UT head coach Todd Raleigh
Feb. 15, 2010
By Zach Stipe, Media Relations Graduate Assistant
Led by the big bats of then-sophomores Cody Hawn and Blake Forsythe, the University of Tennessee baseball team smashed 87 home runs - second-most in team history - in 2009. With the preseason All-American pair returning to the middle of the Big Orange lineup in 2010, head coach Todd Raleigh expects even more balls to be taking flight out of the park this year when a Volunteer is at bat.
"We'll hit more home runs this year," Raleigh said. "We're better. We're very physical. We expect to hit more this year just because we have way more guys. You never want to put numbers on any particular people because you never know how the season will play out. I anticipate us hitting some more home runs, though."
While the long ball has become of staple of the Vols during Raleigh's two-year tenure, the head coach anticipates the Big Orange will be a more well-rounded and experienced team this spring. What should separate this squad from years past is Tennessee's depth thanks to the emergence of some impressive freshmen, a return to health for some core players and some potential all-conference transfers.
"We have more depth than we've ever had," said Raleigh, in his third-year with the Vols.
Combine that depth and the return of Hawn, Forsythe and fellow junior pitcher Bryan Morgado, with only a few key losses to last season's team, and the Vols look to have all of the necessary tools to improve on the 2009 squad's 26-29 record.
Hawn and Forsythe Lead Tennessee's Powerful Offense
Hawn, a 5-11 first baseman, and Forsythe, a 6-2 catcher, will be the catalysts of Tennessee's offense from their spots in the middle of the order.
"They're both All-American, All-SEC-type players," Raleigh said. "They're a great place to start in the middle of the lineup. They're both great players and I certainly expect them to be better this year than they were last year in a number of areas - not just statistically - but also as leaders. Cody and Blake are two guys who are great to build your team around. They're both outstanding young men."
Hawn became just the 10th Vol ever to win the team Triple Crown in 2009, leading the Big Orange in batting average (.364), home runs (22), RBIs (81), hits (72), doubles (15) and slugging percentage (.773). The Knoxville, Tenn., native started all 50 games he played in as a sophomore and has been named a 2010 preseason All-American by Baseball America, Ping! Baseball, Louisville Slugger/Collegiate Baseball newspaper and the Collegiate Baseball Writers Association.
Forsythe started 53 of 55 games behind the plate for the Vols last spring, hitting .347 with 68 hits, 15 home runs and 46 RBIs in addition to leading the team with 40 walks and a .486 on-base percentage and collecting 19 multi-hit games and 13 multi-RBI contests. Not surprisingly, the Memphis, Tenn., product was selected to the All-SEC First Team in 2009.
Hawn and Forsythe, the Big Orange's top two hitters a year ago, will be surrounded by additional talented and experienced bats.
The Vols welcome back six of their top eight hitters from 2009, including junior outfielders Josh Liles and P.J. Polk, who each missed significant chunks of last season with injuries. The pair returns 100-percent healthy with Liles slated to start in center field and Polk expected to play at one of the corner outfield spots.
Sophomore Zach Osborne, an SEC All-Freshman selection in 2009, returns at shortstop, while senior Cody Grisham brings 76 starts over the last two years at shortstop or second base into his final collegiate season.
"I think we're going to be pretty good offensively," Raleigh said. "Hawn and Forsythe are going to be the cornerstones. We'll build behind those two and see how the pieces fall in."
The aforementioned returners are sure to be major pieces in the 2010 puzzle.
Liles was one of Tennessee's best offensive players before he injured his left wrist diving for a fly ball, sidelining him for the final 20 games of his sophomore campaign. In 35 games (all starts), he hit .313 with eight home runs and 25 RBIs.
Polk recovered from an ankle injury early last spring to bat .298, smack 12 doubles and convert all seven of his stolen base attempts, while Osborne made 54 starts at shortstop during his rookie season, registering a .281 batting average with 57 hits, eight doubles and 33 RBIs. He was the hardest Vol to strikeout with only one K per 9.6 at-bats, and had a team-best .325 batting average in SEC play.
