Anderson’s pitching staff looks to lead way for Vols rebuild
Step 1 of Tony Vitello’s rebuild of the Tennessee baseball program is over. In just two years, Vitello’s squad has returned to both the SEC and NCAA Tournaments, making the Vols' program respectable for the first time in nearly a decade.
The next step in becoming one of the top programs in the SEC is even more daunting than the first, though. The climb to the top of the nation’s best conference will continue to get steeper, but the Vols’ coaching staff has tangible results to sell their program.
“Tennessee orange, people recognize it now, and they always have but baseball wise we’re more visible,” Tennessee pitching coach Frank Anderson said.
“With the SEC Network, those guys saw us shutout Georgia and shutout Mississippi and saw us do some things that haven’t been done in a while.
“Yeah the expectations get a little bit different and the pressure maybe changes things a little bit, but if this is what you do that’s always going to be there. The internal drive and intensity to have success doesn’t go away… You just strive to get better and provide a better product and that starts with recruiting.”
For Tennessee, to continue its progress Anderson’s group mist have another strong year on the mound, but this time they’ll be short a few faces.
Starting pitchers Garrett Stallings and Zach Linginfelter and relief pitcher Andrew Schultz all left school this summer after being drafted into the MLB Draft. While Linginfelter and Schultz both struggled to live up to their potential in the second half of the 2019 season, Stallings was a top-level SEC pitcher by posting a 3.33 ERA.
“Garrett had two shutouts on Friday night against two national ranked teams,” Anderson said. “Linginfelter had some good starts and then scuffled a little bit but he had some good ones. Schultz is a guy we totally revamped. I think all three guys have a chance to pitch in the big leagues. Whether they stay or not will be up to them but physically they have the chance to do it.
“If you’re successful and your team is successful, which is the number one goal, you’re going to have three to five pitchers drafted every year. You’ll have some senior guys with marginal velocity. You need to have those type guys and you understand the turnover that’s going to entail.”
While the Vols lose three guys on the mound, they aren’t without good options and talented pitchers.
That group starts with Garrett Crochet. The tall lefty spent the first half of the season as the Vols’ do-it-all guy out of the bullpen before moving to the starting rotation. The rising junior turned in a 4.02 ERA in 2019 while flashing his mid-90s fastball. Crochet is spending the summer playing for Team USA.
Camden Sewell shined in his freshman year dealing with an injury early in the season before working his way back and becoming one of the Vols’ best arms by the end of 2019.
Working mostly in long relief situations, Sewell posted a 4-1 record with a 2.18 ERA in his freshman year and seems poised to make the jump to weekend starter in 2020.
After Crochet and Sewell, the Vols don’t have an obvious candidate to become the Sunday starter. However, Tennessee has some intriguing returning options and a big-time freshman that could seize that role.
Sean Hunley was a freshman All-American in 2018. However, the Mt. Juliet native didn’t hit the ground running in 2019, struggling to find his role after losing his midweek starter spot. As the year went on and the Vols’ pitching staff hit some rough stretches Hunley was a stabilizer finding ways to get outs.
After pitching in only four games in the Vols’ first seven conference series, the sophomore pitched in five games in the final three series including three scoreless innings in Gainesville as the Vols held on to win by one run in a must win game for Tennessee’s postseason hopes.
“He probably doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves sometimes,” Anderson said. “He’s not going to throw up crazy velocity numbers, but he just gets outs. I don’t think the situation up to this point has ever fazed him. He’s a pretty laid-back guy…At the end of the day you look up and his numbers are pretty good (4-0, 2.60 ERA).”
Elijah Pleasants only pitched 11 innings as a freshman in 2019, but the tall right hander’s potential showed and could be a guy due for a big jump with another offseason of development.
“Just from a physical maturity side. He’s so skinny and has a frame that can carry a bunch more,” Anderson said. “I would expect him to make a pretty big jump. I had a guy at Oklahoma State, Tyler Lyles, who threw 17 innings as a freshman and turned around and was a Team USA guy the next year… In the second year they know the routines and know the day-to-day stuff they have to do. It becomes a little bit easier.”
The Vols started 2019 without defined roles in the bullpen. Redmond Walsh turned heads in his redshirt sophomore year and took over the closer role by recording nine saves while posting a 1.38 ERA. Walsh will return in 2020, too, but his role may not be the same.
“It’s still an open-minded deal right now,” Anderson said. “Depending on how it goes and the new guys and how they play out, how much development they have, and the righty/lefty stuff. There are still options out there for him. We know what he can do at the back end.”
An X-factor for the Vols on the mound in 2020 could be the late addition to the signing class in left hander Drew Gilbert. Prep Baseball Report ranked Gilbert as the No.1 player in the state of Minnesota in the 2020 class and the No. 54 player nationally.
Gilbert originally signed with Oregon State, but asked for a release from his LOI after a coaching change. Gilbert visited Arkansas along with Tennessee before choosing the Vols. Gilbert also plays in the outfield and has earned a reputation for his strong abilities at the plate as well as on the mound.
Rising senior Will Heflin seems unlikely to become a starter for the Vols’ but the soft throwing lefty has followed up on his strong NCAA Tournament with a strong summer making the Cape Cod league All-Star game.
Heflin was mostly a spot pitcher in 2019 before pitching in three of the four games in the regional where he allowed no runs and just 3 hits in 5.1 innings of action. Heflin has the lowest velocity of any of the Vols’ major pitchers, but his command and off-speed pitches make him a solid relief pitcher.
The Vols may have lost some of their key arms from 2019, but the talent is still there for Frank Anderson’s group to lead the Vols to a successful 2020 season.