Opportunity May Knock for Cubs’ Josh Vitters

Since being drafted third overall in the 2007 draft, few prospects have developed in more disappointing fashion than Chicago Cubs third base prospect Josh Vitters. Once considered an elite player with baseball skills including 70 power and hit tools, Vitters has stumbled to a .277/.319/.439 triple slash line across five minor league seasons. Due to these struggles, Vitters’ status as a prospect has slipped as 2011 was the first where he failed to make the Baseball America top-100.

However, 2011 also saw Vitters post his best numbers since the 2009 season in the Southern League at 21. With a .283/.322/.448 line, he has at least placed himself in a position to compete for the Cubs third base job now that Aramis Ramirez is a free agent and extremely unlikely to return to Chicago. For Vitters, the stars seem to be aligning perfectly as the Theo Epstein era, combined with his being placed on the 40-man roster equals a fresh start in an organization where the term “bust” had already been thrown around pretty liberally.

Video after the jump

In game action, Vitters was surprisingly similar to his stat line as he presented as a good, but not great prospect. For every skill he impressed with, another was equally troubling and difficult to project long term. On one swing, I’d squint and see glimpse of a young David Wright. On another, it was difficult to see a big leaguer at all. Vitters development has been perplexing and I now better understand why reports vary so wildly after scouting him in person.

On the positive side, I was impressed with the way Vitters threw his hands. This created bat speed through the zone on par with the better prospects I’ve scouted. In theory, this would allow him to project for more power down the road once his body finishes filling out. He’s never going to be a hulking presence at the hot corner, but could add an additional 15-20 pounds and still be well proportioned. Vitters also has an excellent feel for contact with his bat head and should continue to maintain relatively healthy strikeout rates going forward. In game action, he did swing-and-miss a couple of times, but Vitters was always under control and never appeared to be swinging at anything close to max effort.

However, lack of “oomph” in his swing was also apparent as I was left wondering what role, if any, his lower half played in generating power? With Vitters previous quotes regarding a general lack of interest in refining his plate discipline, would he be open to allowing a hitting coach to help him tap into the raw power present at the time of his being drafted? Additionally, even though Vitters hands were lightning quick with excellent bat head speed, a bit of drag was noticeable in the back of his swing causing him to inside-out a few pitches and not attack inside fastballs with authority.

For Josh Vitters, it’s as if Savannah, Georgia native Johnny Mercer wrote “Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive” as a constant reminder of what’s needed for him to reach Chicago for good from an offensive standpoint.

On defense, Vitters struggled mightily mishandling two softly hit balls his way including a bunt which caught him completely out of position. After seeing him briefly in person, I’m not sure if Vitters has the defensive tools to stick at third, but can guarantee that the lack of awareness he displayed will do nothing but hurt his chances. In some ways, that is the overarching storyline of the prospect that is Josh Vitters. When at the mention of Vitters’ name, a scouting contact’s first reaction having never seen him is, “I heard he was a lackadaisical player”, I have no choice but to say “yikes”.

If FanGraphs had a statistic for the most vacant position based on an organization’s ability to fill the void internally at the triple-A or big league level, the Cubs third base position might top that list. Josh Vitters has essentially been served this opportunity on a platter, but now it’s his turn to rise to the challenge. Yes, that did sound unbelievably corny, but it’s also completely true. If the combination of a new regime, addition to the 40-man and his being the de facto heir to the third base position doesn’t cause Vitters to scream “Carpe Diem” from atop the Wrigley rooftops, I don’t know what will.

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Mike Newman is the Owner/Managing Editor ofROTOscouting, a subscription site focused on baseball scouting, baseball prospects and fantasy baseball. Follow me onTwitter. Likeus on Facebook.Subscribeto my YouTube Channel.

18 Responses to “Opportunity May Knock for Cubs’ Josh Vitters”

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  1. Chris says:

    What would it take for the Cubs to get Justin Smoak from the Mariners?

    I’m hoping Smoak’s struggles were tied to the blister issues he had last year (may need to talk to Moises Alou about how to “prevent” blisters).

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  2. Ben says:

    Watching the video, I can definitely see the David Wright comparison from some of his swings. One thing I notice is his back elbow. He keeps it up. I don’t play anymore, but when I was in high school it seemed like the trend was moving toward having that back elbow collapsed to begin the swing. When you have the elbow up like he does, the first motion has to include collapsing the back elbow, which, in my opinion, leads to more inconsistency in the motion. He definitely has a nice, easy swing. Trying out some different mechanics with his swing could possibly help him get closer to the potential people saw in him in the past.

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  3. Jack Nugent says:

    With an approach like his, I’d peg Vitters’ odds of succeeding in the big leagues next year at ~1%. You didn’t exactly go out on a limb and say the Cubs’ oughta give him the job at 3B, but in chats I know you’ve suggested that could work, which I have to disagree with. I understand it’s a matter of projection with him, but results matter too, and Vitter’s production gives no indication whatsoever he’s even close to big league ready.

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    • Mike Newman says:


      I think you may have fallen into trying to read between the lines of what I’ve written about Vitters instead of just taking it at face value.

      The Cubs third base situation is a disaster. The organization needs to rebuild and isn’t a contender in 2012. What downside is there to throwing Vitters out and letting him play? I personally don’t see any now that his prospect star has dimmed.

