This was a different sort of start to the draft for the Red Sox.
It has become an annual ritual for the team to scribble the word “Impact” at the top of its draft board as a reminder of its desire to draft not merely future major leaguers but potential stars. Typically, the players who can be projected for such a status with a degree of certainty are pulled off the board in the earliest picks.
That, in turn, has left the Sox selecting players with a greater degree of risk or projection in recent seasons. In 2008 (Casey Kelly) and 2009 (Reymond Fuentes), the team tabbed high schoolers — almost always a riskier proposition than college players — with its top picks. In 2007, the team grabbed a college closer (Nick Hagadone) whom it converted into a starter, hoping that it had found a player whose ceiling had remained unexplored in college.
But this year, with three of the top 39 picks in the draft, the Sox were able to snare college players whom they viewed as being among the best performers in the country. There isn’t as much guessing: third baseman Kolbrin Vitek (Ball State), outfielder Bryce Brentz (Middle Tennessee State) and pitcher Anthony Ranaudo (Louisiana State) had shown an ability to be as dominant on the field as nearly any college players in the draft.
That is not a guarantee that they will become stars. Nonetheless, the Sox were thrilled with what they perceived as a combination of high-ceiling talent with excellent track records against elite college (and national) competition.
“We’re really happy that we were able to get the certainty of college players but the potential impact of high-ceiling guys as well,” Sox GM Theo Epstein said. “At one point, we looked at our board and said we might be able to go Vitek, Brentz Ranaudo. That was a best-case scenario.
“It only means so much,” he continued. “We’re not going to pat ourselves on the back for taking these guys. But looking back in five years, hopefully we feel as good about this draft as we do now.”
Despite the team’s enthusiasm for its choices, they are not without risk. Vitek’s level of competition in the MAC was an imperfect gauge of his abilities, while Ranaudo and Brentz both suffered through injuries in 2010 that hindered their performances.
Nonetheless, all three of the players whom the Sox selected were, at one point or another, viewed as potential top 10 selections in the 2010 draft.
According to baseball sources, the Padres were prepared to take Vitek with the ninth overall pick of the draft had their targeted player (high school pitcher Karsten Whitson) been taken. Brentz’ significant power, coming off a tremendous sophomore year, had him as a top-of-the-first-round name before a high ankle sprain limited his season. Ditto Ranaudo, who was a likely top five pick as the consensus best college pitcher in the draft before a forearm injury derailed most of his season.
“It couldn’t have worked out any better as far as we’re concerned,” Epstein said. “I know that 30 teams come out of the draft room high-fiving, excited that their guys got to their picks. That only means so much. Time will always tell in the draft. But we were as happy in the draft room as at any time that any time that I’ve been here. Things really broke our way, and we couldn’t be more excited about all three guys.”
Here is a closer look at each:
KOLBRIN VITEK, 2B/3B/RHP, BALL STATE UNIVERSITY, 1st round (No. 20 overall)
The message from most of the college baseball programs to Kolbrin Vitek was the same. Teams were interested in having him join their programs, but they wanted the right-hander with a low-90s fastball to pitch.
Vitek insisted on finding a place where he would be able to be a two-way player. Ball State complied, and the 6-foot-3 right-hander flourished while playing second and third as well as serving as the team’s Sunday pitcher.
Though he was successful on the mound, ultimately, Vitek’s offensive potential became too great to ignore.
“It didn’t take long. By the end of his freshman year, I was starting to get a sense that an offensive player was what he was going to be as a professional,” Ball State coach Greg Beals said. “His size, his speed and his bat, that combination, I saw it just being a little more special.”
His tremendous bat speed, generated with a compact right-handed stroke, is complemented by an impressive across-the-board tool set that ultimately led the Sox to draft him with the No. 20 pick of the first round.
Vitek hit .361 with a .445 OBP, .691 slugging mark, 17 homers and 16 steals en route to winning Mid-American Conference Player of the Year honors. Sox amateur scouting director Amiel Sawdaye expects Vitek’s present gap-to-gap power to grow into above-average power as his frame fills out thanks to an advanced plate approach. Certainly, he has a frame that suggests untapped power potential.
“The thing that separates him from the average college hitter is he’s able to generate bat speed with a very balanced approach,” Beals said. “The thing that’s really interesting is that Kolbrin is 6-foot-3, and the frame is still a little wiry. When he becomes 26 years old, I think the power tool is going to be a whole lot better than it is now. I think it’s a great combination headed into pro ball.”
He complements his plate approach with above-average speed on the bases, above-average range and, unsurprisingly, an above-average arm.
“We kind of fell in love with his bat and his athleticism,” Epstein said.
The 21-year-old was Ball State’s Sunday pitcher in 2010. After playing third base as a sophomore, Beals moved him to second as a junior in large part to reduce the strain on Vitek’s arm on days when he wasn’t pitching.
Now, with Vitek's pitching days behind him, the Sox will move him back to third base to start his pro career. While some teams projected him as an outfielder (given his speed and range, likely a center fielder), Vitek has the raw tools, according to Sox amateur scouting director Amiel Sawdaye, to project as an average third baseman.
Vitek’s college coach agrees, and suggests that he will have his first real opportunity to develop his defense once he turns pro.
