Vitello expecting depth, flexibility to carry Vol pitching staff
Tennessee’s pitching led the Vols back to the NCAA Tournament in 2019, ranking fourth nationally in ERA led by Garrett Stallings and a deep bullpen.
A season ago, Tennessee hoped star left hander Garrett Crochet would give the Vols a top end SEC starter to equalize them with the top of the league. Instead, Crochet threw just three innings in the shortened 2020 season.
Now Crochet is gone, without the Vols getting to reap the full benefits of his talent, becoming the fastest player from the 2020 MLB Draft to reach the majors. The question for the Vols is simple-- how do you replace Crochet?
The Vols aren’t short on bodies, returning every major contributor besides Crochet and Chase Wallace, who struggled in 2020 as the Saturday starter. However, Tennessee is short on experience, entering the season without a player that’s started a SEC game.
Despite SEC experience, Tennessee is more than confident that they have the type of pitchers that can be effective SEC weekend starters.
“I think we have seven or eight quality starting candidates— even in this league,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said. “I’m talking about on the weekend, not just that fourth spot or something like that. It’s interesting. You’d ideally like it to be like that (set
starting roles) but I also kind of like the fact that it’s going to be very competitive and there may be some mixing or matching or a guy bests another guy one week and there’s some changing going on. … This is college baseball and every win is incredibly valuable, especially when you talk Covid times. You never know when someone is going to cancel a series or not show up or anything like that. This is more of a sprint— if you will— we’ll use whatever combinations we have to to gobble up as many wins as possible.”
“We’re extremely versatile,” senior Will Heflin said. “You can’t replace a Garrett Crochet, but the good news for us is nobody else can either. We’re really deep and we may not have that frontline guy that’s a sure fire first rounder, but we have a lot of guys who can do well for themselves this season and make a lot of money in the draft.”
Tennessee enters the season with no definite weekend starters but a handful of serious candidates. Senior Jackson Leath is a Baseball America preseason Third Team reliever, but after starting in two of five appearances as a junior college transfer a season ago, Leath appears a likely candidate to earn a weekend start despite missing time this fall.
Leath threw 18.2 innings last season and showed high level SEC stuff recording a 1.45 ERA and 29 strikeouts.
“He looks sharp,” Vitello said. “I think he’s in a better place mentally. I think he’s more comfortable with the league and his surroundings and the competition and all that good stuff. Physically, he’s going to continue to get better as the year goes on and we’ll probably start stacking more and more innings in his favor as he gets out there a little more frequently.”
Chad Dallas, another junior college transfer, started all four of his appearances a season ago, filling in as the weekend starter in Crochet’s absence. The junior won’t blow you away with his stuff but had a strong first season recording a 3-0 record and 2.58 ERA.
Rounding out Tennessee’s junior college transfer pitchers in Jason Rackers. A 6-foot-7, 225 pound right hander impressed coaches in his first fall in Knoxville before having Tommy John’s surgery. How he’ll respond from the injury is a question mark, but Vitello has spoken highly of him, calling the Missouri native a candidate to replace Crochet this fall.
True freshman Blade Tidwell has impressed enough in his short time in Knoxville to earn a weekend start the opening week of the season.. The Loretto, Tennessee native likely never would have stepped foot on UT’s campus in a normal year, but COVID-19 and its effects on the MLB Draft sent Tidwell to college so Vitello and the Vols are able to reap the benefits.
The 6-foot-4 right hander’s fastball sits in the mid to upper 90s and should be one of the most exciting players for fans to watch this year.
“His stuff is phenomenal,” junior Jake Rucker said of Tidwell. “He’s got a hard fastball that moves like a cutter, he’s got a slider, he has everything to make hitters uncomfortable and it’s definitely been a struggle for me. The first time I faced him I hit an opposite field home run and ever since he’s struck me out every time. He can
definitely make those adjustments on figuring out how to get really good batters out.”
Camden Sewell was one of Tennessee’s most effective pitchers as a freshman in 2019, throwing 45.1 innings recording a 4-1 record with a 2.18 ERA and 43 strikeouts. Sewell missed most of 2020 dealing with injury, but still appears like a strong candidate to earn a weekend spot.
Junior Sean Hunley has an outside shot of earning a weekend spot. The Mt. Juliet native doesn’t blow you away with his stuff but just gets outs and has been one of the most effective long relievers for UT the past two seasons.
In his three season career, Hunley has pitched 136.2 innings earning a 2.36 career ERA with three times more strikeouts than walks.
Senior southpaws Will Heflin and Redmond Walsh are locked into bullpen spots, where they’ve been two of the Vols most effective relievers the last two seasons.
Vitello doesn’t like determining set roles for his bullpen pitchers, but Walsh has been the closest thing to a closer the last two seasons.
Two seasons ago, Walsh threw 45.2 innings, recording nine saves and a 1.38 ERA. A season ago, Walsh recorded a 0.00 ERA in 11.2 innings while recording a pair of saves.
Heflin, like Walsh, doesn’t blow you away with his stuff. However, the short lefty developed into one of Tennessee’s most effective relievers in 2019, tallying a 3-1 record with a 2.20 ERA in 32.2 innings of action. Heflin considered calling it a career following the 2019 season and then missed the whole shortened 2020 season while
recovering from a knee injury.
Back healthy, Heflin will be a big part of what could be a very good Tennessee bullpen.
Tennessee hopes junior Elijah Pleasants has turned a corner after showing flashes in his first two seasons. The former Rossview High School native pitched just 11 innings as a freshman before throwing 12.2 innings in the 17 game 2020 season. Pleasants impressed in his opportunities, tallying a 1.42 ERA. After a strong offseason,
Pleasants could be in for a jump that makes him a high usage reliever.
“He just has a different demeanor,” Heflin said of Pleasants. “He’s always had really good stuff. He’s a freak athlete. He runs like a deer. He’s got a whippy arm. He’s always had good stuff. I think he’s just a mature pitcher now. He wasn’t that far off beforehand. He’s always been talented. He was about to pitch and help us out last year. … He’s just a guy that it’s always kinda been there and he’s always been really close. I don’t know what it was for him, maybe it was just him relaxing a little bit and getting more confident but he’s just turned the page.”
Tidwell isn’t the only freshman that is poised to make an impact on the mound this spring. Mt. Juliet Jake Fitzgibbons has impressed during his short time in Knoxville and gives Vitello another lefty to add to the mix.
Behind those guys are Tennessee’s freshmen from a year ago. Christian Delaschmit, Mark McLaughlin and Will Marbrey all impressed in limited innings last season, all recording ERAs under 2.30, but in a crowded bullpen they’ll have to impress to carve out a meaningful role.