Prologue: Apparently Josh tweaked his knee last night. Apparently the manager isn't worried. Apparently I am a jinx machine. I hate myself. OK you can read this now.
A while back on this site I blogged about how Matt Szczur was the story of the Cubs' minor league system -- not because he's a better prospect than Javy Baez, but because he could very well be a major league contributor when it's all said and done, despite his being well outside every top 15 Cubs prospect list I read this past offseason.
The point is, the Cubs have both impact talent and depth in the minors. Guys that rank in the 30s within their own system could be Top 10ers elsewhere, and have substantial big league potential.
Take Josh Vitters, for example. On Twitter, @Aisle424 -- an absolute must-follow, and a member of that wave of curmudgeonly Cubs bloggers that also includes @TheUncouthSloth and @desipiodotcom -- has pretty much given up on the former first-round pick. And I don't blame him: Vitters was absolutely overwhelmed in his first 109 major league plate appearances, striking out 33 times and nabbing just 12 hits...
...but, come on now. We don't honestly care about 109 plate appearances, do we? Instead, look at the facts.
1. Drafted out of high school, Vitters has always been able to put up decent, if not quite good, batting numbers despite his very young age. As a 20 year old, Josh hit .291/.350/.445 at High-A ball. Today there are only two hitters in their 20 year old seasons on the Daytona roster: Jeimer Candelario, and Albert Almora.
The next year, Josh hit .283/.322/.448 at AA as a 21 year old. Between AA and AAA, the Cubs currently have one hitting prospect under the age of 22, and that is Javier Baez.
2. Vitters hasn't had much chance to prove himself at MLB due mainly to injury, but he has performed when healthy at AAA. Over three years -- as a 22, 23, and 24 year old -- Vitters has hit .304/.361/.518 at the Triple A level.
For context, consider that, last year, Arizona mega-prospect Chris Owings put up 263 total bases over 575 plate appearances, leading the PCL by that measure. Vitters has 269 total bases in 568 plate appearances at AAA.
3. Vitters' main challenge is in his glove. There's no longer any room in the Iowa infield, so Josh is playing out in left now -- and to convince a team you deserve a spot in left field, you've really got to be able to mash. (Or play super duper defense, Junior Lake.)
Fortunately for Josh, he can mash -- particularly against left-handed pitching. While his overall OPS at AAA may look a bit timid (.879), his numbers against lefties have been jaw-dropping for years now.
In 2012, Vitters' age 22 season, Josh put up a 1.002 OPS against LHP in AAA. He hit .331/.377/.625 over 146 PAs, knocking 17 doubles, a triple, and 7 home runs -- 25 extra base hits in 146 trips to the plate.
Injuries limited Josh's 2013 campaign, but in the 31 PAs he did get against lefties, Vitters hit .387, with three doubles and two homers.
Am I saying Josh Vitters is a sure bet? No. Am I saying I regret not buying his shirsey? No. Am I saying he ought to be considered a top 25 prospect on this team? No.
But I still see something in the bat. The defensive issues are a real problem; he's gonna have to really, really hit to stay up in the majors if he gets another chance. But I do believe he's going to get another chance, and I do believe he has the potential to really, really hit, for both average and a touch of power.
It's easy to say "this year is a really big year for Prospect X," but it really truly is the case for Josh. He needs to show that he can hit lefties AND righties -- and I mean really hit them -- for several months in a row. Perhaps the athleticism that allowed him to play passable defense at third base will make him a plus guy out in left, although he doesn't really have wheels. We'll see, I suppose. (So far so good: 6-for-16 with 2 doubles and a homer through 4 games.)
And one more thing: do any of you like Ryan Kalish? Would you say you were glad to see the Cubs pick up a guy who was an early-round draft pick, had hit all throughout the minors, but had his career sidetracked by injuries?
No, Vitters doesn't have Kalish's speed, but he is still two years younger. And while neither player may turn into a superstar, in today's game you need 25 players that are each really good at at least a few things in order to win a bunch of games. Where Kalish could hit right-handed pitching and play all over the outfield, Vitters could provide a useful right-handed bat to sub in at the infield and outfield corners, perhaps as soon as June 1.
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