Grisham, the lone senior expected to see significant time in the lineup, batted .239 in 2009, collecting 18 RBIs and 22 runs along the way. Other returners expected to see plenty of at-bats are sophomores Charley Thurber and Matt Ramsey.
Thurber made 23 starts in his debut season last year, batting .248 with four home runs and 16 RBIs. He is one of the players, Raleigh has been quick to praise for his improvement from last spring. The coach called the wiry, 6-4, 217-pound outfielder a "dark horse" to start in the outfield or at designated hitter.
Ramsey made 10 starts in the outfield a year ago and will be UT's closer this season. He hit .200 a year ago, smacking eight hits and nabbing four RBIs.
Duffy Leads Newcomers, Should Provide Spark
While Tennessee brings back plenty of quality firepower on offense, the Vols will receive a major upgrade from some talented newcomers, led by junior transfer Matt Duffy.
The 2009 American East Player of the Year, Duffy batted .388, smashed 13 home runs, and recorded 57 runs and 57 RBIs as a shortstop for Vermont. UVM was forced to cut its baseball program after last season, causing the preseason Ping! All-American to relocate to Knoxville. Here, Duffy will move to third base, a position Raleigh calls his most natural.
"The transition from shortstop to third for him is going good," Raleigh said. "That's his position at the next level. He's more natural at third than he was at short. He did a great job at shortstop for the University of Vermont - he was all-conference, but third base is his place."
Duffy joined Osborne and Grisham on the bench in the fall as all three suffered injuries. After getting hit by a pitch, Duffy broke his wrist, while Osborne broke a finger and Grisham battled an ankle injury. All three are 100-percent healthy now, however, which is great news for Vol fans.
Vol fans also will be excited to know that Duffy isn't the only newcomer expected to see playing time in 2009-10.
Junior Khayyan Norfork joins the Big Orange after two stellar seasons at Jackson State Community College, and is expected to see action at second base. Norfork was named an honorable mention All-American by the National Junior College Athletic Association in 2009.
Aside from transfers, the Orange and White have a trio of true freshmen position players whom Raleigh foresees having a major offensive impact.
Cody Stubbs is a strong left-handed hitter from Waynesville, N.C., who Raleigh already likens to Hawn, and will likely backup the junior All-American at first base, while also getting plenty of work as the Vols' designated hitter.
"Chris Fritts had an outstanding fall, as did Cody Stubbs," said Raleigh. "Stubbs is one of the top left-handed hitters in the country. He's going to be in our lineup somewhere. Fritts is going to play. He can hit and he's aggressive. Drew Steckenrider, a switch-hitter, has a chance to see some playing time in the outfield. Those are the freshmen position players that could play a key role this season. I expect all three of them to get some major time."
Few Losses, Increased Depth Should Make Filling Out Lineup Card Difficult
All the talent will leave Raleigh with a tough decision when it comes time for him to write that first name on the lineup card before Tennessee's season-opener against Xavier on Feb. 19.
"We've got some different options at the top of the lineup," Raleigh said. "P.J. Polk is one of the fastest runners in the country so he could see some time at the top. Chris Fritts is competing with P.J. and is an outstanding hitter. Josh Liles is certainly a guy that can steal some bases and do some things offensively. Matt Duffy can put up big numbers, as well. Zach Osborne, at short, he led our team in batting during the SEC schedule last year. He could find himself up at the top of the order too. We have a lot of depth, which is good, and we're still trying to figure out who will be at the top of the lineup."
And that's not to say a few position players won't be missed off last year's team.
Departed senior Cody Brown fought through injuries to make 46 starts in the infield and at DH. He batted .263 in 2009 with six homers and 25 RBIs. He started 193 games in his four-year career, batting .261.
