It won’t be easy for the Tennessee baseball team to replace two powerful bats from a season ago. Fortunately for the Vols, the 2021 roster will offer plenty of flexibility and just enough pop to make up for it.
2020 MLB Draft picks Alerick Soularie and Zach Daniels combined for nine home runs and 35 RBI in 116 AB. Their collective slugging percentage (.668) in 2020 will be missed. Daniels led Tennessee (.750) in that category during the abbreviated spring.
Thanks to a healthy mix of experienced and proven utilities, the Volunteers look to have way more than just a formidable order.
Here is a glimpse at the Vols’ 2021 lineup, along with who could provide some spark to the mix.
It would be a shame not to mention junior Max Ferguson first when it comes to Tennessee’s fortune in 2021.
Ferguson, ranked the no.153 overall prospect by Perfect Game in the class of 2018, led his high school team to two state titles before stepping foot on Rocky Top. The Florida native drove in nine runs while making 23 starts during his freshman year.
Despite a shortened sophomore campaign, the Ferguson still made an impression. The utility hit .333 in 12 games. In five of those contests, Ferguson collected 2 or more hits. He also finished second in the SEC with nine stolen bases.
While Ferguson can seemingly play anywhere in the field, most project the junior to play primarily at second base for the Vols. His flexibility will dictate what head coach Tony Vitello does with the lineup card this season. Ferguson will bat in the first inning; it’s just a matter of what slot. Look for Vitello to mix it up with this luxury.
Ferguson is listed as a first-team Preseason All-American by D1 Baseball and Baseball America. On Thursday, the junior was selected as a preseason second-team All-SEC second baseman.
The Power Bats
Another one of Tennessee’s exceptional talents happens to play the most important position. Junior Connor Pavolony will be tasked with calling most games from behind the plate. Luckily for the Vols, Pavolony is one of the best all-around catchers in the country.
With four home runs and 12 RBI in 2020, the catcher registered a 1.132 OPS. The right-hander brings a considerable amount of power to the plate but also has good discipline. Pavolony has a career OBP of .392 while striking out just 33 times in 139 AB.
D1 Baseball has Pavolony listed as a second-team Preseason All-American and a top-40 overall prospect for the 2021 MLB draft.
Seniors Luc Lipcius and Evan Russell will provide plenty of experience to the box and in the field.
Lipcius will man first base for Tennessee. The redshirt senior was second on the team with a .525 OBP a season ago.
Russell also has a knack for getting on the pads. The outfielder has a career OBP of .375. Last March, he reached safely in all four plate appearances in a win over ETSU.
The two combined for four home runs and 27 RBI in 91 AB during the 2020 season. Look for these seniors to expose their poise and power with more reps in 2021.
Other Spark Plugs
Another senior that presents many useful tools is Pete Derkay. The Georgia native made quite the impression in Knoxville during his freshman year. Derkay made 50 starts in 2017 while batting .288.
The senior has made 171 appearances in the orange and white. However, it was the 24 AB last season where Derkay provided the most synergy. As a junior, the utility led Tennessee in OBP (.633) and OPS (1.383). Look for Derkay’s success to continue. He can fit anywhere in the lineup, as well as play multiple positions in the field. Sneaky Pete, as we’ve tabbed him here at Fanrun, may even be projected to sell Smokey dogs between innings during some home games. We’ll monitor.
A tandem to watch for will be the combination of Liam Spence and Jake Rucker manning the left side of the infield. These two combined for just two errors on 108 chances last season while playing multiple spots in the field.
At the plate, each presents enough danger to keep this lineup moving. Spence and Rucker slashed a collective .343/.444/.522 during the shortened 2020 season. They also combined for 4 HR, 25 RBI, and 4 SB.
Spence was a junior college transfer this time last year. The international product from Geelong, Australia, played two seasons at Central Arizona College before making his way to Rocky Top.
Rucker is an in-state product from Pope John Paul II High School. The Tennessee native collected 50 hits and 28 RBI as a freshman in 2019. The junior plated 15 runs in 62 AB last season.
Rucker is listed as a third-team preseason All-American by Baseball America.
What It Means for Tennessee
While some proven power is gone, with the departure 0f Soularie and Daniels, plenty of potency persists in whatever lineup Vitello chooses to deploy. The Vols’ bats may look different this year but look for Tennessee to flex several looks that could give opponents fits.
Stay plugged in at http://Fanrunradio.com as we continue to feature the No.16 Volunteers.