College baseball season is just three weeks away, and Tennessee baseball officially opens spring practice on Friday. The Vols enter the 2024 season with high expectations.
Fresh off an Omaha trip last season, Tennessee opens the 2024 season beginning on Feb. 16 in the Shriners Children’s Hospital Classic at Globe Life Field against Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Baylor.
Here are some storylines to follow as that date quickly approaches.
Zane Denton’s status remains unknown
Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello didn’t have a concrete update on Zane Denton’s status when he met with the media on Thursday. He insisted that Denton is “in a good place” as he works through a decision for his future.
“I don’t really have any expectations because I don’t have complete answers,” Vitello said. “The one thing, I don’t know if it’s possible to tie a bow on any topic. Like shortstop or Zane, but there’s nothing crazy going on. And I don’t think you all will be provided an ‘aha’ moment like this is a straight conclusion. It’s not that easy. There’s a lot of factors to it. I just visited with him recently, we hang out.”
Denton led the Vols in RBIs last season with 59 while hitting .269 with 16 home runs. The Alabama transfer is a career .276 hitter with 39 home runs. He was crucial for Tennessee in its run to Omaha during the 2023 season.
The Brentwood, Tennessee native hit a pair of home runs in the Clemson Regional. His bomb with two strikes and two outs gave the Vols a lead and advanced them in the postseason. He also hit a homer to put Southern Miss out of reach and help Tennessee clinch the Hattiesburg Super Regional.
“He came here last year with a plan of getting to Omaha, which he did and was a major factor,” Vitello said. “And the other part of that plan was getting his opportunity in pro baseball. And for whatever reason it just didn’t work out. And when your plans get derailed a little bit, you sit back and you assess how do you want to move forward, which again, he’s doing in the classroom and as a person, and certainly, like I said, we hang out and talk so we’ll figure out what’s best. That that’ll come when the time is right.”
Who’s going to play shortstop?
Maui Ahuna is off to professional baseball, and Tennessee has a hole to fill at shortstop. Two names that come up as choices are Christian Moore and Ariel Antigua.
Moore boasts a career .304 batting average, and hit .305 while being an everyday starter at second base last year. He finished 2023 with 65 hits and 17 home run.
“We’re going have to work through those things and that’s gonna be an ongoing process,” Vitello said. “So I don’t think there’ll be a pound the fist on the desk moment that this is the guy. It’s great to have options. I don’t think anyone has really separated themselves. Like I said, the one thing we got out in the fall was CMo (Moore) established that he can play that position.”
Another option is freshman Ariel Antigua. Antigua has a very good fall out of Lake Worth, Florida. He was the No. 137 prospect out of high school according to Perfect Game.
First baseman Blake Burke called Antigua “short but powerful” on Thursday.
“So it sounds crazy, I’m not necessarily worried about who the guy is overall,” Vitello said. “Especially come SEC play because we’ll find that out with our starting rotation. It’s the same as shortstop. How we’re gonna handle this great catching group we have. … Then also Ariel (Antigua) was kind of the guy that was, based off what teammates said and other coaches, kind of the guy that was a leading candidate at that spot as well.”
Who is the Sunday starter?
Drew Beam is slotted for the Vols in the Friday night spot and 6-foot-6 AJ Russell slots into the Saturday spot. The Sunday starter is still up for grabs.
Wyatt Evans had a good fall, as long as he stays healthy. A freshman could also step into the role. One of those could be Matthew Dallas.
“And so you kind of don’t know what you’re really gonna get even though you followed this kid all the way through high school and he looked sharp,” Vitello said. “As a freshman you don’t want to pump a guy’s tires too much, but it wasn’t just the stuff (that was) good, it was kind of the attitude and the presence we’re looking for. The other guys prior to me (Blake Burke/AJ Russell) might have mentioned his name or included him in that theory that the freshman group is one that can really help us.”