Dan Fleser: Promising Vols Baseball Season Now Facing "So Many Unknowns"

Monday, March 23, 2020 - by Dan Fleser

KNOXVILLE – A Division I college baseball team’s roster tends to be in a constant state of evolution. At least it seems that way. The change unfolds in concert with the sport’s unique calendar.

If anything, Tennessee’s Tony Vitello has accelerated the process in his two-plus seasons as the Vols coach. He’s staged an ongoing segment of “Extreme Makeover” in transforming UT into a team that made the NCAA tournament last spring for the first time in 14 years.

“I’m not going to pretend to know what other people are doing or what they might do, but who’s coming, who’s going, the draft, what about replacing this guy, thing like that, we have to deal with it every year,” Vitello said last week.

These questions now are eclipsed by the overarching uncertainty created by the coronavirus pandemic. The duration of Tennessee’s season - which began in auspicious fashion with a 15-2 record – was canceled earlier this month, just as SEC play was about to begin.

How will this unprecedented interruption impact the aforementioned determinations? Vitello imagined a vivid magnification.

“It’s going to be that on steroids,” he said, “if that’s the right term in our sport, not that we’re doing anything illegal with our supplements but it’s just going to complicate the issue even more.

“What seniors are going to do. Who all is going to come back. If we had all the answers, we could move forward and have a better idea of this is our next move or this is what our team will look like next year.”

Vitello went so far as to curtail any more conversation with his staff on the subject, saying: “It’s kind of a waste of breath right now to talk about that stuff.”

Meanwhile, the evolution is ongoing. Catcher/pitcher Brooks Wright from Knoxville’s Bearden High School announced his verbal commitment to UT last week on social media. Wright doesn’t graduate until 2024.

The NCAA Division I Council Committee announced last week that it will vote March 30 on whether to provide eligibility relief to student-athletes who participate in spring sports. The vote could create some clarity regarding UT’s upperclassmen and their options.

There’s still the matter, though, of Major League Baseball’s annual draft, an event that drives college baseball’s annual rhythm as much as anything. The Associated Press reported last week that MLB is considering skipping the draft this year as a way to preserve money with the season effected by the pandemic.

The first round had been moved to Omaha, Neb., and was to be held ahead of the College World Series, which now has been canceled.

As Tennessee improves its roster, the draft will have a greater impact on its makeover. Vitello considered the subject last week. The thought of no draft seemed hard to grasp for him.

“I don’t think you can rule anything out with what’s going on in the real world but there probably will be a draft,” he said. “There almost certainly will be a modification. So how does that effect our current roster?”

Vitello doubled back to his original conclusion: “There are so many unknowns.”

* * *

Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He may be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com

 


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