“I think the defense has got to develop in order to call him a five-tool guy, but he’s got range and foot speed. He’s got the tools to develop,” Beals said. “It’s going to be fun to watch him throw from third base when he knows he doesn’t have to save himself for a 100-pitch outing.
“Kolbrin was wearing many hats. The defense developed the slowest. I’m excited to watch him play as a professional when he’s not going to worry about pitching anymore. I think it’s a very exciting future, what might happen there.”
Vitek said that he and the Sox had reached a verbal agreement on a deal, and a baseball source confirmed that the outfielder had agreed in principle (pending a physical) to sign for the slot bonus.
"We decided on a number that was definitely a fair contract for me and a fair contract for them," Vitek said. "We're excited to get it started and sign up pretty quickly here and get going and get into this thing as soon as possible.
"It's very exciting to join such a successful organization, and I'm excited to see how they run it and I'm excited to get it all started," he said.
BRYCE BRENTZ, OF, MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE UNIVERSITY, Supplemental first round (No. 36 overall)
Brentz, quite simply, can mash.
“[He is] an impact power bat, arguably a top 10 pick coming into this year,” Sawdaye said. “A guy that had just light tower, plus raw power. We brought him into Fenway before the draft and he was just wearing out Lansdowne Street.”
Based on his performance with Middle Tennessee State and Team USA, he is viewed as a fairly safe bet to be a middle-of-the-order hitter with the production to be an everyday corner outfielder in the majors.
Defensively, he played center field in college, and while his professional future more likely is in right field, he has a chance to be average or above average at that position. Like Vitek, he was a two-way player in college, meaning that he almost surely has the arm for right field.
But offense is Brentz’s calling card. In 2010, he hit .348 with a .440 OBP, .636 slugging mark and 15 homers in 46 games as a junior. Those numbers represented a drop from his 2009 numbers, when he led the NCAA in homers (28), average (.465) and slugging percentage (.930).
Some of the 21-year-old’s decline could be attributed to what the Sox described as a high ankle sprain that cost him playing time. (Though it may be no more than a matter of semantics, multiple reports referred to the injury as a stress fracture.) That, in turn, cost Brentz some of his rhythm at the plate, helping to explain his performance drop.
“He said [the injury] didn’t affect his approach, didn’t affect what he’d done this year,” said Sawdaye. “Obviously, a lot of hitting is timing. We just think he needed to get into some more at-bats and some more consistent at-bats to get back into the swing of things.”
Like Vitek, Brentz appears likely to sign quickly and begin his professional career in the coming days.
“In the case of Vitek and Brentz, it’s an added bonus that it appears they have a chance to sign and get out quickly,” Epstein said. “It’s refreshing.”
ANTHONY RANAUDO, RHP, LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY, Supplemental first round (No. 39 overall)
The Sox’ interest in Ranaudo was no secret. The 6-foot-7 power pitcher entered the year as a consensus top-five overall draft pick after a dominating sophomore year (12-3, 3.04) that concluded with him claiming the win in the College World Series championship game.
But his performance and, at times, velocity fell off in 2010 as he fought injury (described as a stress reaction in his right forearm) and then mechanical woes. As a junior, he is 5-3 with a 7.32 ERA and while his strikeout totals remained high (54 in 51.2 innings), his walks totals also spiked (27).
His stuff, however, has returned in recent outings, but because of medical concerns, his performance inconsistency and the fact that his advisor is Scott Boras, who will expect his client to receive a bonus commensurate with his skills when healthy, Ranaudo dropped to the sandwich round in the draft. The Sox viewed the development as a significant opportunity to acquire a talent who has already demonstrated that, when healthy, he has the ability to pitch in the front end of a rotation.
“Without the downturn in performance, he’s probably not available to us in the sandwich round,” Epstein said. “He’s someone who obviously went through a little bit of adversity this year but bounced back and really put things together at the end.
“We saw him early, before he missed time. Significantly, we saw him late,” he added. “He came back and threw a really good outing at the SEC tournament where he really looked healthy, then he pitched out of the bullpen with a plus fastball. He looked healthy again at regionals.”
After having seen Ranaudo pitch with healthy prior to this year, the Sox understood that he has significant potential. He is huge and athletic, giving him the ability (when healthy) to repeat his delivery and attack with a powerful mid-90s fastball, above-average curve and average changeup.
The injury unquestionably affected him for much of the year, but based on their medical evaluations, the Sox felt comfortable using their sandwich pick on him.
“We saw him as a freshman and sophomore and we saw him on the Cape. We saw him early this year and knew what kind of pitcher he was. He came up lame with what they’re calling a stress reaction,” Sawdaye said. “We did a lot of our homework on him and we feel comfortable.”
The team suggested that Ranaudo might pitch in a summer league, something that could give both sides a better gauge of a fair value for his bonus number after this injury-interrupted season.
Epstein said that it remains to be seen how the negotiation might proceed with Ranaudo. Boras and his clients typically engage in a prolonged negotiation process. The Sox are not concerned about that possibility.
“It’s not every day you can sign a player immediately after the draft,” Epstein said. “The good ones are sometimes worth waiting for.”