After the 2011 season, the Chicago Cubs will have to make a choice: keep third baseman Aramis Ramirez and purchase his club option for $16 million, or let him hit the market and buy the remainder of the contract for $2 million.
Josh Vitters, the Cub’s 2007 first-round draft pick and indisputable No. 1 prospect, might be making that decision a little easier.
In his first bout with full-season baseball in 2009, 19-year-old Vitters paced the low Class A Midwest League, compiling 15 home runs and 46 RBI along with a .316 batting average in 70 games.
His dominant handling of the league’s pitching soon led to a promotion to high Class A Daytona in the Florida State League. He struggled mightily after the call, however, hitting just .238 with three home runs and 20 RBI in 50 games.
In the short-season Arizona Fall League, Vitters has shown signs of recovery; enough signs, in fact, to warrant a selection to the league’s Rising Stars Showcase. Vitters, batting .360 through 12 games, is sixth in the Winter League in batting average.
His power statistics, however, are down; in 50 at-bats, he’s yet to record a home run, but has rapped a triple and three doubles.
According to reports, Vitters will not participate in the Showcase after straining a pectoral muscle in batting practice last Wednesday.
Despite his inconsistency, Vitters stock has risen considerably. When 2010 prospect lists roll out, he’s certain to be among the top 20 (last year he was in the 40’s).
The 19-year-old prodigy still has a lot of developing to do, however.
Scouts love Vitters’ smooth stroke from the right-hand side, but are equally suspicious of his extremely low walk rate.
In 458 at-bats between Peoria and Daytona, Vitters induced a walk just 12 times, or in just 2.5 percent of his plate appearances.
Baseball America asserts that asking Vitters to change his approach “may border on heresy,” but Scouts, Inc. ’s Keith Law maintains that patience has to come in order for Vitters to become a “potential No. 3 hitter who’ll hit plenty of doubles and 25-plus home runs with a high average.”
It appears as though Vitters is content working with his current approach. In a recent Arizona Fall League article , Vitters stated:
"I’m not going up there looking for a walk. If I see a good pitch and I can drive it, I’m going to swing. It’s not a problem at all because I don’t strike out a lot."
Vitters is going to struggle in the higher levels of professional ball until he becomes more selective a hitter.
His collapse in the Florida State League, where pitchers can locate their off-speed offerings better than the Midwest League, was just a glimpse of the growing pains he’s almost certain to experience.
Vitters has amazing hand-eye coordination and has an uncanny ability to put the bat on the ball, drawing comparisons to Howie Kendrick to Vladimir Guerrero to Pablo Sandoval.
But for comparison’s sake, Sandoval, the least selective of the group, still walks about nine percent of the time.
Vitters’ defense was a cause for major concern when he was first drafted. Despite a tremendously strong arm, Vitters has struggled with footwork and agility at all levels.
Through 188 minor league games, he owns a weak .908 fielding percentage bolstered by 42 errors.
Vitters’ fielding percentage jumped from .909 in 2008 to .918 in 2009.
Supporters claim that Vitters’ shoddy play could be a product of the Arizona Fall League’s hard surfaced infields and un-groomed minor league parks.
Still the 19-year-old is diligently working to improve his play , taking extra infield repetitions and readying himself mentally before each play unfolds.
"I’m just trying to work on everything—agility and always being ready at every pitch. I know my hitting will always be there, and these things will help me be better," Vitters said.
Ultimate Zone Ratings aren’t available for Vitters currently, but one has to suspect he’d be close to the worst everyday starter in the minor leagues.
Aramis Ramirez isn’t a Gold Glove caliber third baseman either, but his tremendous offensive value offsets his career negative-9.9 UZR.
As it stands right now, Josh Vitters is nowhere close to a call-up. With three more years of development, he could be close.
That’s an $11.5 million decision the Chicago Cubs will have to make in 2012.