After posting a 30-26 record last year, 12-18 in the SEC, the 2011 Tennessee Volunteer baseball team will attempt to merge speed and youth into a winning combination.
Led by head coach Todd Raleigh, who is well known as one of the best hitting coaches in college, Tennessee will sport new talent, new bats and a new approach to the 2011 season.
“We're really looking forward to the season,” Raleigh said.
“I've never been this excited because of a lot of factors within our team. I can't wait to get started.”
The team will be without core hitters Cody Hawn, Blake Forsythe and P.J. Polk, who were Raleigh's go-to hitters in 2010. Tennessee will welcome some new talents this year in hopes of building a foundation based on speed and contact, which should be the winning combination with college baseball's new implemented bat rule.
“The BBCOR, which is essentially the density of the bat, has really changed the game a little bit,” Raleigh said.
“Balls don't jump off the bat and have that trampoline effect it used to.” Raleigh described the new bats as taking an aluminum one and stuffing it with wood on the inside.
The new bats that are now NCAA regulation will more than likely result in fewer home runs and demand more emphasis on defense, speed and pitching.
Raleigh said, “I think it's going to put more emphasis on pitching, more emphasis on walking hitters and making errors, and your going to see more bunts and stolen bases.”
Tennessee will be among every other team in the SEC that will try to blend speed and talent into one overwhelming product.
Outfielder Andrew Toles, pitcher Jon Reed and some very promising in-state prospects will man the forefront for the Volunteers' new look roster. Toles was drafted in the fourth round by the Florida Marlins, but opted to skip the big leagues to come play for Tennessee.
The four-tool freshman will be following in the footsteps of his father, who played football for UT in the early '80s before being drafted by the New Orleans Saints.
“He can run, he can hit and he can throw,” Raleigh said on behalf of Toles. “This guy is a future first rounder, I don't think there's any question about it.”
Toles will take over in center field and try to spell the speed that P.J. Polk provided in 2010. Polk led the Vols last year with 25 stolen bases, so Toles will have his work cut out for him.
However, Raleigh told reporters that the newcomer is actually faster and has a much better arm than his predecessor.
One of Tennessee's most versatile players is closer/catcher Matt Ramsey. Ramsey, a 22-year-old junior, led the team in saves in 2010, striking out 43 batters in 35.2 innings. That kind of strikeout ability is a direct result of Ramsey's unbeatable fastball.
“He's up to 98 mph and he's got one of the best arms in the country. Probably the premier closer in the country,” Raleigh saud.
Raleigh will continue to use Ramsey as a closer/catcher threat, something that he says is a combination that you haven't seen in college baseball in a long time. Ramsey's .323 batting line and six home runs in 93 at-bats will make it very hard for his coaches to keep him out of the lineup.
“He's gonna close and he's gonna catch too though. I think that's definitely a position in doing both like that, where we're gonna have to be smart about how much we use him,” UT pitching coach Jason Beverlin said.
Ramsey's versatility makes him something of a dual threat. His knowledge of pitching from the mound, as well as catching behind the plate, sometimes gives him an advantage while closing. Being a hard-throwing strikeout pitcher, you would think that his value behind the plate is declining.
“I don't want to lose him in that role, but at the same time I like his toughness behind the plate,” Raleigh said.
While Tennessee will sport new starters in the field, immediate season success will be in the hands of the pitching staff.
“You guys don't know about Jon Reed. Jon was a true freshman last year and one of the top players in the country. He couldn't pitch because he got hurt in high school and had Tommy John. But, he's back and he's good, and he'll probably be in our weekend rotation,” Beverlin said.
Reed will join other talented freshman in Nick Williams, Carter Watson and Dalton Saberhagen. UT's young arms will be the deciding factor for a successful 2011 season, in a year where Raleigh's job could be in danger.
“It's going to take us to stay healthy, but other than that just go out there and do what we're capable of doing,” Raleigh said.
“I don't think there's any question looking at the second half of last year what we're able to do. I know that we came up a little short, but it's a fine line in this business.”