Tennessee baseball coach Dave Serrano met with the media on Wednesday to discuss the developments of the fall practice period. Notes from his press conference as well as his interview with the News Sentinel follow.
— Nick Senzel improved his Major League Baseball draft profile this summer with a monster season in the Cape Cod League in which he earned MVP honors. Serrano said he looked every bit the part in the fall.
“I see more of a calmness with him,” Serrano said. “And I feel his power has come out now. I don’t know if that’s so much him just growing into that, or if that’s the coaches and what they’ve done with him. A lot of times, Nick was lining them to right center, he was a pure hitter. Now he’s starting to really stay inside some balls and get the bat head through there and drive the ball. I’ll just talk about scout day where he put on a show for the 30 plus scouts that were there. His first at-bat, he comes up and hits a line drive over the right center field wall just to the center field side of the scoreboard. Two at-bats later, he hits another line-drive out to left center. He shows power to all fields. He’s a tough out. He’s a great athlete, if you have him on the clock, he’s going to give you great times down the line. He runs from first to third as good as anybody. He’s just the total package. I see a calmness in him as he’s gotten more mature with all the at-bats he’s had. Like I said, moving him after two years as our second baseman to third base, he hasn’t really flinched at all. He still has to get better there. He knows that. We know that, but I feel like he’s developing each and every day, and I’m excited to see what the season brings him.”
— The biggest question the Vols face may be how to protect Senzel in the lineup. Senzel (.325, four home runs, 28 RBI) was one of just four players on last year’s team who hit over .290 and drove in more than 20 runs. The other three — left fielder Christin Stewart, designated hitter Andrew Lee and shortstop A.J. Simcox — were all drafted and skipped their senior seasons to begin professional baseball. No one else on the team had more than 12 RBI.
When asked who would protect Senzel, Serrano said “We’re still trying to figure that out.”
He mentioned two possibilities, junior Jordan Rodgers and senior Vincent Jackson. Rodgers hit .278 with 12 RBI last season and had six doubles, more than anyone else on the roster other than Senzel, Stewart, Lee and Simcox. Jackson hit .321 before a wrist injury ended his season.
“Jordan had a very good fall for us,” Serrano said. “Jordan’s a guy that has shown that he’s unselfish. He just wants to play. It doesn’t matter what position he plays. He’s a third baseman by trade. We’ve talked about moving Jordan over to first base. We talked about Jordan in the outfield. We’ve even talked about having Jordan in the middle of the field at times. Jordan’s gonna play. His bat, he’s really matured a lot in his time here and I’m expecting him to have his best year yet. I think him playing almost every day toward the tail end of last year really propelled him into this year. Jordan’s a guy (who could protect Senzel). Vincent Jackson we need a big year out of. Vincent’s got that presence to be that four hole hitter. I think Vincent would agree with me. He probably didn’t have that fall we were hoping for. I’m not gonna try to diminish it, but it’s the fall. I’ve seen many guys struggle in the fall and have great springs, and i’ve seen the reversal. Guys have great falls and have bad springs. We’re hoping Vincent has a big spring because just his presence and that stature in that four hole with his experience in the SEC will be big. That’s gonna be something for us to solve because we’re gonna have to protect him a little bit because Nick is going to be such a force to be reckoned with.”
— Tennessee added five junior college players late in the recruiting process to deal with the losses the Vols suffered in the draft. Right-hander Jon Lipinski was brought in to add to the pitching staff. Shortstop Max Bartlett steps in to compete for the job vacated by Simcox. Third baseman Leno Ramirez provides some left-handed power, and Matt Waldren and Dathan Prewitt give the Vols two more outfielders.
Serrano said he was pleased with their progress and said that infusing the club with new players with college experience helps the team chemistry because he didn’t want this team to be overly young.
“I feel like we landed on our feet to be honest with you,” Serrano said. “Not only do I feel like we got some guys who fill some gaps, I feel like we got some guys who bring some mentality that we brought in. Lipinski I feel had a good fall. He finished the fall really good. He’s a fierce competitor. I saw that in the (Orange and White) World Series. Didn’t really see it in the fall games, but when we got to the World Series, I saw some true characteristics of some of our guys. He was one of them in a positive way. Leno struggled early, swung the bat well in the World Series. Max Bartlett, another JC transfer, really started to come on defensively toward the end. Probably a guy who hasn’t been talked enough about by me is Dathan Prewitt, a guy that excelled at Walter State two years ago, sat out last year for academic reasons, is here and is a real table setter and an exciting player. Where he’s going to play right now, I don’t know, but he’s in that mix of nine guys. The mixture of the JC guys even though it was coming off of losing some high profile recruits that were high school guys, I thought that mixture for this team and what we needed may have been a blessing in disguise.”
