Prospect of the Day: Josh Vitters, 3B, Chicago Cubs
It seems like Chicago Cubs prospect has been around forever. Surely, he's 28 years old by now. In reality, Vitters is still just 22 and doesn't turn 23 for another month. He's having a good year for the Triple-A Iowa Cubs, and has done a lot to revive his prospect status. The question is: by how much has his status improved?
Drafted in the first round in 2007, third overall, Vitters was supposed to be one of the best, if not THE best, high school hitting prospects in the draft class, capable of hitting for both power and average with a swing consistently described by scouts as "sweet." While he did hit for average in the low minors (.328 for Boise in 2008, .316 for Peoria in 2009), he was extremely impatient and didn't tap into his raw power consistently. A good sign was that he kept his strikeout rate under control, but his walk rate was miniscule and he was quite streaky.
The Cubs promoted him aggressively anyway, and he would usually struggle when exposed to a new level for the first time. The Cubs backed off the "rush him" philosophy and he finally spent a full year at one level in 2011, hitting .283/.322/.448 with 28 doubles, 14 homers, but just 22 walks in 449 at-bats for Double-A Tennessee.
Moved up to Triple-A Iowa for 2012, he's hitting .303/.356/.510 with 31 doubles, 15 homers, 28 walks, and 71 strikeouts in 386 at-bats. He's been particularly devastating against left-handed pitching, hitting .336/.383/.634 against southpaws. He's well on his way to setting career-best marks in most categories.
So, how much of this is real and how much is Pacific Coast League statistical illusion? He's riding a higher BABIP this year, .338 compared to .290 last season, which is part of the difference. His walk rate is up considerably, 6.7% of plate appearances compared to 4.5% last year. However, his strikeout rate is up as well, moving from 11.1% to 16.9%, granted that's still a good strikeout rate for a guy with some power.
In league-context terms, Vitters has a +11 percent OPS compared to the rest of the Pacific Coast League. That's not bad but it isn't terrific either, especially for a corner player, although it does represent improvement compared to 2011, when he posted a +4 percent mark in Double-A. It is much better than the -7 percent mark he posted in '10, so the trend lines for his production are certainly up.
Scouting-wise, PCL observers provide information that matches what the numbers imply: he's more patient this year, still aggressive but not quite so impatient as he was earlier in his career. I've seen him in person twice this year, and both times he looked very much like the hitter I've seen in the past: he has a very quick, technically-sound swing. To the naked eye the swing still looks quite level, but the ball "jumps" off it more readily, and he seems to be hitting the ball in the air more often. I haven't dug into exact numbers to back up that observation/impression scientifically, although he is hitting into fewer double plays this season. He definitely did a better job laying off pitches outside the strike zone in the games I saw.
In any event, the point is that his overall production has improved, and he looks better under visual observation as well. I think his progress with the bat is mostly real.
On the other hand, there are still problems on defense. He has a good throwing arm, but his range at third base is below average, his hands aren't soft, and he's still not reliable in terms of avoiding errors. He's not quite a butcher, but his glove is not a positive asset at third. I suspect he fits better at first base in the long run, but the Cubs are set at that position with Anthony Rizzo. Although his arm would work in right field, I don't think Vitters runs well enough to be more than a mediocre defensive outfielder.
I had given Vitters a rating downgrade pre-season, giving him a C+ grade and kicking him out of the Cubs Top 10 prospects, though I still had him at #11. Although his game still has flaws, I think he's made enough progress to move his grade back up to B-. Depending on what happens in August, and what the final scouting reports (especially about his defense) indicate, he could end up a notch higher at Grade B. Either way, his stock is back up, and he will be in the Cubs Top 10 again for 2013.