It's the middle October, which means fans of the Chicago Cubs have followed their annual calendar and started investing their time in football and hockey about three weeks ago. But this year, there's some baseball of interest being played.
The Arizona Fall League is under way, and Cubs fans should at least check in to see how the "future" of the franchise is doing. Third base prospect Josh Vitters, regarded by many as the jewel of the Cubs' system, is playing for the Mesa Solar Sox.
It's hard to get excited about Vitters right now for many Cubs fans for a couple reasons. First, Aramis Ramirez is one of the better offensive third basemen in baseball, and is still under contract.
The other is an age issue. I'm certainly not discriminating, but when you walk into your local beverage depot, the sign behind the counter that says "If you weren't born in ____, you can't buy yet" indicates that Vitters needs older friends to party. Born in August of 1989, Vitters is still only 20 and has a lot of growing up to do.
But that doesn't change the reality that he's the best player in the Cubs organization, and is getting a chance to play some extra baseball in a mixed league with other top prospects this year. How he plays in this league could provide a strong indication of how far away from Wrigley Field he is at such a young age.
Vitters had a nice season this year in Peoria, hitting .316 with 15 home runs and 44 runs batted in during only 70 games with the Chiefs. While his maturation on the field might need some time, he's already standing six feet three inches tall and weighs in at around 200 pounds; this is a big kid who can hit the baseball.
The Fall League has only played two games so far, but Vitters is red hot out of the gates. He's batting .625 with a double already.
A deeper look at reasons to care about Vitters this year have some weight on the 2010 roster. Ramirez, coming off a shoulder injury in 2009, is under contract for just one more season; he has a player option for 2010 that would pay him $14.6 million.
Let's frame that option within two separate contexts.
First, the Cubs' roster in 2011 could very easily look globally different around Ramirez than it does now. Derrek Lee's contract expires after 2010, and there's no guarantee that Jim Hendry or whomever is the General Manager at that point will bring him back. Lee will turn 35 in September next year, which generally indicates that his best baseball would be behind him.
If Lee and Ted Lilly are not retained, the Cubs would need to either spend more money on free agent replacements or commit to a rebuilding movement. Considering Ramirez will be 32 years old next June, I'm not sure he wants to continue his prime being protected by Jake Fox and Alfonso Soriano.
The second consideration that needs to be made about Ramirez and his player option is financial. The roughly $15 million he would make in 2011 would put him among the three highest paid third basemen in the game, but might not be as high as Ramirez might be able to get on a weak free agent market.
With young studs like Evan Longoria and David Wright getting locked up quickly by their teams, the willingness for teams looking for a quality veteran at the hot corner to spend big money on has become greater. Ask Scott Rolen, who's making $11 million next year and is well beyond his best baseball.
If the Cubs new ownership decides to commit to a youth movement, and Ramirez doesn't pick up his player option, Vitters could be the man at third for the Cubs as early as 2011. My guess is that Ramirez will stay for the money, and 2012 is probably more appropriate for Vitters' ascension to reach Chicago.
But either way, this kid has the talent to make an impact on the Cubs roster at some point in the future and, if you need your baseball fix, Vitters is worth watching for the next couple weeks.