Tennessee’s baseball team before the Knoxville Regional. Photo by Ric Butler/Rocky Top Insider.
Tennessee baseball opened up preseason practice Friday with the start of the 2023 season just three weeks away. Fifth-year coach Tony Vitello met with the media to signal the start of preseason practice Friday as the Vols look to defend their SEC Championship this season.
Vitello discussed an abundance of topics including the expectations surrounding this team. The Vols return a comedy of riches on the mound but must replace all eight starters in the field from last season.
Here’s four thoughts as Tennessee baseball rapidly approaches the start of the season.
More From RTI: Everything Tony Vitello Said As Tennessee Begins Preseason Practice
Tennessee Healthy Entering Start Of Preseason Practice
Tennessee was banged up and limited throughout fall practice. In the field, a hand injury ended Jared Dickey’s fall early while veteran outfielders Kyle Booker and Christian Scott both missed time with minor injuries.
On the mound, Tennessee was cautious with its use of its top arms and the arms of a handful of Vols who are either working back from injury (Seth Halvorsen) or pitching competitively for the first time in multiple years (Andrew Lindsay and Zach Joyce).
But as Tennessee begins preseason practice, the illness and injuries that swept through the team in the fall isn’t present.
“Right now, most of that is behind us so we feel good about the fact that we’re out there, everyone is present on day one today but we also have a sense of urgency that we have a lot of work to do,” Tony Vitello said.
Preseason injuries plagued Tennessee last season when star pitcher Blade Tidwell suffered shoulder stiffness and ended up missing the first half of the season. Halvorsen suffered an elbow injury in preseason practice that eventually sidelined him for the entire season due to setbacks.
It’s not the flashiest news or storyline, but Tennessee’s health less than three weeks away from the season opener is definitely worth noting.
Good News And Bad News From Freshman Outfielders
Tennessee brought in three extremely talented freshman outfielders this offseason and all three flashed their high potential in the fall.
However, Illinois native Alex Stanwich is taking a semester away from the Tennessee program before returning next fall.
“He’s going to take a semester to get some things sorted out and then ideally is back here in the fall to join his two buddies,” Vitello said.
That’s the bad news for Tennessee. The good news is Kansas native Dylan Dreiling and Colorado native Reese Chapman have been impressive since returning to campus.
“Reese Chapman and Dylan Dreiling are two freshmen that showed up, and it was like, ‘OK, they did their work like you’d expect,’” Vitello said. “Exciting future for those two guys at those spots, and to be honest with you, they should be thinking the future is now.”
Tennessee has competition all across the field but nowhere more than in the outfield where the Vols have loaded depth. Cincinnati transfer Griffin Merritt and junior Kyle Booker appear poised for starting spots but the third spot is still completely up in the air and Tennessee is unlikely to truly solidify any of the starting spots until SEC play begins.
“Those three kids are as talented as Drew (Gilbert) and Jordan (Beck), and now to kind of narrow the focus to the two I mentioned, guys that deserve playing time as of now in Arizona, Reese and Dylan have to be included in that conversation,” Vitello said. “Like Drew and Jordan, they’re the finally the wave of guys that we’re getting that say no to the draft.”
That’s extremely high praise coming from Vitello but accurate praise as well. Those three have extremely high ceilings. How well Dreiling and Chapman play this season will be fascinating to follow.
Tennessee Whittling Down Catcher Competition
Perhaps the most interesting tidbit from Vitello’s press conference was that they’re “steering” Jared Dickey back to outfield. The utility man was working some at catcher last season and took it to another gear this offseason after incoming transfer Jack Alexander decided to try his luck at professional baseball.
Dickey will still likely catch at some point this season but doesn’t appear to be poised as the every day starter behind the plate.
The injury that sidelined him in the fall plays a part there but it’s also a statement of confidence about the rest of the catcher room.
First, there’s Charlie Taylor who’s back after backing up Evan Russell last season. He’s the best defensive catcher on Tennessee’s roster and while Vitello wouldn’t commit to him being the opening day starter, he believes he’ll be No. 2 at worst and start a game in the season’s opening weekend.
“He will start in Arizona at some point,” Vitello said of Taylor. “I feel confident in that.”
Then there’s junior college transfer Cal Stark who was impressive with his bat in the fall and has a great chance to earn serious playing time behind the plate this season. Stark has a sneaky bat and is solid defensively behind the play.
Redshirt freshman Ryan Miller is the final catcher body. His bat is also the strength of his game while the athlete is continuing to grow as a defensive backstop.
“Cal can do a lot of different things that we feel are good matchup-wise,” Vitello said. “Everybody throws a little different, and then you throw in in Ryan Miller, who is still learning the position. He is athletic enough to play corner infield, and he probably takes the most impressive BP out of anyone we have. It is kind of nice that each guy is different. If you see two guys as very similar, you kind of steer towards the guy that is the better version of Player A and Player B, but it is a nice complement of guys we’ve got back there.”
A Different Kind Of Pitching Competition
Last season, Tennessee still had five pitchers in the hunt to be weekend starters when it began preseason practice. The Vols are not in that spot this season after returning all three of Chase Burns, Chase Dollander and Drew Beam.
“I think this deal is a little different because you have some guys that are a little more proven,” Vitello said. “I think for the bulk of the competition we kind of know what we got. It’s just a matter of where do we think guys help the team most and then how are the guys going to capitalize on the opportunities we give them starting in Arizona and then after.”
While the starters are back, graduation and the MLB Draft ravaged the bullpen with four main arms no longer on the roster. That leaves plenty of competition for innings amongst some returners like Wyatt Evans and Zander Sechrist, incoming division one transfers like Andrew Lindsay as well as junior college and prep additions.
Vitello raved about the depth of the freshman pitching class as the Vols’ ramp things up for the season.
“Somebody is going to jump up,” Vitello said. “It may be a couple guys that jump up and grab important innings but it’s an interesting class. It’s probably, depth wise, as good as a class I’ve been around pitching wise,” Vitello said. “We’ll find out where we think they fit in and the freshman class is going to be fun to work with. I know they’re ambitious so we’ll see which couple, two, three guys jump up and are able to grab some really vital innings for us.”
Like the outfield competition, the bullpen competition will surely pour into the season and create some intrigue in the pre conference slate.