Dave Serrano believes he’s signed a recruiting class that could be a pillar for the Tennessee baseball program for years to come.
The Vols’ 15-man 2016 class is built on big right-handed pitchers with live arms, small but crafty lefties, slick-fielding infielders and athletic outfielders with pop in their bats. It includes nine players ranked in the Top 100 of their position nationally by the baseball scouting website Perfect Game and 12 ranked in the top 200 at their position.
“It’s a really good class, and I’m not just saying that,” Serrano said by phone Thursday after Tennessee announced that all of the letters of intent were in. “I’m really proud of this class. I’d compare it to the first class we brought in. Obviously, that class didn’t have as much team success as we’d hoped, but when all is said and done and you see how high (2015 junior) Christin Stewart went (in the Major League Baseball Draft) and Andrew Lee and A.J. Simcox and Drake Owenby went, that was a pretty good class with Major League talent.”
Serrano’s hope now, though, is that Major League teams don’t take this class’ talent before it gets to campus.
In June’s draft, the Vols not only saw Stewart, Lee, Simcox and Owenby taken in the first 15 rounds, they also saw four players who had signed to be members of their 2015 signing class taken in the first four rounds. Third baseman KeBryan Hayes (first round), catcher Chris Betts (second round), pitcher Garrett Davila (fourth round) and infielder Trey Cabbage (fourth round) all signed professional contracts, forgoing college baseball careers.
Serrano knows he’ll be sweating it out on draft day again in June, but his hope is that this year’s Tennessee team will give any players that are drafted reason to stay. Of Serrano’s first four teams at Tennessee just one has finished the season above .500. Just two have reached the SEC tournament and none have come close to the NCAA tournament.
“A lot of it is the state of the program,” Serrano said. “To this point, we have not given our recruits something that’s too intriguing to be able to pass up. In other programs where we’ve kept some guys, we have. That’s a big part of it. With the MLB, money talks, so they win the majority of the time … but sometimes it keeps guys from signing when they want a chance to go to the postseason and the chance to play in Omaha. Unfortunately, we have not been able to allow them to know that’s going to happen, so I’m hoping this year’s team starts setting the bar.”
The players Serrano is most concerned about losing, and also the ones who have a chance to be his biggest stars, are in-state players. Tre’ Carter, a 6-foot-3, 185-pounder from Soddy Daisy High School in Hixson, was rated the No. 16 outfielder in the country and the No. 3 player in the state of Tennessee by Perfect Game. Carter, a wide receiver and basketball player at Hixson, starred as a leadoff hitter.
“All I needed to do was watch him take BP (batting practice),” Serrano said, “and to see his swing and his approach to hitting. He has a chance to be a really special player.”
Serrano said the same for Farragut shortstop Duncan Pence, the No. 38 rated shortstop in the nation. After leading Farragut to a state title in 2014, he led them back to the state tournament in 2015, hitting .387 with nine home runs and 60 RBIs.
“Duncan Pence has been on my radar since I would watch (his son and Tennessee right-hander) Kyle in high school,” Serrano said. “I’m sure we’re going to have to deal with the draft with him.”
There are six pitchers in the class, four right-handers and two lefties. All four right-handers stand 6-foot-2 or taller.
“They’re big bodied guys with good arms,” Serrano said. “They’ve won at every level they’ve been at.”
Sevier County’s Zach Linginfelter may have the most potential of the group. The 6-foot-4, 230-pounder is the No. 1 rated pitcher in Tennessee according to Perfect Game and the No. 12-rated right-hander nationally.
“He could be a Friday guy (No. 1 starter) in anyone’s program,” Serrano said. “And that’s what he’ll be one day.”
As long as he isn’t a professional first.