Name: Kellen Kulbacki
DOB: November 22, 1985
A supplemental first-round pick in 2007, Kulbacki was sent to short-season Eugene to begin his professional career.
After a slow start, the outfielder poured it on, ending the year with a .301 average across 61 games. He tagged 24 extra base hits, including eight homers, while driving in 29. Kulbacki also drew 27 walks compared to 56 strikeouts for a .382 on-base percentage.
The 2008 season began late for the outfielder, as a hamstring strain in spring training limited his availability.
He was sent to Fort Wayne where he hit .164 with two homers through 18 games. He had nine walks compared to 19 strikeouts for a .260 on-base percentage. Despite going hitless in his final 14 at-bats, the outfielder was moved up to High-A Lake Elsinore.
“I think it is just a slow start,” Padres director of minor league operations Mike Wickham said. “There aren’t a lot of mechanical changes to make that happen. We have done some minor things with him.
“A small sample size, he is probably just a slow starter. What he did in Lake Elsinore when he got there – we ended up moving him out of need. We didn’t promote him out of merit. We asked who could handle this the best and sent Kulbacki there. We did have the conversation internally, ‘Can we promote this guy right now?’”
Things didn’t go much better during the month of May with the Storm. Across 22 games, Kulbacki hit .221 with one homer, although he did walk as many times as he struck out (14).
“He hurt his leg early in camp, which cost him most of his spring,” former Padres vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson said. “When he was ready to come back, there really wasn’t any type of spring training we could send him too where he could get some uncompetitive at-bats so we sent him to Fort Wayne. As you know, he didn’t really light up the world there. We had some injuries and after a while he caught fire in Lake Elsinore. He had a really good year but most of those numbers were from mid-June on.”
From there, Kulbacki turned on the jets and never cooled. He hit .364 the rest of the way, clubbing 19 homers over his final 62 contests.
A should injury limited him to nine games during the month of August and he subsequently underwent surgery this offseason to his non-throwing shoulder.
The James Madison alumnus ended the year hitting .332 in the California League. Across 84 games he notched 38 extra base hits, including 20 bombs, while scoring 62 runs and driving in 66. The slugger also drew 47 walks compared to 52 strikeouts for a .428 on-base percentage. His 22 homers tied him for first overall in the system.
“It was probably one of the best performances in the minor leagues,” Wickham said. “He hit 19 homers in 54 games. He would have been the MVP of the league if he didn’t have the shoulder issue. And he would have won the batting title but didn’t have enough ABs.”
Kulbacki hit .356 with runners in scoring position and the left-handed hitter batted .382 off southpaws while hitting .316 off righties.
The outfielder would have ranked first in slugging percentage and second in the league in hitting and on-base percentage had he qualified but managed to rank fifth in homers.
Kulbacki was first in the league with a .439 wOBA (weighted On Base Average) among all hitters with 300 or more at-bats and ranked third in wRAA (weighted Runs Above Average based off wOBA) at 30.7. His .257 ISO (Isolated Power) was also third in the circuit while his 1.017 OPS paced the league.
The shoulder injury caused him to have another slow start in 2009, missing the first month while still in recovery mode. Sapped of his natural strength, Kulbacki never seemed comfortable in the box. And his season ended abruptly when he suffered a torn hamstring, tearing the muscle away from the bone.
"I’m not sure if he was lazy or he was hurt," former San Antonio and current Portland hitting coach Orv Franchuck said. "I think he was hurt. His whole day had to be more structured for me. Some days he’d get to the park early and did his little routine, and some days he wouldn’t get there till five minutes before stretch. Priorities weren’t real good. Again, when you’re hurt, all that stuff is affected by that.
"I can’t give you a real good evaluation other than when he takes batting practice he can put on a show. The way the ball comes of his bat is real special. He runs good enough, he throws good enough; he’s got all the tools.
If anyone had said that Kulbacki would have failed to hit a home run and net just six extra base hits in 134 at-bats, however, many would have laughed at the suggestion. This is how it played out, as the outfielder batted .201 in San Antonio with just 11 RBI in 36 games. He struck out 23 times compared to nine walks for a .257 on-base percentage. The only thing he did do well was hit .283 with runners in scoring position for the Missions.
“I think there was something still in there, he probably wasn’t 100 percent,” Fuson said. “We really didn’t get him that many at-bats and we lost a whole year of development. This fall we still weren’t able to get him going with his hamstring, you know it was detached from the bone when he injured it in San Antonio.”
“It has been a long process,” Kulbacki said. “I rested for a while and then had a setback. An MRI confirmed it was torn and it has been nothing but rest and rehab since.”
When healthy, the California League postseason All-Star in 2008 has immense power potential from a line drive swing. The ball simply sounds different coming off his bat, as he puts the barrel of the stick to the ball to make consistent hard contact. Because of his approach, the ball is hit with backspin and travels farther. He also has the ability to create loft to send balls flying out of any part of the park.
Kulbacki uses all parts of the field as his playground. Where he seemed to miss good fastballs on the inner half in his first year, Kulbacki was able to stay inside the ball in year two and hammer those pitches to right field. He also goes with the pitches thrown on the outside corner.
An excellent batting eye allows him to let balls travel deep, aiding in pitch recognition. His hands are in a relaxed state and close to his head, giving him a compact stroke that can reach any ball.
Defensively, Kulbacki struggled early in the year with bad routes and a slow first-step. He improved through the year in his reads and the improvement coincided with his offensive production going up. He has a solid arm that can make all the throws and is accurate as well.
Conclusion: Kulbacki must overcome the slow starts that have plagued his career to date. Three years in a row is a pattern. While he has been able to get on a roll in the second half, he can’t believe that will happen every year and a fast start will be critical to his prospect status, especially as more outfielders begin to nip at his heels. A healthy season would also be a welcome sight, as Kulbacki has been injured in each of the past two seasons and needs to put together a full year of at-bats to gain experience and further refine his game. He has the tools and the moxie but must perform. There are fewer mulligans available these days. A poor showing in 2010 could drop him significantly in prospect status.
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