— Serrano talked a lot about chemistry and the team’s level of competitiveness, with which he was thrilled. He had the team work with The Program, a leadership develpoment and team building organization made up of former Navy SEALs and other millitary members that works with athletic teams and businesses. Tennessee’s football program and other squads have also worked with the program at some point this year. Serrano said the experience helped the team bond much quicker, which was important because he wasn’t thrilled with the chemistry last season, especially during a game against UNC-Asheville in which he didn’t see enough players pullling for each other and later dismissed several players from the team.
“I really think (The Program) that is a big part of what has brought this team so close together and (made it) so competitive and willing to fight for everything they’re going to get,” Serrano said. “I’m only going off what the guys tell me, and the guys say that this team is closer today than the last few years’ teams have been at the end of the year. that’s a good sign for me. There’s a competitiveness between them all, but there’s a brotherhood between them all. You wouldn’t want it any different as a coach.”
— Serrano said most of the position competitons are open, but have been narrowed down to some extent.
He said at first base, if Rodgers moves over he will battle with freshmen Daniel Neal and Bryant Harris.
“Their ceilings are pretty good,” Serrano said of the freshmen. “Those are two guys who are going to hit in the middle of our lineup eventually in this program. I hope it happens sometime this year, but those are two guys who have some real thunder in their bats.”
Serrano said senior Jeff Moberg is ahead of the competition at second base. Moberg hit .167 last season, but Serrano said his fall was among the strongest on the team. He said sophomore Brett Langhorne, who hit .097 last season, likely would be his top competition.
At shortstop, Bartlett will be competing with Langhorne as well as Prewitt and senior Jared Pruett. Senzel is the starter at third base, but Rodgers can also play there if the Vols decided to move Senzel back to second.
Senior Tyler Schulz and sophomore Benito Santiago are the catchers and freshman Sean Skelly also had a strong fall.
Serrano said the outfield is wide open. Among the players in the running are Jackson, Prewitt, seniors Chris Hall and Derek Lance and sophomore Brodie Leftridge.
“We’ve got some great combinations,” Serrano said. “… We have some good options, now it’s just finding the right options.”
— Left-handed reliever Aaron Soto also got extensive work as a position player and a hitter during the fall and appeared to perform well.
“As a guy that’s gonna be travelling with us almost every week,” Serrano said, “Aaron’s a guy that we can use at times as a bat off the bench. Aaron is very aggressive and he does crush, but he just has to learn he can be a complete hitter and not pull everything. Aaron has made a big stride on the mound. If you want to talk about a change in a person. Aaron Soto was highly recruited, came in like a lot of freshman and was behind the curve a little bit. He has, and a lot of it has to do with what he did this summer, that young man is now what we knew we were going to get when we recruited him. He’s not only taken a big step on the mound, he’s going to play an important, pivotal role in our pitching staff, but he has a chance to hit for us at times too. I don’t know how much he’ll hit, but he’s a great option to have as a pitcher if we’re not using him who could be a bat off the bench or a guy we could use in the lineup against a right-hander.”
— The pitching staff is fairly wide open as well, but Serrano said he mostly liked what he got out of the returning pitchers, including Andy Cox, Kyle Serrano, Hunter Martin, Zach Warren and Eric Freeman.
“We were cautious with Andy,” Serrano said. “We started him a little slow and he finished strong. His innings were held back a little bit and in the world series he had two really good outings. Made some adjustments with Kyle and I regret them now. He started out really good. I made some adjustments to his mechanics to try to help consistency. it went backwards. We’re going back to the drawing board to go back to what he was doing. Hunter Martin took a step forward. Zach Warren made a huge leap on the mound. He carried over what he did this summer and brought it into fall ball and was one of the most consistent guys. A name that hasn’t been talked about, Eric Freeman. Eric Freeman was fabulous for us. He stayed within himself. He threw that little sinker and change-up.”