      Even more, putting him in a big league clubhouse with a guy like Marlon Byrd who was a top prospect-turned bust-turned revitalized big leaguer might actually be fantastic for Vitters development.

      Not once have I stated that Vitters play has earned him the opportunity. If anything, I think I’ve been pretty clear in writing just the opposite. However, the opportunity is present and Vitters was formally drafted in the top-3 overall for a reason.

      When it comes to prospects, I won’t often go out on a limb unless I either love, or really don’t like the prospect at all. The scouting I do is to paint an accurate portrayal of what type of player a prospect is and projects to be. If the piece led you to think I didn’t have a strong opinion either way, then I did my job.

      In scouting, it’s never really black & white and reading extremely strong opinions from a prospect writer leaves me with more concerns than confidence in his or her writing.

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      • Jack Nugent says:

        To answer your question, I think the downside to throwing vitters into the fire is the potential to stunt his development. I’m not saying there’s no way he turns into a good player. I just think it’s sorta wishful thinking to believe he can even hold his own in the big leagues next year.

        I don’t necessarily disagree with all of your points. Like, for instance, the possibility he might benefit from a positive clubhouse influence. I’m not saying your argument is way off the mark, I just disagree with the idea he could possibly hold his own in the majors next year.

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      • Mike Newman says:

        Jack, I completely see your points. Truth is keeping Vitters in the minors might hurt his development even more than pushing him. For a prospect guy who prefers prospects ripen on the vine a little longer than most, I don’t say that very often.

        In Vitters’ case, I don’t know if he ever learns that his lack of discipline and perceived lack of motor won’t play at the game’s highest level unless he experiences it.

        Sometimes a guy with too much confidence in his own ability needs to crash and burn to come down a rung. My gut tells me Vitters would benefit by baptism by fire.

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  4. Chuck N Chino says:

    I have watched Vitters for years now. He tends to do “better” after repeating a level. Put him in AAA this year, see how he does, but be prepared to place him back the following year — dont rush the kid. Sadly, he will never be as good a player as initially thought, imo.

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    • Mike Newman says:

      Two more years in Triple-A means 6 1/2 years in the minor leagues before he plays a big league game. For an IFA, I can see it, but his 40-man clock will start ticking. Two more years means he will be up in 2014 when he’s already accumulated two full years of 40-man time. I just don’t see that happening.

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  5. subtle says:

    Vitters does have a great swing for a right hander. It’s something that scouts have said for years. Putting the elbow up creates bat wrap which, in theory, creates more leverage for snapping the bat through the zone. It’s something you see virtually every major league power hitter do. Major league caliber hitters have a lot more strength to get to the bat to the ball that high school players don’t necessarily have. This is why, I think, it makes more sense to tell a young baseball player to forget about generating power and to just try to get the bat into the hitting zone as quickly as possible. Bat wrap isn’t wrong if it’s used correctly by a hitter who can get the bat to the ball.

    It’s just like opening the hips. You wouldn’t tell a young hitter to open up their hips to generate power because it’s a situational thing that can create bad habits. If you have a kid with a frame that can generate power, you can teach them to open up their hips on certain pitches to generate more power. It’s all dependent on the hitter and their maturity.

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  6. Paul says:

    I don’t think he’s any more than an average regular at his peak, but I don’t see any reason why he couldn’t compete for that job. He reminds me a lot of Billy Butler. For both of them I think it’s just a matter of ABs, not necessarily level. I don’t think the normal development scenario plays for him because the bat is so advanced.

    Mechanics and raw hitting ability just needs to be separated from approach sometimes. They have what they have, and the only option here for the Cubs is to sell low on him recognizing that even if he cleaned up his approach, with the mechanics he’s a 12-15 HR guy until at least his FA year, OR plug him in there and hope that maturity sets in at some point and he at least sees how much of a difference a better approach will make at that level. I just don’t see how a guy with that kind of bat benefits from more minor league time, when I suspect the “lazy” tag comes from him knowing that he already has a MLB bat and just doesn’t need to see more mediocre pitching.

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    • Mike Newman says:

      Paul, you make good points. If’s he’s already on the 40-man with the clock already ticking…. When a number of big league third baseman are contributing <2 WAR and making 10+ million per year, rolling the dice on a minimum salaried kid over signing a “grizzled” vet makes sense when the Cubs aren’t going anywhere.

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  7. brent says:

    Great analysis and smart commentary from the readers. THIS is why I love Fangraphs. Thank you all.

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  8. Jack says:

    Rudy Jaramillo is going to regain his reputation with Vitters. He’s exactly the kind of hitter Rudy should have success with, and I’d really like to see Vitters get a shot at 3B next year.

    Rudy Jaramillo likes contact. Josh Vitters makes alot of contact. Rudy Jaramillo has/had a reputation for teaching hitters who can make alot of contact easily to make that contact on strikes that can go far and hard the other way. Vitters probably could use a coach.

    That said, I think he ends up in AAA to start the season. He’ll kick ass and take names.

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  9. MM says:

    Is there much of a precedent for guys who appear to be uber talented, put up so-so minor league numbers, and then actually do better in the bigs?

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  10. LuckyStrikes says:

    Would be nice to see a follow up on this now almost one year later. Vitters is having a strong season in AAA, increasing his walk rate and ISO. Would he rise back into the Cubs Top 10 prospects? Could he be a league average hitter as early as 2013? Have scouts changed their opinion now with another nearly full season under his belt? Most importantly, is he making adjustments?

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