Tyler Horne registered a .299 batting average with 10 home runs and 26 RBIs as Tennessee's third baseman, but will not return.
The biggest lost will be felt from the departure of Kentrail Davis, who was selected as the 39th overall pick by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2009 Major League Baseball Amateur draft. He started every game for the Vols last season, with all but two appearances coming in center field. Davis batted .319 in two seasons with 22 home runs and 74 RBIs.
"We lost some good players," Raleigh said. "Cody Brown was a key part. We'll miss him. We'll miss Kentrail Davis. I still feel we're better in our outfield because of our depth, though. Last year we lost P.J. Polk at the beginning of the year, and then we lost Josh Liles for the last 30 games. That hurt us. I think with those guys being healthy, I like our outfield better. That being said, Kentrail was a first-round pick. That's hard to replace."
Morgado's Return Bolsters Deepest UT Pitching Staff in Years
Tennessee also lost some quality pitchers in senior draft picks Nick Hernandez, Ty'Relle Harris and Danny Wiltz. Hernandez, who walked just nine batters in 82 2/3 innings pitched in 2008, was selected in the 12th round by the Philadelphia Phillies, while Harris got picked in the 19th round by the Atlanta Braves. Wiltz was chosen in the 35th round by the Chicago White Sox.
In 2009, Hernandez and Harris posted records of 4-5 and 4-4, respectively, while Wiltz made 19 appearances out of the bullpen.
There's no question UT will miss those three, but Tennessee's pitching corps is stocked with its most-talented collection of arms in years.
Leading the returners, is junior left-hander Bryan Morgado, who opted to return to Rocky Top after being drafted as the 102nd overall player by the White Sox in the third round of the MLB draft.
"We've never had near this kind of pitching depth. Nowhere even in the same planet as what we do now. Of course we're going to have to go on the field and produce, but the number of quality arms we have is outstanding."
Morgado is one of just three college players drafted in the first three rounds to return to school for the 2010 campaign, joining Kentucky's James Paxton and Arizona State pitcher Josh Spence. The Miami, Fla., native led the Vols in strikeouts in his first two seasons. After tallying a 5-5 record with 104 punchouts and a 4.59 ERA as a freshman in 2008, Morgado's numbers dipped to 4-2 with a 6.36 ERA and 75 Ks in 2009. Still, the junior's performance in the prestigious Cape Cod Summer League solidified him as one of the nation's best this summer.
"Bryan is the third-highest drafted player to return to college," Raleigh said. "I think that says a lot about our program and a lot about Bryan wanting to win. He has the chance to be as good as anybody in the country. We expect a great season out of him. He had a great fall."
Sophomore Steven Gruver, a Canfield, Ohio, product, will likely join Morgado at the top of the weekend rotation for Tennessee. Also a lefty, Gruver made four starts and 18 appearances, compiling an 0-1 mark and a 5.93 ERA in his first collegiate season. He's a player Raleigh points out has made immeasurable strides heading into his sophomore year.
"Steven Gruver has taken his pitching to the next level," Raleigh said." To me, he's a frontline pitcher for any team in the country now."
Gruver headlines a stellar sophomore class of pitchers at Raleigh and first-year pitching coach Jason Beverlin's disposal.
"Sophomore Adam Adkins has improved immensely," Raleigh said. "Matt Ramsey, to me, is one of the best closers in the country. Will Locante will be unbelievable from the left side coming out of our bullpen. He too is only a sophomore. These guys have really emerged."
Adkins went 2-1 with a 5.27 ERA in 15 appearances, while Locante collected a 3-1 record in 24 games. Both could start or bring the heat from the left side of the bullpen, while Ramsey should improve his saves count from four, and lower his ERA down from 5.45 as the Vols' unquestioned closer.
Behind Morgado and Gruver, Raleigh has plenty of options to complete the starting rotation.
Senior right-hander Stephen McCray went 4-3 with a 5.16 ERA in nine starts and 19 appearances in his first year as a Vol after transferring from Young Harris (Ga.) College, last season.
