Josh Vitters entered the 2007 Draft as one of the best bats in the class. Matt Wieters was considered the best college bat in the country and scouts debated whether Mike Moustakas or Josh Vitters was the best high school bat. Some scouts even said Vitters had the best bat in the draft. David Price would be selected 1st and Mike Moustakas next. Then the Cubs picked and took Josh Vitters. Wieters fell to 5th because of contract demands. The Cubs would sign Vitters for $3.2 million.
Moustakas made his big league debut last year and Vitters is waiting for a call-up. At the time of the draft, Vitters was very nearly a full year younger than Moustakas. Vitters was very young for the draft (just 17). Both of the two played only a minimal amount in 2007, but Moustakas hit well in 47 PA while Vitters struggled in 55 PA. Moustakas entered 2008 as the 18th best prospect in baseball while Vitters was 43rd.
At the time of the draft, Baseball America offered this scouting report for Vitters:
Vitters' older brother Christian was a solid prospect who had an excellent career at Fresno State. While Christian was a 10th-round pick, Josh figures to go nine rounds higher. He entered last summer as one of the top hitters in the class, then blew to the top of the heap while dominating at the Area Code Games, doubling three times at the Aflac Classic and earning MVP honors at the Cape Cod Classic. While Vitters has solid defensive and running tools, that's not what earned him such accolades–his bat did. He has tremendous feel for getting the fat part of the bat to the ball, and with his tremendous bat speed and barrel awareness, he drives the ball more consistently than any hitter in the class. Scouts describe him as the rare righthanded hitter with a pretty swing, and he's shown the ability to handle different velocities and different styles of pitching with ease. Vitters' his hand-eye coordination and ability to make contact are almost too good, because at times he swings at pitches he should let pass, rather than waiting for one he can punish with his all-fields power. While his hands and footwork at third are sound, he tends to misread hops, and defense doesn't come easy to him. His bat should play at any position, however. His only speed-bump this spring was a bout with pneumonia that caused him to miss two weeks, but he was still considered a near-lock to be picked in the first five spots overall.
Still young in 2008, just 18, Vitters stayed behind at extended spring training and waited for the short season leagues to open. He began that season in Boise and in 277 PA he hit .328/.365/.498. He was bumped to full season Peoria for the final 4 games of the season. Vitters career had taken off. His defense was a concern, which we expected. His patience was also a concern. His NIBB%* was just 5.2%.
*NIBB% excludes intentional walks from both the numerator and denominator, but includes hit by pitch. It's actually (NIBB+HBP)%, but NIBB% is easier.
A 5.2% rate in short-season A ball isn't all that impressive. The numbers will likely get worse as he plays in more difficult leagues. That's just how it works. The concern the scouts had that he swings at too many pitches was becoming much more of a concern. Still young though, there was no time to panic.
In part because of the low walk rate, Vitters dropped from the 43rd ranked prospect down to 51st the following year. Vitters was still only 19 and he would begin his first season in a full season league. He returned to Peoria where he had played only 4 games the year before and hit .316/.351/.535, which was good for a .402 wOBA and 148 wRC+. After 70 games and 288 plate appearances he was moved up to High A Daytona and he struggled a bit. He hit just .238/.260/..344 (.277 wOBA, 71 wRC+).
2009 was a mixed bag for Vitters. He crushed the ball in Peoria and was still young for the level, but was eaten up in High A. What became even more of a concern was his inability to draw walks. His NIBB% in Peoria was somewhat decent (6%), but it included 9 HBP. His actual walk percentage was under 3%. On the year his NIBB% was 4.8%. As expected, the numbers were going down and he was only in High A.
As far as hitting though, Vitters was doing pretty damn well.
He had a .372 wOBA, 133 wRC+ the following partial season back at High A (120 PA). He was promoted to AA Tennesse and like the year before after a promotion, he struggled. Despite the struggles in AA, he improves his NIBB% to 9.2% in 2010.
He spent all of 2011 in AA and hit just .283/.322/..448, which was good for a league average wOBA of .334 (99 wRC+). His NIBB% slumped to 6.5%.
While that's not a fantastic rate, it has been an improvement on what he did early in his career, but despite that the hitting kind of went south for him. Now you had concerns about his ability to stay at 3rd base, his ability to hit well enough and his rather poor plate discipline.
Vitters was unranked by Baseball America entering 2011 and 2012. He went to Iowa this year where he's been hitting pretty well. At just the age of 22 he's hit .303/.353/.511. His wOBA is .369 (116 wRC+). He's also hit 15 home run, which tied his career high at any one level (2009 Peoria), but he did hit 18 overall in 2009.
Vitters doesn't have much speed. He had only 8 triples in his career that has spanned 6 seasons and nearly 2100 plate appearances. He has 20 stolen bases and has managed to be caught 18 times. If you know nothing about a player's defense, which as fans we really don't, speed is a good proxy for defensive talent. Vitters has never been known as a good fielder and it's been questionable if he can stick at 3rd base.
At the MLB level, only Pedro Alvarez, Chris Johnson and Brett Lawrie have made more than 9 errors at 3rd base. Vitters, in the same number of games, has made 19 for AAA Iowa. The average number of assists for those 3 is 169. Vitters has 148. Pedro Alvarez and Chris Johnson each have a .937 fielding percentage, which is the worst among all qualified 3B. Alex Rodriguez and Hanley Ramirez are 3rd worst at .951. Vitters' fielding percentage is .913 and just .924 in his career. The only years Vitters has played in 100 games or more has ben in 2009 (104) and 2011 (100). He made 21 errors each of those seasons.
I'll be the first to admit that it's very difficult to compare defense in the minors to the big leagues, but that's really all the information I have so it's the best I can do. Considering we know he's a below average 3rd baseman, those numbers just illustrate that fact. By no means do I think he's going to be the worst fielder. I just don't know. It's definitely a possibility.
He's not a good fielder and he is definitely slow. He's terrible at stealing bases and based on the few number of triples he's had it might be safe to say that he's not going to excel at taking extra bases on hits. He could end up being a good baserunner, but I'd say the odds of that are pretty slim. Instead, it's likely he's a below average baserunner.
But he can hit. He's always been able to hit and he's doing it at the highest level in the minor leagues. I entered this season thinking Vitters had little chance to become much of anything at the big league level, but he's hit well enough, shown enough ability to get on base without getting a hit that I'm definitely more optimistic than I was. Do think he'll be a superstar? No. There are way too many flaws in his game for that to happen. He doesn't hit for enough power, he doesn't play good enough defense, run the bases well enough and he's not going to be getting on base without a hit enough for that to happen.
He doesn't have to become a superstar to become valuable and I think that's where I am now. Whether he ends up being a platoon partner or a decent everyday 3rd baseman remains to be seen, but there's value in both. There's obviously more value in being an everyday player, but Vitters has crushed lefties in his career. This season he's hiting .331/.381/.621 vs lefties in over 125 PA. He's hit lefties well prior to this season too.
The Cubs have nobody at 3rd base so I'm anxious to see Josh Vitters get called up and be given a chance to play everyday. I'm more optimistic now than I was a year ago that he might actually be able to hold the position down, but I don't think Vitters will be making any all-star teams. If Vitters has to move to the outfield or across the infield, which is definitely a possibility, the likelihood of him becoming productive drops considerably.