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.
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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.