Tennessee Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2022
After years of struggling to be competitive as the SEC established itself as the toughest conference in college baseball and finally breaking through to a regional in 2019, Tennessee jumped back on the national stage in the sport by getting to the College World Series in 2021 for the first time since 2005.
That success will be tough to duplicate in 2022, as the Volunteers had a whole host of important players drafted over the summer. That’s not to say that the talent isn’t there for Tennessee to make a return trip to Omaha, because it absolutely is, but it will require some newcomers jumping into the deep end and succeeding right away.
These are five questions Tennessee will look to answer next season as it tries to keep the ball rolling in the program.
Who will join Blade Tidwell in the weekend rotation?
Whether he pitches on Friday or later in the weekend, righthander Blade Tidwell will go into the 2022 season expected to lead the Tennessee rotation after a freshman season that saw him put up a 3.74 ERA in 98.2 innings.
After a stint with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team over the summer took his 2021 workload to 105.2 innings for the year, Tidwell got a late start to the fall in the interest of giving him proper recovery time.
Joining him in also being brought along slowly in the fall are perhaps the two prime candidates to jump into the weekend rotation in fourth-year junior righthander Seth Halvorsen, a transfer from Missouri who chose to come to Tennessee rather than sign as a 19th-round pick, and sophomore righthander Chase Dollander, a transfer from Georgia Southern.
Both have excellent stuff. Halvorsen can touch triple digits with his fastball and both his breaking ball and changeup had 44% whiff rates last season. Throwing strikes was his issue at Mizzou, and that played a big role in his 6.00 ERA for the season, but if pitching coach Frank Anderson can help him get that straightened out, his stuff is frontline SEC stuff. His experience, having been a weekend guy for Missouri, also doesn’t hurt.
“Seth Halvorsen, he’s got a background to him,” teammate Evan Russell said of the new arrival. “He’s pitched on Friday nights in this league. He’s done the deal, and he’s been through it, so I think it has been an adjustment for him, but it’s been pretty easy to have him come in and he knows what his routines are, he’s kind of a professional in that aspect.”
Last season, Dollander had a 4.04 ERA in 49 innings with the Eagles, using a fastball that was up to 97 mph and a changeup that had a nearly 60% whiff rate in a somewhat small sample. The question for him will be how he adjusts in taking on a bigger workload than what he had as a freshman and how he handles SEC hitters, but like Halvorsen, stuff really isn’t a question.
One wild card for the rotation competition could be fourth-year junior righthander Camden Sewell. With a 2.54 ERA in 99.1 career innings, Sewell has been an effective pitcher for Tennessee over three years, but it’s come mostly as a reliever.
He may still end up in a relief or swing role come the 2022 season, but Sewell admits that he’s aiming a bit higher, at least for now.
“I think all of us, as competitors, you want to be in the rotation, so I think a big (goal) for me is trying to get in that rotation and do everything I can,” he said. “There’s also a lot of competition here. We’ve got a lot of great arms this year, so it’s fun to be a part of. In reality, it makes everyone better.”
Will Chase Burns make an impact right away?
Righthander Chase Burns, the No. 49 player on the BA 500 going into the 2021 draft, is one of the most talented freshmen on a college roster this fall.
With a fastball that has touched 100 mph in the past, a changeup and two distinct breaking balls, it’s easy to get caught up on Burns’ stuff, but he’s impressed early on for his feel for the finer points of the craft.
“His stuff has been very, very good, which is what’s hyped up, but his pitchability has been outstanding,” said Tennessee coach Tony Vitello. “I think he’s a much better pitcher, if you know what I’m talking about, than people give him credit for. It’s not a ‘I’m just going to try to blow your doors off for three outs.’ He’s got the ability to be a weekend starter at some point in his career, and I think he can not only throw good stuff at you but knows how to utilize it.”
His teammates have similar assessments at this early juncture.
“He’s elite in the category of coming in and having confidence and he’s a guy that can make adjustments throughout the outing,” Russell said. “If a certain pitch isn’t working, he’s okay to admit it and then going with something else. So being able to see him have the maturity that most guys don’t have at this age, it’s special.”
Given the relative surplus of options at Tennessee’s disposal when it comes to the rotation in 2022, the intersection point at which Burns is ready for a weekend starter spot and when one is available might not come in his first season, but it would be foolish to rule it out. Anyone with stuff that good who can also leave coaches and teammates raving about his maturity and feel for pitching is going to be evaluated for the most important spots on a pitching staff.
Beyond that, midweek starts can be a good place for a freshman pitcher to get his feet wet, and it will also be tempting to have an arm as good as Burns’ at the back of the bullpen. Suffice it to say that it seems safe to expect to see plenty of Chase Burns as a freshman for Tennessee one way or another.
Who will take over at catcher?
With veteran backstop Connor Pavolony drafted by the Orioles, Tennessee’s pitchers will be throwing to a different catcher this season.
The early favorite to be the new catcher is actually Russell, a fifth-year senior. In that case, Russell would really be a new old catcher, because while he has been mostly an outfielder for the Volunteers in his career, he came to Knoxville as a catcher out of high school.
