come to mind as Tennessee looks to keep things going in the right direction in 2021.
Can they pick up where they left off in 2020?
We won’t know the answer to this question until games are played next season, but on paper, there’s very little holding the Vols back.
The losses of lefthander Garrett Crochet and outfielders Alerick Soularie and Zach Daniels are significant, but consider the following: Crochet threw just 3.1 innings in 2020 after he was held out for the first three weeks of the season for precautionary reasons and Soularie got off to a slow start before a 3-for-5 game with two homers in the season finale helped him go from hitting .236 to .267 in the matter of one day.
That means that Tennessee was piling up those wins mostly without Crochet and Soularie as primary catalysts.
Daniels was a central piece of the puzzle, but so were infielders Liam Spence, a fourth-year junior, and third-year sophomores Jake Rucker and Max Ferguson. In a feat of player development, all four of those players made big leaps from 2019 to 2020.
“Those guys were committed to working with the (staff) we have here, and I think we’ve got a niche in this league, and it’s to develop guys,” Vitello said.
With just about everyone but Crochet, Soularie and Daniels back and the promise that more breakout stars might be ready to step up in a similar way to what we saw in 2020, it seems a safe bet that the Vols will be able to keep momentum from their hot start last season going into 2021.
Who will be the breakout star in the lineup?
If we assume that Tennessee has a breakout star position player waiting in the wings, who is best positioned to be that guy?
According to Vitello, we should keep an eye on second-year freshman outfielder Jordan Beck, who hit .275/.396/.475 in his first season on campus in 2020. Vitello doesn’t mince words when talking about how good Beck can be.
“Jordan Beck is a kid, in my mind, who is a first-rounder as a junior,” Vitello said.
The Hazel Green, Ala. native looks the part at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds and has the pedigree as a 14th-round pick of the Red Sox out of high school. Prior to last season, Vitello made a favorable comparison for Beck.
“He is a hitter,” Vitello told Mike Wilson of the Knoxville News. “It is something we haven’t really had come through the doors in the last couple years with the exception of Alerick (Soularie).”
Will Tennessee have one of the deepest lineups in the SEC?
Last season, Tennessee hit .320/.442/.556. Those numbers inevitably would have taken a dip as the Vols got into SEC play, but it’s impressive stuff nonetheless.
Now let’s assume that we see Beck become the type of player that Vitello is confident he will be. That would put a first-round quality player in a lineup that will also include fifth-year first base/DH types Pete Derkay and Luc Lipcius, second-year freshman outfielder Drew Gilbert, Spence, Rucker, Ferguson, and the catching duo of third-year sophomore Connor Pavolony and East Tennessee State graduate transfer Jackson Greer.
All except Beck and Greer in that group hit at least .326 last season, but we know of Beck’s potential, and two years ago, Greer hit .314/.434/.541 with 10 home runs at ETSU.
For evidence of the depth, look no further than Vitello’s lineup construction throughout the 2020 season. Just about any player could be slotted into any spot in the batting order. The lineup, even if it included mostly the same players, could look very different from game to game,
At the tournament in Round Rock, Texas, in February, where the Volunteers went 3-0 with wins over Texas Tech, Houston and Stanford, the team took to saying that you could flip the batting order from one through nine so that the nine hitter was now the leadoff hitter and vice versa and the team wouldn’t miss a beat. Look for that to be the case again in 2021.
What does a post-Crochet pitching staff look like?
The Volunteers were headed into SEC play last season with a 2.01 team ERA and the ability to throw a lot of different looks at the opponent. Two pitchers, righthanders Chad Dallas and Chase Wallace, appeared in and started four games each, but beyond that, there was a ton of mixing and matching going on. Seven other pitchers started at least one game and eight total pitchers threw 10 or more innings last season.
“I like to try everything,” Vitello said. “Coach (Frank Anderson) and I meet all the time on it, and of course, he knows the kids better than I do because he’s with them non-stop. We want to try everything before SEC play rolls around.”
At some point, Crochet would have been let loose and used as a workhorse on Friday nights, and maybe a rotation of Crochet, Dallas and Wallace would have lasted throughout the season.
But in 2021, given the departures of Crochet and Wallace, who signed as a free agent with the Royals after the draft, it actually wouldn’t be a shock to see Vitello and Anderson, the team’s pitching coach, double down on the approach of throwing every possible combination out there to see what sticks.
Pitchers who would seem to be in line for starring roles next season include fourth-year junior righthanders Sean Hunley, who has held every role from weekend starter to closer in his Tennessee career, and Jackson Leath, who struck out 29 in 18.2 innings last season in a swingman role thanks in large part to a fastball that can reach the mid 90s.
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Where are there opportunities for new faces to emerge?
There are a couple of complicating factors when it comes to answering this question.
One is that the lack of roster turnover in Knoxville means that it will be extraordinarily tough for newcomers to usurp more experienced, proven players. But on the other hand, Vitello and his staff like to give opportunities to lots of different players, especially in the pre-SEC portion of the schedule, so it’s also not inconceivable that someone steps up.
Opportunities could present themselves on the mound, and not just because the Vols might cycle through a number of guys in those roles. It’s also because there are a talented group of pitchers from a top-20 recruiting class that look poised to force the issue.
Chief among them is righthander Blade Tidwell. Already a highly-regarded prospect, Tidwell’s velocity took a big jump up to 97 mph right before the draft, which generated some late draft buzz around him, but ultimately didn’t lead to his being drafted. In that way, Tennessee may have gotten a steal.
Junior college transfer righthander Ben Joyce, who at No. 318 was the highest-ranked incoming Tennessee pitcher on the BA 500, is another one to watch, as is his twin brother Zach, who is currently recovering from Tommy John surgery. Righthander Charez Butcher was ranked No. 323 on the BA 500, suggesting that he has the talent to break through right away, but he’s seen as more raw than some of the others.
The outfield is another area of opportunity, what with Soularie and Daniels not around anymore. It will still be crowded with the return of Gilbert, Beck, fourth-year junior Evan Russell and third-year sophomore Christian Scott, but Vitello found at-bats for six different outfielders early last season, so he’ll no doubt find a way to do it again.
The highest-ranked recruit in the BA 500 in this class is SS Alec Gonzalez. Middle infield is a particularly crowded position group for the Vols with Spence and Rucker handling shortstop last season and Ferguson fairly well entrenched at second base, but if Gonzalez stands out early, they’ll find a place for him.