In a year that didn't have that many advanced college bats, Kolbrin Vitek's production stood out and helped him climb into the first round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, when he was taken No. 20 overall by the Red Sox.
Vitek had, after all, hit .361 with 17 homers and 68 RBIs to go along with 16 steals in his junior season at Ball State. The question invariably comes, with any amateur hitter, though: How will that success translate to the professional game? More than one college hitter with big numbers has not been able to make the switch to wood bats.
Vitek signed quickly, and while it's not a vast sample, he did get in 68 games before the season ended. He held his own, hitting .270/.364/.418 with 17 steals at two levels. Sure, he struck out 74 times -- not something he was particularly known for -- but keep in mind he ended up playing 126 games, more than he'd ever played in one season as an amateur. That's not an excuse, but perhaps it's part of an explanation.
He also was playing third base when he wasn't serving as the designated hitter. Vitek had largely played second at Ball State, so learning a new position on the fly may have provided a bit of distraction, as well. One of the questions about Vitek coming out of college was at what position he'd best profile. Many didn't think he fit at second, and some thought his speed would play well in the outfield. Third base may be new, but Vitek is just fine with the hot corner.
"I'm good wherever they want me," Vitek said. "I was hoping I'd get selected by someone who wanted me in the infield. I'm still on the dirt, and I'm not having to transfer to the outfield. It's different, it's been a challenge for me, but I'm glad to be an infielder."
Vitek has been working this spring at his new spot exclusively and while it's still "on the dirt," as he put it, there are obvious differences between his old defensive home and his new one. The throw across the field has been the big one to adjustment. He's getting used to the extra effort to get the ball to first from the hot corner. Along with that, there's work on footwork, angles and positioning that have given the soon-to-be 22-year-old plenty to work on.
How he progresses on that side of the ball could help dictate where he starts his first full season. He did get a dozen games in with Class A Greenville -- then six more in the playoffs -- and his bat might be ready for the challenge of the Class A Advanced Carolina League. But if the organization thinks he needs to focus on his defense more, a start in Greenville might be in the cards. Nothing has been decided yet, though Vitek knows he has a chance to move up with a good spring.
"When I got my offseason plan, they said I'd be fighting for a spot in Salem," Vitek said. "That's where I'm hoping to be. That's what I'm competing for. I've been working out on the Salem field every day."
Regardless of where he starts, one thing Vitek has learned quickly is that he'll have the support of Red Sox Nation. His first Spring Training experience has really driven that home.
"I'm very excited seeing how even the fans down here are crazy; they sell out every game," Vitek said. "The media's all around, there are so many legends on the field every day. There's so much history that means a lot to everybody. I'm realizing that it means so much here."
Red Sox's Top 10 Prospects
1. Jose Iglesias, SS: The No. 42 prospect on MLB.com's Top 50 Prospects list (and No. 3 among shortstop prospects), the Cuban defector has made a name for himself with his defensive prowess. He's a Gold Glover waiting to happen, but don't sell his bat short. He should hit for average and has excellent bat control, perhaps being a good candidate to be a No. 2 hitter eventually. His broken finger last year slowed him a little, but he'll be in Triple-A this year and should be ready by 2012.
2. Anthony Ranaudo, RHP: Elbow issues and command problems forced Ranaudo to drop into the sandwich round last June, but then the LSU product went to the Cape Cod League and proved he was just fine by firing nearly 30 scoreless innings there. When he's healthy, he's got front-line starter stuff, with three average-or-better pitches (fastball, curve, changeup), all of which he can throw for strikes. If he starts the year with Class A Advanced Salem and stays on the mound, it could be a quick ride up to Boston.
3. Felix Doubront, LHP: MLB.com's pick for the farm system's pitcher of the year, Doubront pitched well across two levels while showing glimpses of success in Boston. The Venezuelan lefty has four pitches: fastball, changeup, cutter and curve. He's shown an ability to start and relieve, and the thinking was that he would start the year in Triple-A as a starter with the knowledge Boston could call him up to help out the bullpen if needed. Elbow stiffness slowed him down this spring and the Red Sox are proceeding with caution. It's not a major concern.
4. Stolmy Pimentel, RHP: It was an exciting year for Pimentel in 2010, with a trip to the Futures Game at midseason and an addition to the 40-man roster after it was over. The 6-foot-4 right-hander can get hitters out with his fastball and changeup alone, though he also has a curve that is solid at times. Just 21, he'll move up to Double-A this season, a good test for any young arm.
WHEN WILL THEY ARRIVE?
6. Drake Britton, LHP: The 2007 draftee had Tommy John surgery after the 2008 season, forcing him to miss nearly all of 2009. While the Red Sox were very cautious with him in 2010, he pitched well in the South Atlantic League, striking out more than a hitter per inning and finishing with an ERA under 3.00. He's got a terrific fastball-power curve combination and has shown feeling for a change. What he really needs are innings, and the wraps could come off in 2011 as he moves up a rung on the ladder.
7. Oscar Tejeda, 2B: Tejeda had a breakout season in 2010, capped with a move to the Carolina League. He set career highs in just about every offensive category. Tejeda looks like he could develop into an offensive-minded second baseman who'll hit well for average with some decent pop. Last year was his first on the right side of second and while he's no Gold Glover, it might be the right spot for him in the future. That's where he'll play as he moves up to Double-A this season.
8. Vitek, 3B: A first rounder, Vitek can do a little bit of everything offensively. He should hit for average and steal some bases. He's got some pop, though the jury's still out over how much he'll have as a pro. In a perfect world, he'll begin his first full season with Salem in the Carolina League.
9. Josh Reddick, OF: Reddick shook off a very bad start to the Triple-A season and hit .351/.372/.627 in the second half for Pawtucket. His big league time didn't go so well as Ryan Kalish moved past him on the depth chart.
10. Will Middlebrooks, 3B: The 2007 draftee started to turn some of his strong tools into performance in the Carolina League last year, setting highs in average, slugging percentage, doubles, homers and RBIs. There's more power to come. and with his good glove, he has the chance to be a prototypical all-around third baseman. Next up will be the big jump from Class A to Double-A ball.
Under the Radar
Daniel Butler, C: After graduating from the University of Arizona in 2009, Butler went to the Cape Cod League and made enough of an impression on the Red Sox to sign in late July. He hit .173 in 24 games that summer, nothing to write home about. But last year, he went from just being just a guy to someone to keep an eye on. After hitting .327/.406/.523 in 61 games at full-season Class A Greenville, he moved up to Salem and hit .292/.434/.425 there, continuing to show an ability to hit for average and get on base. Now 24, he could move up to Double-A and continue to beat the odds.
Ryan Pressly, RHP: An 11th-round pick out of the Texas high school ranks in the 2007 Draft, Pressly didn't pitch that summer, despite signing quickly, because of a knee injury. He spent the next two summers in rookie and short-season ball. He made his full-season debut last season and finished second in the organization in ERA. He finished the season strong and will hope to carry that over to the Carolina League in 2011.
Hitter of the Year -- Vitek
He'll show why he was one of the best college hitters in last year's Draft class by taking full-season ball by storm. He'll compete for an organizational batting title, steal a bunch of bases and show a little more pop than people expect.
Pitcher of the Year -- Britton
With the kid gloves coming off, Britton's innings total will increase while his strikeout rate and ERA will stay the same, putting him in position to lead the system in both categories.