Josh Vitters came to the Cubs with the third overall pick in the 2007 draft as the reward for their dismal 2006 campaign, a highly touted high school third base prospect with an enviable right-handed swing, tremendous raw power, and almost no glove whatsoever. After a year of demolishing both the Northwest and Midwest Leagues (slashing .328/.365/.498 in 61 games at Boise in 2008 and .316/.351/.535 in the first 70 games of 2009), Vitters was promoted to Daytona, where his star began to fade a bit. A .238/.260/.344 line in 50 games suggested that young Mr. Vitters had trouble laying off much of anything, and FSL pitchers obliged him by letting him flail at junk. Vitters would eventually adjust to the FSL, hitting .291/.350/.445 in 28 games of a repeat trip through the league in 2010, but the book was out on Vitters, and he would go on to struggle once more in his first go at Tennessee.
Vitters' struggles at A+ and AA sent the spotlight elsewhere, until his arrival in the hitter-friendly PCL brought with it a resurgence and a bit of new attention. A 2012 season in Des Moines that spanned 110 games and offered not only a .304/.356/.513 line, but also his highest walk rate at any level of pro ball (a paltry 6.6%, but nonetheless…) had people talking about Vitters as something other than a total disappointment. His solid performance earned him a mid-year callup to the majors, where he once again struggled to adjust to more advanced pitching. His 30.3% strikeout rate over 109 PAs had people dismissing Vitters once more as a bust, a flailer with no pitch recognition skills and a Yakety Sax glove at third. He began 2013 looking to rebuild his confidence in AAA and earn another look with the major league club, the hope being that he might continue his pattern of struggling intially at a new level before adjusting and performing well.
Unfortunately, 2013 was something of a lost season for Vitters, who made three different trips to the disabled list and managed only 100 PAs in 28 games. While his performance was very solid when he managed to be on the field for the I-Cubs (.295/.380/.511, with 11 walks for an 11% walk rate, compared to 30 walks in 452 PAs in his first trip through AAA), muscle strains of all sorts plagued him throughout the year, first his lower back, then his rib cage, then finally a hamstring. The good news is that, despite all the injury setbacks, Vitters' game didn't completely implode a la Brett Jackson.
Vitters has come to represent something of a cautionary tale for high draft picks, and how difficult it is to determine pre-draft how a hitter's pitch recognition and plate patience skillsets will develop. Scouts still love his swing; Keith Law was briefly complimentary of it on a recent installment of his Behind the Dish podcast before caveating that his good swing is useless if he can't lay off a ball out of the zone, and on a recent episode of the Fringe Average podcast, Jason Parks mentioned that Vitters was the first prospect he thought was a can't-miss, superstar talent that he was completely wrong about.
Everything with Vitters depends on his ability to make adjustments and differentiate pitches he can drive from junk — an ability he hasn't really shown anywhere as a professional. Though his walk rates have improved as he's gotten both older and more experienced with a particular league, they're still below average, and it's unlikely they'd look any better in an extended major league look.
Vitters' glove at third has proven almost as problematic as his batting eye, a problem the organization will try to remedy by moving him to the outfield this offseason.
Vitters has been in the organization for a long time now, with big highs and lows in his prospect status along the way. He's been around so long and is so familiar that it's easy to forget that he's a year younger than Mike Olt, with better contact abilities and minus a year of complete implosion at the plate. Yes, Vitters' indiscerning pitch recognition will keep him from ever being the superstar he may have seemed upon being drafted, but there still exists the potential for him to become a useful player.
Despite the dismal batting eye, I'd still like to see Vitters get one more chance with the big club if he can start next season relatively healthy. He's shown the ability to adjust and eventually provide solid production at every level he's played, despite initial (and occasionally lengthy) struggles. The Cubs are, in all likelihood, going to be pretty lousy again next season, with nobody currently blocking Vitters in left. It would seem pretty harmless to me to give Vitters a month or two to see if he can become discerning enough to let the solid swing and big power make him a productive player. Odds are he's a Quad-A player in the making, but, personally, I'd like to know for sure.
2013 Cubs Prospect Reviews