The move back to catcher for Russell happened for a few different reasons. For one, a successful move would improve Russell’s standing as a prospect at the next level, as his play in the outfield and at the plate has not yet been enough to entice evaluators to draft him. Tennessee also obviously wants his bat in the lineup as a guy coming off of a 14-home run season with more than 600 career plate appearances to his name.
But as much as anything else, Tennessee simply had a need and Russell wanted to help out. In addition to Pavolony moving on to pro baseball, incoming transfer Matt McCormick from West Virginia decided this fall to step away from the sport. That left the Volunteers with quite literally zero experience at the position.
“I came to Coach V and was like ‘Hey man, I know that you don’t have many catchers coming back. I’d like to give it a try,’ ” Russell recalls. “And he was like ‘You know, we’d be open to giving you an opportunity, but it’s not going to be easy’ and (that) he’d be lying to me if he thought that I was going to get to play much. I’ve put in a lot of work, me and Coach (Josh) Elander. We’ve really been on the same page, and I’ve been grinding to try to get to the point of being able to handle the big dogs on the mound, so I think it’s going well."
There’s more work to be done for Russell to sew up the starting job, but so far, he’s done nothing but put himself in position to succeed there.
“When he asks you a question or you present information to him, he’s a sponge, and he’s very humble in the whole deal and realizes there’s competition at that position, too,” Vitello said. “I think it would be a shocker if he’s not in our Opening Day lineup, but by no means has he wrapped up the catching position (for) Opening Day.”
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Who will lead the offense?
Russell, coming off of a career-best season in many ways, will be one of the leaders, regardless of position, but he won’t be alone.
Beck hit .271/.336/.523 with 15 homers and a team-leading 64 RBIs in 2021 and followed that up in the Cape Cod League over the summer by hitting .267/.377/.400. He’s a good athlete who could play center field if forced into duty, but he profiles better in right field, where he can make the most of his plus arm strength. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Beck looks the part of a first-round talent, and with another big year in Knoxville, he very well could be.
Gilbert hit .274/.341/.437 with 10 home runs and 62 RBIs last season, which helped earn him a place alongside Tidwell on the Collegiate National Team. He’s a good runner, a steady defender in center field and he packs more punch than you would think based on his 5-foot-9 frame.
Also back is sixth-year senior Luc Lipcius, who is locked in as the team’s everyday first baseman for all intents and purposes. Lipcius has dealt with ups and downs in performance in his six years on campus, both individually and from a team standpoint, but he had a breakout season in 2021, slugging 15 home runs, which tied Beck for the team lead.
Two other veterans who could be poised for breakouts like the one Lipcius enjoyed in 2021 are fourth-year juniors Trey Lipscomb and Christian Scott, who also happen to be good friends who co-host a web series on the Tennessee baseball Twitter account.
Lipscomb, who is primarily in the competition at third base, has had fewer than 100 plate appearances, but went 9-for-29 with three doubles and a home run last season. Scott, an outfielder, has never had more than 42 at-bats in any single season, but he’s been an effective hitter when he’s had chances. He’s a .298 hitter with a .425 on-base percentage, and Vitello sees things coming together for him.
“I think he sees himself getting better,” Vitello said of Scott. “While the stats might not be there online, there’s no question (that) he’s gotten better each year in and out, and now I think he’s smelling blood a little bit. I think without Covid, maybe a little more action last year. Without an injury freshman year, maybe more. Maybe it’s his time. I definitely feel like it’s Trey Lipscomb’s time and those two are buddies. So maybe it’s time for both of those guys.”
With several key departures, including Pavolony, third baseman Jake Rucker, second baseman Max Ferguson and shortstop Liam Spence, there are holes to fill, but just taking into consideration the veterans back in the mix, Tennessee still has the makings of a deep, quality lineup.
Which freshmen have stood out among position players?
Given the opportunities for playing time that exist on the infield, it’s worked out well for Tennessee that two freshmen who have stood out so far are Christian Moore, a potential two-way player originally from Brooklyn, and 6-foot-3, 235-pound California native Blake Burke.
Moore is right in the thick of things in the competition at second base. He generates impressive bat speed, which provides good raw power at the plate, and while second base might be where he finds immediate playing time, he showed the ability to handle the left side of the infield during his prep days.
Burke passes the eyeball test, and he has the power to match the physicality apparent in his frame. He’s a first baseman by trade who is also listed as an outfielder on the roster. He worked to get into better shape ahead of his senior season in high school, and that work paid off in allowing his natural athleticism to shine through. Given the relatively crowded outfield picture and the presence of Lipcius at first base, Burke’s playing time might be more situational than Moore’s, but both have done enough to prove they’re deserving.
“You can tell they want to be here every day, and so with that, they’re anxious to learn, to work, to show what they can do, but also they’re not scared,” Vitello said. “That may sound simple to someone who’s listening at home, but when you’re a freshman on campus here and it’s SEC and there’s media around and things like that, you can tend to get a little timid or doubt yourself at times, and while neither one has been perfect, especially with the nuances of college baseball, baserunning is so important, defense becomes highlighted, they’ve been far from perfect, but they’ve been good because I don’t think either one of them are scared.”