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February 20, 2013 at 6:45 AM

2013 Prospect Previews: Jeremy Hazelbaker and Kolbrin Vitek

Jeremy Hazelbaker

Position: Outfield
2012 Teams: Portland Sea Dogs/Pawtucket Red Sox
2013 Projected Team: Pawtucket Red Sox
Opening Day Age: 25

Strengths: Possessing strong, quick wrists, the left-handed hitting outfielder generates solid-average bat speed to the point of contact, with strong post contact extension. Hazelbaker is adept at dropping the head of the bat on offerings middle-to-in, creating leverage in his swing to drive balls with back spin and lift. He can drive pitches hard into both gaps when keeping his weight transfer consistent. Over his minor league career, Hazelbaker has improved his patience at the plate, along with his strike management skills; evolving from a free swinger in the early career to a hitter who will work counts. Despite filling out as he’s matured into the mid-twenties, Hazelbaker has been able to maintain both his athleticism and plus-plus speed. The latter being a key aspect of his game. The 25-year-old reads opposing pitchers very well when gauging base stealing opportunities, often getting excellent jumps, and continues to project as being able to impact the game on the base paths at the big league level.

Development Needs: While the outfielder has made progress settling down in the batter’s box over the years, his pitch recognition grades as fringe-average. Hazelbaker has trouble picking up the spin of sharper breaking balls, often over-committing his weight to his front foot, causing his hands to come too far forward in the process. This is compounded by the fact that his swing is designed to get the head of the bat out in front of the ball. Hazelbaker is inconsistent hitting the ball to the opposite field and doesn’t handle offerings on the outer-third well. There are holes in the swing, which leads to weak contact, along with too many swing-and-misses. The hit tool projects as below-to-fringe-average. Despite the exceptional speed, Hazelbaker doesn’t read balls well off the bat when playing center field. His defense is limited to a corner outfield slot, putting greater emphasis on the projection of the bat. Given the questions and where he is within the development track, the ceiling is that of a bench outfielder.

2013 Outlook: Hazelbaker is slated to begin the season in Triple-A, where he’ll be in competition for everyday at-bats and likely part of a rotation in the early season as the organization’s outfield depth shakes out in the upper levels. The main goal will be to show that he can adjust to the advanced pitching of the International League. Progress identifying secondary offerings will go a long way towards accomplishing this goal. Spring training and the beginning of the season stand as a strong proving ground for the outfielder. Competition typically brings out the best in players, while also serving as a means of weeding out the field. If Hazelbaker can gain some traction and take advantage of his playing time, the opportunity is there to carve out regular time. I see value with the skill set as a potential bench player or call-up to fill in on an injury basis. However, these options presently appear limited within the organization given his standing on the depth chart and Hazelbaker may ultimately find himself moved in 2013, where a better opportunity with another organization may present itself.

Position: Third base
2012 Team: Portland Sea Dogs
2013 Projected Team: Portland Sea Dogs
Opening Day Age: 24

Strengths: Vitek’s main asset offensively is his hit tool. When going right, the third baseman has an easy swing, highlighted by loose hands and a quick trigger. Vitek can barrel offerings up from foul line to foul line, while also showing the type of bat control to put a lot of balls in play. His inside-out swing enables him to stay on pitches longer and let them get deep into the strike zone before clearing them out. Vitek also demonstrates the ability to turn around high velocity fastballs. While the present power plays as below-average in game action, there is some raw power that he can learn to tap into. The right-handed hitter produces solid back spin when he squares pitches up, capable of hitting hard line drives into both gaps when staying back on the ball. Vitek has been a tireless worker since signing with the organization. His dedication to improving his craft has been noticeable, often taking extra batting practice or infield practice throughout the season.

Development Needs: Vitek doesn’t get much lift out of his swing or produce a high amount of leverage. He has yet to figure out how to drive the ball with much carry in game action. While there can be improvement with this area, there isn’t much power projection in his game. He also tends to get his hands too far out in front of his stride, lacking separation as he begins the swing. The ability to drive offerings, especially mistakes, has been lacking during his minor league career. Vitek lost time to injury in 2012, but the progression of the hit tool showed to be hitting a plateau in scouting looks at Double-A. He often looked impatient during plate appearances, chasing both elevated fastballs and breaking balls outside of the strike zone frequently. There wasn’t much of a plan at the plate. Higher quality arms were able to get him out with relative ease. Defensively, despite the work and effort, Vitek has never looked comfortable at third base. His footwork is typically choppy, while lacking the overall smoothness and look of a player who can handle the position at the big league level.

2013 Outlook: Vitek is likely to return to Double-A to start the season, with an eye on proving he can stay healthy and that his offensive skills can make progress in the upper minors. The experience of last season can serve as a building block for the former first-round draft pick. The ability to adjust to the level in the early going and show some progression during scouting opportunities will be a telling sign. If the hit tool continues to lag, Vitek isn’t going to gain much traction. Much of his potential at the major league level rests within his ability to hit. There’s overall talent, but the translation into game action hasn’t come with any consistency. 2013 is a year for the soon-to-be 24-year-old to make a push given the talent coming up behind him within the ranks. Development takes time, but the time is now for Vitek to show he hasn’t stalled at Double-A.

Photo Credits: Kolbrin Vitek by Dave Letizi; Jeremy Hazelbaker by drivfan08

Chris Mellen is Director of Scouting for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisMellen