After being drafted #3 overall by the Cubs in 2007, there were a lot of high expectations for Josh Vitters, a highly regarded high school All-American third baseman out of Cypress High School in Cypress, California.
Scouts raved about his advanced bat, overall approach at the plate, and projectable power. It was rumored that Vitters' eye sight was tested previous to the draft, and his score was higher than any other ball player not named Barry Bonds. But after 55 disappointing plate appearances in rookie ball and lower A ball in 2007, Vitters had a total of just 6 hits, with 14 strike outs and 3 walks. Obviously, it wasn't the start to his career that Vitters and the Cubs had envisioned.
The 2008 season didn't start out much better for Vitters, as he bounced around between extended Spring Training and A ball, hitting just .214 in 14 at-bats. Tendinitis in his left hand forced him to return to extended Spring Training before being moved back to lower A ball, where Vitters has been able to reestablish his swing and crank out a .322 average in 98 plate appearances. Though he is still posting a 16% K%, Vitters has 10 extra base hits, including 2 home runs, and he has posted a 16% BB% rate and a 30% line drive rate in July.
While the sample size is still extremely small, I have a feeling that the Vitters of 2007 and early 2008 is not the same Vitters we'll see rise through the minors over the next few years. He's obviously worked through whatever issues were holding him back, and everyone in the Cubs system continues to rave about his sheer talent and raw ability. Going by just his last 98 plate appearances in low A ball, Vitters projects as a .300+ career hitter with 25-35 home run potential. His closest recent comparable player is Delmon Young, who finished his time in the minors as one of the most highly regarded prospects in several years. However, Vitters is posting a GB% significantly lower than Young posted throughout the minors (Vitters is around 39%, while Young was consistently in the 50% or higher range), suggesting a better swing plane, which could translate into higher line drive rates, and even better power numbers.
Like I said previously, we don't have a lot to work with here, but I really like what I've seen from Vitters over the last 2 months. Any 18 year old that can hit over .300 in A ball (I really don't care that it's low A) and post a slugging percentage over .500 deserves some respect, and Vitters is still improving in almost every facet of his game. At 6'3" and 200 pounds, there's a lot of projection left in his frame, and his splits look very solid (.299/.368/.478 against righties, .450/.476/.650 against lefties), so I'm having a hard time finding anything about Vitters that makes me second guess his recent success. I would like to see a reduction in his K%, but as long as he keeps it around or below 15%, I'm not really worried about it.
If Vitters finishes out the year at the same pace that he has established since June, he'll be a lock for a top 20 spot in the off season prospect rankings, and the Cubs will probably have him on the fast track through their minor league system, with an ETA of 2011. There's always a chance for regression, but I'm going to stick with a positive projection for Vitters.
Early Career Projection: .300 average, 25-30 home runs
Prime Projections: .320, 35 home runs