Josh Vitters: When Will He Reach Wrigley Field?

Tab BamfordSenior Writer IMay 27, 2009

Peoria's got something cooking that might look nice at Wrigley some time soon.

The Chiefs have a young, not-yet 20-year-old kid at third base that was named the Midwest League Offensive Player of the Week last week and his knocking the cover off the ball.

Josh Vitters, the Cubs' top draft pick in 2007, is dominating Double-A ball right now, living up to his billing as the top prospect in the Cubs' organization.

Through just 40 games (entering Tuesday), Vitters has 10 home runs and 27 runs batted in.  He's hitting a robust .355 with an on-base percentage of .381 and a slugging percentage of .612 as well.

Vitters has shown great development as he's climbed through the Cubs' system over the past year-plus, making better contact this season and scoring more runs.

The only issue facing the youngster is how, and when, will he get a chance to play third base at Wrigley Field?

The Cubs have a miserable history at third base, with a quality gap spanning nearly 30 years between Ron Santo and Aramis Ramirez.

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Since Ramirez was stolen, I mean acquired from Pittsburgh at the trade deadline in 2003, there hasn't been a question about who should be the man on the hot corner on Chicago's North Side.

In November 2006, Ramirez received a well-earned contract extension that could keep him a Cub until the end of the 2012 season.

The deal has a full no-trade clause until the end of 2010, at which point he has a player's option worth $14.6 million for 2011. The team has a club option worth $16 million to bring Ramirez back for 2012.

If both of those clauses are exercised, it would be 2013 before third base became available for Vitters to take over. At that point, he would still be just 23 years old.

But, in this age of contract renegotiating and agent-driven playing time mandates, the multi-million question is whether or not the Cubs can, or will, keep Vitters in Peoria (or Iowa) for four more years.

One intriguing possibility is moving Vitters to first base. At 6 feet 3 inches tall and over 200 pounds, Vitters has the size to play first. He has, however, had defensive issues at third base; he has already committed eight errors this season.

Perhaps a move to first base would give the sweet-swinging Vitters a position he could grow into over the next season. Derrek Lee will be 34 years old in September and Micah Hoffpauir turned 29 in March, and neither is signed after the 2010 season.

The only consistency from Lee over the past three years has been the decline in his offense and Gold Glove-caliber defense at first.

Meanwhile, Hoffpauir has replaced the backup quarterback as the most popular athlete in town. But the reality is that he's been a career minor leaguer who hits the ball a mile, but strikes out as much as anyone.

With Lee batting barely over .200 and spending more time with a new excuse for another non-injury (this week it's the flu) than he is on the field being productive.

There is likely little trade value for him in the condition he is now, especially with his back hurting from carrying $13 million around the training room.

Lee's contract runs out after next year, making his contract the most attractive part of him on the trade market. He's an undeniable leader in the clubhouse, which means Cubs' GM Jim Hendry should have no trouble parting ways with him, either.

After all, he accepted a handful of mid-level prospects for Mark DeRosa before the final year of his contract and he was loved by the fans and his teammates.

Heaven forbid Hendry kept a player around who could produce or was respected.

But enough of the referendum on Hendry's inability to appropriately choose which players to keep.

There is a great opportunity for Vitters to make a move across the diamond to first base and grow into the position for a year while either Hoffpauir or Jake Fox holds down the position for a year.

While the defense from any of the three won't be as nearly-flawless as Lee's is, at least the ball will leave the park a few times a month.

Whether it's at third base or first, or anywhere else, Vitters is a name that should be contributing at Wrigley Field for a decade starting in the next few seasons.

There's always a but, though...

When the Cubs were speaking with the San Diego Padres about acquiring Jake Peavy in February and March, the leading name in every scenario was Vitters.

With other top minor league players like Fox, Scales and others being older, there is no question that the most marketable position player for a trade in the entire organization is Vitters.

The decision will come down to how, or if, Hendry wants to develop the Cubs moving forward. Vitters has star potential and is a top tier prospect in all of baseball.

But the Cubs have a history littered with those same credentials, especially at third base (Gary Scott, Kevin Orie).

Hopefully Vitters continues to hit well and works his way through the minors for the Cubs. I would like to see him make the move to first base to give the Cubs a legitimate option to replace Lee at first after 2010 (or before).