He and classmate Steve Crnkovich were singled out by Raleigh as two pitchers who impressed in the fall. Crnkovich registered an 8.31 ERA in just seven appearances a year ago, but started 10 games and compiled a 5-6 record as a sophomore in 2008.
Knoxville native Rob Catapano is eligible this season after transferring from North Carolina to back home in January of 2009. The left-hander posted a 5-1 record and 3.42 ERA in 46 career games over two seasons, pitching in the College World Series both years.
"I expect great things from Rob Catapano, a transfer from North Carolina," Raleigh said. "He has tremendous experience."
"Right now the rotation after Morgado and Gruver is open," Raleigh said. "It could be Steve Crnkovich. It could be Stephen McCray. It could be Rob Catapano. It could be Adam Adkins. He had as good a fall as anybody. I look at those four guys. We also have a wildcard in Alan Walden. He's a true freshman that was hurt last year in a high school. He couldn't pitch in the fall, but he's pitching now. He has a chance to be a very special player one day. I don't want to thrust too much on him right now but he's a player who could be pitching on the weekends for most teams in the country because he's that outstanding.
"It's wide open. We'll find out over these next few weeks who is going to fit where."
Defense, Coaching Additions the Intangibles That Add Up to Success
Backing Tennessee's strong contingent of aces is a stout defense led by shortstop Osborne and third baseman Duffy on the left side of the infield.
"I certainly think on our left side of the infield, we're as good as anybody in the country," Raleigh said. "Zach Osborne and Matt Duffy can absolutely field the ball. The thing about Matt is he is so good defensively. He's got all the arm angles, he can turn the double play and he can field the slow roller, and I think Zach's the best defensive player in the SEC.
"We fielded the second-highest in Tennessee history last year (.972), and I feel like we'll be even better this year. I'm excited about the fact that we can catch the ball. Cody Hawn only made one error a year ago. Cody Grisham is as good as anybody in this league defensively at second base. Khayyan Norfork has been a great addition, as well."
Additionally, Forsythe has a gun at home plate, having thrown out 13 potential base stealers in 2009 and 11 in 2008, and Liles and Polk will roam the outfield as two of the fastest players in the program.
New coaches Beverlin, Herman Demmink and Bill Currier also have improved the Tennessee baseball program. Beverlin pitched professionally from 1994 to 2007, and spent two years as the pitching coach at Georgia Southern before joining the Vols.
"Coach Beverlin has done an outstanding job," Raleigh said. "He certainly has his major league pitching experience which helps. He's got a great demeanor. He's been able to establish a rapport with our pitchers and get their trust at a quick pace. He's a great worker and a tireless recruiter. He has fit right in."
Demmink joins the UT staff as the new strength and conditioning coach. A 2006 graduate of Clemson where he was an infielder on the Tigers' baseball team, Demmink also spent three years in the Phillies' farm system and founded 3-D Performance Training, a strength and conditioning performance training company.
Currier will serve as Tennessee's new volunteer assistant. He was the head coach at Vermont for 22 years before the program was cut because of budget reductions.
"I feel like we've improved ourselves in the area of strength and conditioning with the hiring of Herman," Raleigh said. "He played for the same coach as me (Jack Leggett) at Clemson so we're from the same baseball family. And I feel really fortunate to have Bill Currier on our staff now, too. He's got 22 years of head coaching experience at the NCAA Division I level."
All of these changes, additions and improvements to the Tennessee baseball program have Raleigh, his staff and the players geared up for the 2010 season to begin. Despite an always tough SEC and out-of-conference schedule that includes 12 different teams that played in the NCAA Regionals a year ago, including defending national champion LSU, don't expect the Vols to back down. They know what to expect.
"We might have one of the toughest schedules in Tennessee history this year." Raleigh said. "The SEC is tough every year. But we're not worried about that. We're ready to get out on the field and start playing."