BASEBALL: Vitek hits and pitches his way onto national radar
Junior is projected to be early-round Major League draft pick
There was a time, not so long ago, that the baseball world thought Kolbrin Vitek was a pitcher.
Coming out of high school, Vitek drew plenty of interest from schools as a pitcher. But he wasn't ready to give up hitting yet, and chose Ball State University, where coach Greg Beals offered a chance to do both.
"He was recruited primarily with pitching as a priority," Beals said. "There were many schools that were recruiting him as a pitcher only. We had seen him hit enough to know he was warranted an opportunity to continue hitting. I just saw the bat speed that he created."
Beals quickly had his mind changed by Vitek, who is now a junior.
"I called his father in October of his freshman year and said ‘I think I made a mistake on your son,'" Beals said. "His dad went ‘Oh no, what do you mean?' I said ‘Kolbrin's a way better hitter than I even thought he was.' I saw right away his freshman year that there was something special with his bat."
A few years later Vitek still pitches in Ball State's weekend rotation, but not for much longer. The All-American second baseman will be taken early in June's MLB Draft and its his bat that has him poised to be Ball State's highest draft pick since Brad Snyder was taken with the 18th overall pick in 2003.
Vitek is preparing himself to forego his senior season at Ball State and give up pitching for good.
"I'm ready to start focusing on one side of the game," he said. "I'm ready to focus on one thing and start building on one skill set."
Now the draft conversation about Vitek revolves around where the team that drafts him will put him in the field. At Ball State he has spent time at designated hitter, first base, third base and second base, where he plays this year. He likely will play second or third professionally, though there is some scattered talk of a move to the outfield.
"I think you keep him at second base initially," Baseball America executive editor Jim Callis said. "His bat is going to stick out more at second than at third, but I find it hard to believe he couldn't play one or the other."
Standing 6-feet-3-inches tall, Vitek profiles more as a third baseman. His ability to light up a radar gun in the mid-90s doesn't hurt that projection either. But if he can play in the middle of the infield, his bat will make him even more valuable to his future employer.
"If he has to play a less challenging position, you're not going to worry about if he's going to hit enough there," Callis said. "He has really good power for a middle infielder and solid power if you put him at third base."
Callis said Vitek projects as a 20-25 home run per year hitter in the majors.
Beals thinks Vitek's lack of a defined position could hurt him on draft day.
"Brad Snyder had a sure-fire position, everybody knew he was going to be a right fielder," Beals said. "That's the challenge for [the area] scouts, is figuring exactly when you put Kolbrin in that role of a first or second-rounder a lot of people like to have a little better idea of where you see him fitting defensively. That's a little bit of a challenge to the scouts in our area to figure that out. I just encourage them not to figure it out and draft the athlete."
For his part, Vitek says he is most comfortable at second base, but if a team tells him to go play left field, he'll be ready.
"That's where I've been working the hardest at," Vitek said.
One thing about Vitek's game is certain, however. No one doubts his ability to hit a baseball. He has shot to the top of draft boards across the majors with three great seasons in a Cardinals uniform. This year he leads Ball State in every major offensive category from batting average (.417) to home runs (9).
"The scouts we talked to had him as a plus power guy that puts the bat on the ball," Callis said. "He's a really gifted hitter."
After seeing Vitek play in a game for the first time, one American League scout put it simply: "He's a good player."
For now, Vitek is pushing thoughts of signing bonuses and negotiations out of his head, concentrating on making what is likely his final year as a Cardinal his best.
"It's still really early to get into all that," Vitek said. "Its too early to talk about things like that."
For some high-profile athletes, such talk is lip service. But Vitek's laid-back personality makes his carefree look at the draft possible.
"It helps him through the hype that's happening now," Beals said. "But it also helps him through the successes and failures that a baseball player's actually going to go through."
Even though all signs point to him getting a big pay day this summer, Vitek won't let his imagination start to wander.
"I'm not going to set my expectations high," Vitek said. "I'm just going to be realistic about it. That way if something good happens then I'll get surprised."