Cubs' hot prospect keeping his cool
Josh Vitters may be the Cubs' Next Big Thing, but he's playing it cool for now
Josh Vitters has been designated "The Chosen One" within the Chicago Cubs organization.
He's the one who can hit for power as well as average. The one who will replace Aramis Ramirez at third. The one who can help alleviate the pain of so many past first-round draft mistakes. The one who brings hope to Wrigley Field for the next decade and beyond.
None of this shocks Vitters. He's already heard it all. Yet at 19 years old and still only in Class A, he isn't disturbed or frightened by these expectations.
"It's great that people feel that way," said Vitters while getting ready to board a Daytona Cubs bus on Friday. "Hopefully, things will work out, and it will happen in the near future. Hopefully, I can reverse the trend."
Yep, that's Vitters. Always California cool.
"He's great, he's got that laid-back California attitude," said Peoria Chiefs manager Marty Pevey, who Vitters played for until being promoted to Daytona on Wednesday. "The attitude that he has is there's no pressure on him at all. He has a perfect temperament of a major leaguer. He doesn't carry bad at-bats out with him on defense. He doesn't let anything around him affect how he plays.
"I think it's very strange. He doesn't have the emotions of 19-year-old. He has the emotions of a 33-year-old."
He also doesn't hit like a 19-year-old -- or most 33-year-olds.
It's what initially led the Cubs to select Vitters, a third baseman, out of Cypress High School in Anaheim, Calif., with the third overall pick in the 2007 draft. He became their highest pick since taking Mark Prior second overall in 2001. And like Prior, Vitters' ability was too great to pass up. Vitters promised that raw mix of power and average.
At 17 years old, he had little opportunity to show much in the minors after being drafted. At 18 years old, he tormented the Class A Northwest League for a short season as he batted .328 with 38 runs, 37 RBIs and 25 doubles in 61 games.
And now at 19 years old (he turns 20 in August), he has taken it to another level. Given his first crack at a full season in the minors, Vitters, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound right-hander, has been everything the Cubs hoped he would be.
In May, he was scary. He had three hits in five consecutive games. In four of those games, he also homered. In all of May, he hit a franchise-record 12 homers to go along with a .386 average, 27 RBIs and 29 runs.
"He hit the ball hard, that's for sure," Pevey said. "It was amazing. It was amazing watching him. He really swung the bat well. There's one of the stretches you don't say anything to him. It's like when a pitcher has a no-hitter."
Vitters' explanation is simpler.
"I was just feeling really comfortable, just sitting on the ball well and getting good pitches to hit," said Vitters, whose older brother, Christian, plays in the Oakland Athletics' farm system.
Many expected Vitters would be in Peoria, a low Class A team, for all of 2009, but after hitting .316 with 15 home runs and 46 RBIs in 70 games in the Midwest League, the Cubs decided to promote him to high-A Daytona.
"I don't think he had anything else to prove," Baseball America executive editor Jim Callis said. "To hit 15 home runs in the Midwest League, you don't see that kind of power."
"I was actually surprised," Vitters said. "I thought I'd stay in Peoria the whole year. It was definitely a pleasant surprise to get moved up. It's awesome. I've had a lot of fun so far."
For the past two years, Baseball America has listed Vitters as the Cubs' top prospect. It was also part of the selection committee that chose him to play in this year's Futures Game, a collection of United States and world minor league stars. The game is held July 12 in St. Louis, two days before the MLB All-Star Game.
"He's one of the best hitters in the minors," Callis said. "He's the Cubs' top prospect. It was an easy choice."
Offensively, there is no doubt about Vitters. Scouts rave about his all-around hitting ability. What they are less kind about is his defense.
In his 70 games with Peoria, he made 13 errors at third base. In his first four games with Daytona, he committed three more. Pevey swears it's not as bad as it seems, though.
"Any of the defensive stuff that has been said about him, it is not the facts," Pevey said. "Yes, he has defensive work to work on, but it's not from lack of talent. It's from lack of concentration. He needs to pay more concentration on ground balls. He is only 19."
It's his defense and Ramirez's contract, which doesn't end until 2012, that have led many to believe Vitters could still be three years away from playing in Chicago. Callis has a different opinion. If Vitters continues to progress the way he has, Callis could see him up with the Cubs sometime next season.
"You find room for a hitter like that," Callis said.
And what does Vitters think?
"You [have] definitely got to be patient, take it one day at a time, play hard every day and good things will happen," he said.
California cool -- always.