The Red Sox selected infielder Kolbrin Vitek with the 20th overall pick in this June’s first-year player draft -- the highest pick the team had in seven years. The Ohio native played three years at Ball State, capping off a stellar career with the Cardinals by hitting .361 with 20 doubles, 17 home runs, 68 RBIs, 16 stolen bases and an OPS of 1.136 in his junior season. Vitek was named Mid-American Conference Player of the Year and also took home Louisville Slugger First Team All-American honors at the utility position. He played mostly second base this season after spending the 2009 season at third, but he also took the mound as a weekend starter in 2010, putting up a 3.28 ERA in 17 appearances.
After signing with the Red Sox on June 12, Vitek reported to the short-season Lowell Spinners of the New York-Penn League to begin his professional career. Splitting time between third base and designated hitter, he’s been a fixture in the lineup and one of the team’s leading hitters in the early going. The 21-year-old recently hit his first professional home run, a grand slam, and has been looking more settled in at the plate as of late.
With a smooth, compact stroke and very quick hands, Vitek profiles as an excellent hitter for contact, with the ability to hit for some power as he develops at the professional level. The Red Sox are starting him off at third base to see if he can stick in the infield as a pro, but some scouts have opined that he may be better suited for center field over the long haul.
SoxProspects.com scouting director Chris Mellen recently had the chance to sit down with Vitek to talk about the events leading up to joining the Red Sox organization and his initial thoughts on life as a professional baseball player.
Q. You spent three years at Ball State after going undrafted coming out of high school, stepping in and starting right out of the gate as a freshman. Was there interest in you at that point in time from major league teams, or did you just make the decision to go to college no matter what?
A. Out of high school I really wasn’t developed enough physically. I had filled out all of the draft forms for the teams and whatnot, but the amount that I was looking for did not line up with what teams would be willing to offer. So, I went undrafted and headed off to college to work on my physique, and to get better at the game overall. Also, in college I was able to do the two-way player thing - Ball State offered me the best chance to do that. It ended up working out quite well for me.
Q. Touching on your need to develop more physically and get better as a player, what was your experience like in college and how did that go into molding you into becoming a professional player?
A. It made me realize that I needed to do more overall, especially to get stronger and learn those little things that go into the game. My work ethic got a lot stronger as a result of seeing what it takes to get to the next level. It was a challenge. You’ve got to work that much harder to be on top of your game and hopefully get a chance to continue on.
Q. After three solid years of college baseball and becoming one of the better hitters at the college level, the draft starts to loom. There were rumors swirling about you going to the Padres, the Red Sox were interested, etc. How did everything go down leading up to that day?
A. Pretty much over the course of the year I had a chance to sit down and talk with every team. But, I ended up going to two pre-draft workouts. One was out in San Diego and the other was here in Boston. Those were the top two teams showing the most interest in me so I had a good idea that I was going to one of those teams. It ended up being Boston and I’m very happy to be here.
Q. What was the pre-draft workout like? Is it private with you just working out for the entire Red Sox staff?
A. It was actually me and [Red Sox supplemental pick] Bryce Brentz working out together. It was pretty standard, but you had all of those front office guys there.
Q. What is it like being a pro prospect in that last year of college baseball? Obviously, you had a good idea that you were going to get drafted and most likely turning pro as soon as the season ended.
A. Yeah, it’s a hard thing to do. Once you know you are going to get drafted, you kind of stop thinking about college ball a little bit. The thoughts of being ready to move on or its time to become a professional get into your head. For me, I told myself to try as best as possible to keep the focus on the season and that I was still a college player finishing out that career before thinking about the next step.
Q. So you’re now here in Lowell, pretty much jumping from one career to the next without much down time. What has that been like?
A. There’s been some similarities, but the competition here is much tougher. It has been fun going from one right into the next. Having a longer break or some down time would have made it tougher in that you’re away from the game every day. I’ve liked being able to go right into it fresh while keeping the game flowing instead of having a summer off.
Q. What are the Red Sox looking for out of you here in Lowell? Any goals? Or, is more of just getting your feet wet?
A. They pretty much just want me to get comfortable down at third base, swinging a wood bat, and getting used to the professional routine. It’s a job now and there are some long, strenuous days. You’ve got to get into a routine. They want players to develop their own routine and get used to the system.
Q. You mention third base. I know you that you played second this year to save your arm when you pitched. What has it been like going back to third as a professional?
A. Definitely a lot of relearning. I’ve been trying to get the footwork back down and get used to the throw all the way across the diamond. I’m working on my arm slot and getting the positioning back together.
Q. How do you feel about playing third base? Is that what you wanted to do coming in?
A. Definitely. I like playing in the infield. I’m starting to feel a lot better down there and get more comfortable. It started off a little shaky, but that’s how things are going to be jumping in at the professional level. There’s a little anxiety off the bat, but the comfort is coming back, and as I said just relearn the position.
Q. Earlier, you hit on the competition being tougher here in the New York-Penn League. What has that adjustment been like?
A. You now see a strong pitcher every time out there. In college, there would be an outstanding pitcher maybe once a week or even every two weeks. Here, the guys out there are all good pitchers and its getting used to all of the different breaking balls, arm angles, and things like that.
Q. I’ve had a chance to see you a bit since signing and your approach sticks out. You’ll drive one down the line to left and then go the other way off the wall. How did you develop the approach to hit to all fields?
A. The phrase “staying inside the ball” or “keeping your hands inside the ball” is how I try to work. Look the other way on a pitch to swing through it rather than roll over by trying to pull it. It’s something I have always tried to focus on and just take what pitchers are going to give me, with the intent on hitting the ball hard somewhere.
Q. Last one. If you weren’t playing baseball right now you would be…
A. I’d be writing for a magazine, as I majored in journalism in college. Actually, I’d probably be looking for a job right now.
Mike Andrews is designer and developer of SoxProspects.com and a special contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Chris Mellen and Zach Nicholson of SoxProspects.com contributed to this article.