It is now just three days until Tennessee baseball kicks off their season in Miami, Florida with a series against Florida International. The team will then return home to Knoxville for six games before heading out west to take on one of Coach Dave Serrano's former teams, UC Irvine, who are coming off of a trip to the College World Series. Serrano is entering his fourth season at Tennessee, and with his contract ending next summer he is looking to earn an extension by leading the Vols to a successful year.
Tennessee is coming off of its most positive season since the Rod Delmonico era, making the SEC Tournament for the first time in seven years, and posting its best record since that 2007 season. This year, the team's sights are set on the NCAA tournament.
The Vols will enter the season ranked by multiple entities: 25th by D1Baseball.com, 27th by Perfect Game, 29th by the NCBWA, and 33rd by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, and were picked to finish 4th in the SEC East by both D1Baseball and Perfect game. For SEC tournament seeding sake (which does not use division seeding beyond both top seeds) it seems as if most people believe the Vols will finish in the middle to the lower middle of the pack.
A solid group of players return this season for the Vols, with almost seventy percent of both the hitting and innings pitched from last season still on campus. However, Tennessee will have to replace some key contributors with three fielders and the Friday starter no longer in Knoxville. Here are our six biggest questions before the season starts for the 2015 Vol Baseball team.
1. How will the pitching rotation and bullpen shake out?
One of the biggest unknowns going into this season is the starting rotation. Last season the Vols' rotation was fluid week-to-week, with only Nick Williams (who has since graduated) and Hunter Martin seeing double digit starts. Seven pitchers return to the team who started at least one game last year. Serrano has mentioned that he looks to have a set rotation this year by SEC play. Starting the season, the team's rotation will consist of Hunter Martin in the midweek slot and Bret Marks (who Serrano continually praises as the best pitcher from fall and spring practice), Drake Owenby, and Kyle Serrano in the weekend spots.
I’m most interested in seeing what role Andy Cox will end up playing by the end of the year, and how well he plays after his arm injury. He was shut down in the off season, and hopefully he returns to his previous form. He was the best pitcher on the staff last season and throughout the year pitched in basically every role: from starting six games, to saving two, to being the go to reliever when a starter got in trouble. It looks as if he's going to start the year in the closer spot, but will probably also be used heavily in the same save-the-day role he played last year when another guy gets in trouble. There is also a chance once he gets back to 100% that he might find his way into the starting rotation.
If I had to bet on how the rotation will turn out by the later part of the season, I’d go with Bret Marks, Kyle Serrano, and Hunter Martin as the weekend rotation, and midweek starts being split between Steven Kane and Zach Warren.
2. How will Nick Senzel handle playing in the field every day?
Second base belonged to Will Maddox last season, where he started in 45 of the 54 games. His departure leaves a large gap in the middle of the infield that falls to Nick Senzel to fill. Senzel was an SEC All-Freshman team selection last season at the designated hitter spot, where he proved himself as a formidable batter. He hit .315 with 39 RBIs and 14 stolen bases. He started in 53 games last season, 45 at DH and 8 at second. In his limited games in the field, Senzel played well, making some nice defensive plays and not committing an error. He was Perfect Game's 17th rated second baseman coming out of high school, so hopefully he will have a seamless transition to the middle of the infield. The team's defensive success is going to heavily rely upon Senzel and his ability in the field.
3. Who will fill the gaps left from last season?
In addition to second base, the Vols will also be replacing starters at right field and third base with the graduation of Scott Price and Taylor Smart last summer. The right field spot will fall to juniors Chris Hall and Derek Lance to fill. Lance started 21 games in center and right field last season, where he batted .291 with 17 RBIs. Serrano referred to Lance as a "key figure to this year’s team," and said that even though he won’t start at the same position every day, he’ll be playing most games. Joining him is Chris Hall. Hall is a transfer from Cumberland University where he won the Avista-NAIA Baseball World Series last season and was a Second Team All-NAIA choice. He’s the only player on the team with any postseason experience beyond the lone loss to Vandy last season in the SEC tournament.
Derek Lance might also pick up some starts at third alongside Jeff Moberg. Moberg only started one game last season (and that was at second), but had a good fall practice at third and it appears to be his job to lose. I would not be surprised to see Lance get more starts as the season moves along due to his better offensive numbers in the past. We'll have to see how the lineup ends up settling by SEC play.
4. Can Christin Stewart keep up his level of play?
If you’ve followed any Tennessee baseball news in the off season, you were sure to notice a name that kept coming up everywhere, Christin Stewart. The junior outfielder was a first team All-SEC selection at the end of last season, and went on to lead the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team in a host of offensive categories at Honkbalweek in the Netherlands last summer.
Stewart was also named to a majority of the preseason All-American teams this year, with First Team honors from Perfect Game, Collegiate Baseball Newspaper/Louisville Slugger, and D1Baseball and a Second Team selection by Baseball America.
Tennessee is going to need Stewart to lead the team forward. He’s the largest threat to opposing pitchers in Tennessee’s lineup, and his success will be one of the largest keys to a productive season for the Vols. He led the team in batting average, hits, runs, RBIs, and home runs during the 2014 campaign. We'll probably see Stewart every game for the second season in a row, although he might be used occasionally in the designated hitter role this year to give him rest according to Serrano. If he continues to exhibit his offensive prowess as he did last season, as well as in summer ball, he has a chance to solidify himself a high position in the MLB draft in June.
5. Which newcomers will make an impact this season?
Three new names continue to come up in regards to their potential impact this season: Benito Santiago, Chris Hall, and Zach Warren.
Santiago will be platooning at catcher with David Houser. He probably was not going to get a lot of game time this season coming into the year, but Tyler Schultz' back surgery last month will keep him out of the catching platoon, opening up a spot for Santiago to contribute in. He was the 86th rated prospect in last years signing class according to Perfect Game.
As was already mentioned, Hall will probably be getting starts in right field and will more than likely be the lead-off batter when he’s in the game.
Zach Warren’s role hasn’t been discussed in depth by the coaching staff, but he will probably get a decent number of innings this season in both midweek starts and out of the bullpen. He was the 344th rated prospect and 34th rated left handed pitcher by Perfect Game. He originally signed with Tulane but was released from his scholarship and joined the team last summer.
6. Can Tennessee make the leap back to the NCAA tournament?
Tennessee has not made the NCAA tournament since their College World Series run in 2005. They took a step towards that last season, returning to the SEC tournament in Hoover, AL. The Vols have also posted three straight top twenty five recruiting classes under Coach Serrano, raising the talent level of the program to the highest point its been in close to a decade.
One major hurdle standing in the way are the SEC opponents on the schedule. The SEC is the deepest conference in baseball, with ten teams making the NCAA tournament last season and another ten projected to make it again this season by D1Baseball. The Vols will be looking for only their third winning SEC record since 2000.
Tennessee will play nine teams that made the tournament last season, three of which advanced to the College World Series. If Tennessee can improve upon their SEC record, as well as wrap up the games against regional opponents that they've struggled with lately (ETSU for starters), they stand a good chance at making the tournament. If anything, the improvement of talent on the roster should provide a fun year for us fans.