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Tennessee baseball notebook: Previewing the 2023 season

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It’s finally back. Unlike many years past, there is excitement in Knoxville for Tennessee baseball. 

With the season set to open this weekend at various locations in Arizona as part of the MLB Desert Invitational, this team has a lot of things solidified, like its starting rotation, but the question marks are plentiful. The Vols lost all eight defensive starters, as well as crucial bullpen pieces. 

Who will step up for Tennessee baseball? Who are some of the newcomers? Can this team make a run? Let’s dive into these questions as well as look at the Vols’ opening weekend opponents. 

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Tennessee baseball infield

As the infield goes, the days of Luc Lipcius and Trey Lipscomb pimping home runs are gone. They will have big shoes to fill with a couple of new faces in the infield. The infield also seems locked up position-wise. 

3B – Zane Denton 

Transferring to Tennessee from Alabama, Denton brings a wealth of experience to the Vols’ infield. While Denton is listed as a switch-hitter, his power from the left side will lead to a lot of success with Lindsey Nelson’s short porch. He hit three home runs alone when the Crimson Tide traveled to Knoxville.

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The third baseman’s bat will play, but his defense is a question mark. As some pro scouts have mentioned, Denton’s glove is there, but his arm sometimes lacks. 

Denton slashed .263/.337/.483 with Alabama last season, going for 13 bombs and 48 RBIs. 

SS – Maui Ahuna 

D1Baseball.com’s No. 4 transfer, Ahuna joins Tennessee after a successful season at Kansas. The veteran shortstop brings unique defensive talent to the left side of the Vols’ infield. 

Ahuna slashed .396/.479/.634 with eight home runs and 48 RBIs for Kansas last season. Will Ahuna hit .396 in SEC play? Doubtful, but it will be entertaining to watch what he can do at the plate this season. 

2B – Christian Moore 

Christian Moore is one of Tennessee’s top returning bats. As a freshman, mainly filling in a DH role, Moore slashed .305/.443/.619 with 10 bombs and 36 RBIs. 

Tennessee knows what they’re getting out of Moore, and he looks set to have a successful 2023 campaign. 

1B – Blake Burke 

Another name Vol fans are familiar with, Blake Burke looks ready to have a successful 2023 season. 

Burke likely would’ve started last season as a freshman, but – like Vitello put it best – “39-year-old” Luc Lipcius was still around. Burke slashed .326/.467/.821 with 14 home runs and 32 RBIs in 95 at-bats. 

Catcher – by committee 

Catcher is a spot where Tennessee baseball has too many bodies. Unlike last season, the Vols don’t have to worry about converting someone to catcher. Jared Dickey is being “steered” toward the outfield, leaving the Vols with three choices. 

Cal Stark Jr. was the most impressive catcher to me personally. He slashed 380/.524/.713 while at Weatherford CC last season. He brings above-average defense, a solid bat, JUCO experience and a 6-foot-1 frame to the catcher position. 

Charlie Taylor, another name Vol fans will recognize, also seems poised to log quality innings behind the plate. After filling in for Evan Russell in the regionals, Taylor regained his confidence after struggling offensively. He slashed .056/.306/.083 in 36 at-bats last season. Taylor’s defense is quality, it’s just a matter of if his offense will make a jump in 2023. 

Ryan Miller offers depth and a midweek option for the Vols. Just a freshman, Miller has impressed early in his career at Tennessee. 

More than likely, we will Stark on Friday/Sunday with Taylor catching on Saturdays. Miller will likely fill in where need be. 

Tennessee baseball outfield 

Tennessee has a lot of possible options in the outfield. From newcomers to returners, Vitello will have some tough choices to make in the outfield. Here’s a look at some guys who will likely be the most significant contributors. 

Jared Dickey 

Dickey will be in the lineup every night, no matter his position. As long as he’s healthy, the Vols will have him firmly placed near the top of the lineup. He slashed .380/.484/.690 with seven home runs last season. 

After an offseason injury, Dickey has become more of an outfielder than catcher. While he has gotten preseason reps in center field, he seems more poised to take over a corner outfield spot.

Kyle Booker 

Booker is a guy who has been around the program for several years but hasn’t been able to crack the lineup yet. In limited time last season, Booker slashed .222/.364/.356. He is someone who can take over centerfield. 

Griffin Merritt

The transfer from Cincinnati will likely find a lot of playing time for the Vols. He hit .315/.362/.511 last season at Cincinnati with 19 home runs and 53 RBIs. 

The 2022 AAC Player of the Year mainly stayed in left field for Cincinnati, so it is safe to expect the same at Tennessee. 

Reese Chapman and Dylan Dreiling 

A pair of freshmen, Chapman and Dreiling passed up on the MLB to come to Tennessee. Both have looked very good in off-season practice, and both could play in 2023 for the Vols. 

Although inexperienced, both Chapman and Dreiling will make a name for themselves before their time as Vols is over. 

Tennessee baseball Pitchers 

Tennessee returns its entire rotation from the 2022 season. As for starters, Chase Dollander will be the ace of this rotation again in 2023. 

The projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 MLB draft finished last season with a perfect 10-0 record, a 2.39 ERA and a .179 opponent batting average. 

Chase Burns will maintain his role as the Saturday starter for Tennessee. He finished his freshman year 8-2 with a 2.91 ERA and a .216 opponent batting average. 

Drew Beam will remain as Tennessee’s Sunday starter. He finished 2022 with a 2.72 ERA and a .186 opponent batting average. 

Zander Sechrist will take over midweek duties for the Vols in 2023. He had a 1.67 ERA and a .180 opponent batting average last year. 

As for the closer spot, and the newcomer I’m most excited to see, Andrew Lindsey. The former Charlotte reliever has impressed in his time at Tennessee. The redshirt junior did not play last year, but scouts and coaches alike have raved about the closer. 

The righty throws a sinker that runs up to 97 MPH as well as a cutter and slider. He is a ground ball pitcher that finds a lot of strikes.

Preview of MLB4 tournament 

Now, let’s look at the opening weekend opponents for Tennessee baseball. 

Friday – Arizona 

The Vols will take on the Wildcats at a neutral site, but in Scottsdale, Ariz., at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. The days of Jay Johnson are over at Arizona, but this team is not to be taken lightly. 

Arizona finished 37-23 last season and made a regional final before falling to eventual national champion Ole Miss. The Wildcats are young with a lot of question marks, but it should shape up for a fun season-opener. 

Saturday – Grand Canyon 

Tennessee baseball travels to Phoenix on Saturday night to take on a solid ball club. The Lopes are coming off their best season in history, finishing 25-5 in conference play before faltering in the WAC tournament. In a one-bid league, that is not good. 

Grand Canyon made a regional though, falling out of the Fayetteville regional. Then, long-time coach Andy Stankiewicz left for USC. Then, start shortstop Jacob Wilson entered the transfer portal. 

But Wilson returns, and will likely be one of the best Grand Canyon players in history. The project top-five MLB draft pick will lead the Lopes against Tennessee in what is likely one of the Vols’ toughest out-of-conference opponents all year. 

Sunday – UC San Diego 

The Tritons finished 24-28 a season ago, they don’t look very solid offensively. San Diego’s strength will be its pitching staff. 

The Vols will likely face 6-5 and 240-pound Michael Mitchell in Mesa, Ariz., Sunday. Mitchell has a successful 2021 campaign before missing 2021 with an injury. The Tritons have three solid bats, but this one may get ugly in the rubber match of the MLB4 tournament.

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