Vitek's Bat Proves To Be Path To Pro Ball

Ball State two-way star proves a better hitter than expected

MUNCIE, Ind.—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 he chose Ball State, where coach Greg Beals offered a chance to do both.

"He was recruited primarily with pitching as a priority," Beals said. "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."

Vitek, now a junior, quickly changed Beals' mind. In October of Vitek's freshman year, Beals called his future star's father. Beals told Gerry Vitek that he made a mistake evaluating his son.

"His dad went, 'Oh no, what do you mean?' " Beal recalled. "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 second-team preseason All-America second baseman will be taken early in June's draft, and it's his bat that has him poised to become Ball State's highest draft pick since Brad Snyder was taken with the 18th overall pick in 2003.

"I'm ready to start focusing on one side of the game," Vitek 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 picks him will put him in the field.

At Ball State he has spent time at DH, 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.

"He's athletic enough to move to the outfield," an American League area scout said. "I don't have any doubts about that, but if you draft him as a second baseman, I guess you have to give him the chance to play off of it."

At 6-foot-3, Vitek profiles more as a third baseman, where his strong arm would also be an asset. But if he can play in the middle of the infield, his bat will make him even more valuable to his future employer.

There are mixed opinions about whether or not Vitek will have enough power to play third base in the major leagues. He showed good power last summer in the Great Lakes League, where he became the first player in 23 years to win the circuit's triple crown. Vitek hit .400/.452.741 with six homers and 38 RBIs and ranked as the circuit's top prospect—one spot ahead of Ball State teammate Perci Garner, who could also be drafted in the top two rounds in June.

"You never know," the AL scout said of Vitek's power potential. "In three years he could be a monster—he's got a good frame on him and he's got wide shoulders. He's a strong kid."

Teams looking for faults in Vitek's defense at second base don't have to work too hard. One scout cited poor footwork and an unorthodox throwing motion as areas of concern.

Vitek admits he is still learning how to play second, but he is working hard to get the necessary footwork down.

Beals thinks Vitek's lack of a defined position could hurt him on draft day.

"That's the challenge for 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," Beals said. "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.

"(Defense is) 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 climbed draft boards with three great seasons in a Cardinals uniform. Through 44 games as a junior this spring, Vitek is hitting .393/.478/.746 with 14 homers and 57 RBIs—all team bests. He also has 13 stolen bases in 16 tries, showing the ability to use his average-to-plus speed. And he is 2-4, 4.00 with 41 strikeouts and 15 walks in 54 innings off the mound.

After seeing Vitek play in a game for the first time, one American League crosschecker 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. "It's 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 approach to 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 payday 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."