Happy Thanksgiving Week! In honor of the most tryptophan laden week of the year I’ll be sampling some of the most talked about and debated prospects in the Cubs’ system both today as well as later in the week. We kick things off today with two of the best known names in the system. It seems most of Cub fandom is a skeptic of Josh Vitters; the third baseman takes center stage for today’s article. Joining him is Dillon Maples, the best pitching prospect hardly anyone has seen pitch.
Prospects’ Progress is a regular series that examines the improvements made or not made by various players in the Cubs’ farm system. This is not a Top Prospects’ list (although I do talk about those guys), nor is it a ranking system. I’ll get to that sort of thing, but it will be closer to the spring.
So. Vitters and Maples. The third baseman so many fans love to give up on, and the pitcher with fewer sightings than bigfoot. This should be more fun than spiking the Thanksgiving gravy with hot sauce. It’s also going to be longer than commercial breaks during holiday football games. Be warned – you might be here awhile.
Josh Vitters – 3B
How long should the third overall pick in the draft take to reach the major leagues? Three seasons? Four seasons? Five?
What if that third overall pick happened to be one of the youngest players in his draft class (age: 17)? What if he only played at least 120 games in a minor league season twice due to various injuries? What if he only strung together back to back healthy, full seasons in just the past two years?
Fundamentally, those are the central questions that revolve around Josh Vitters. He’s been in the farm system for five years and, in the minds of many fans, that’s two or three years longer than it should have taken him to make it to the majors. On the other hand, he was drafted at 17, he has dealt with injuries (particularly one to his wrist), and he did reach Triple A at the age of 22.
And then there is also the question of his tools. The scouts say he has a good eye and recognizes pitches well. It’s right there on page 86 of your 2012 Baseball America Prospect Handbook: “He recognizes pitches well, makes consistent contact, and uses the whole field.” But the stat sheets beg to differ. Players who fit that description usually don’t post an OBP of .322 (2011) in Double A. Nor do they walk just 22 times in 488 plate appearances (again, 2011).
So what gives? Is Vitters a bust who just happens to be young for his league? Is he a free-swinger who has no clue what a strike looks like? Or is he a legitimate prospect who has been slowed by injuries and has real potential? Vitters had as many questions surrounding him as any player entering the 2012 season.
And, finally, he provided some answers.
First of all, score one for the scouts. The scouts said Vitters’ lack of walks was the result of a lack of patience, not an inability to recognize pitches, and his 2012 season bears that out. Instead of jumping on the first strike he saw as he had in the past, Vitters made significant strides in working the count and waiting on a pitch he could hammer. That change in approach showed up in his OPS as well as his BB%. His 2012 OPS of .869 in Triple A was the highest of his career. His 2012 walk rate was 6.6% in Iowa, compared to 4.5% in Tennessee the year before. That is a remarkable jump for a single season. He still has work to do in further refining his patience and pitch selection, but his production is finally starting to match his tools.
And let me mention again that Vitters was only 22 this season. That makes him the third youngest player in the league (among those with at least 140 ABs). That’s not a bad place for a prospect to be. Furthermore, his OPS ranked 46th in the league, and his 17 home runs and his 32 doubles were good for a tenth place tie in both categories. And Vitters hoisted those totals in just 110 games, many fewer than a lot of the more veteran players who out produced him in the league. So not only was young for Triple A, he more than held his own while he was there. That is also a good sign.
Not that Vitters had a perfect season. His .869 Triple A OPS is nice, but I expect a little more than that from a high corner infield prospect in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. His defense is an ongoing concern as well. It doesn’t matter how well a third baseman hits if he can’t play third base (the Detroit Tigers might argue that point, but I digress). Vitters is said to be working hard in this area and, from many reports, the Cubs seem to like the progress he is making. It is somewhat noteworthy that while he started 32 games at first base for Tennessee in 2011, he had only 9 for Iowa at that position in 2012… and that is despite the severe need Iowa had for a first baseman after Rizzo was promoted. I like his chances to be a league average defender on the hot corner, but there is still work to do in that department.
If you had already given up on Vitters, you might want to rethink that position. There are not many 22 year old prospects who compiled an OPS over .860 while finishing in the Top 20 in HR and doubles in Triple A.
But that does not mean he is destined for stardom, either. Bill James projects that Vitters will appear in 140 games for the Chicago Cubs in 2013, will total 515 plate appearances, and will finish the year 15 home runs and a line of .251/.293/.411. That’s not great by any stretch of the imagination, but it isn’t bad for a rookie. Just don’t mistake those numbers for his ceiling. Vitters’ has the swing to produce enough offense to play third base in the majors, and he is rapidly developing the patience to take full advantage of that swing. Watch this at bat from his Triple A All-Star appearance and you’ll see what I mean. His bat is very quick to the strike zone, has a nicely compact stroke, and takes a good plane through the hitting area (tougher to see at that angle). The foundation for his success is clearly there.
He just needs to build on it. Vitters has a history of starting slow, adjusting, and taking off. And he certainly got off to a slow start in Chicago during his September call up (although he did walk at a 6.4% rate (small sample size alert)). He will be someone to watch closely in spring training, particularly on a per-at-bat level. Is he still taking tough pitches? Working deeper counts? Passing on pitches that would be ground balls to wait for one he can punish into the gaps? Those things, whether or not they show up on the stat sheet, are the key factors to watch for Vitters in Arizona. Ultimately I think he’ll head back to Iowa for at least a partial season, but he shouldn’t be down there more than a few months. By the end of 2013, baring any trades, Josh Vitters is likely to be the Cubs regular third baseman. He may not keep the job, but I think he will earn it, if only for a time.
If he is still with the Cubs, of course. Vitters is an intriguing trade chip that still holds a fair amount of value for a lot of team. After all, 22 year olds who slugged .513 in Triple A are not exactly common.
Dillon Maples – RHP
The Cubs threw a mountain of cash at Maples after drafting him in 2011, but that was necessary to convince him to come play baseball exclusively instead of kicking for the University of North Carolina football team.
Maples was one of the better pitchers in that draft and was only available to the Cubs in the 14th round because he was considered a tough sign. Pre-draft scouting reports indicated he had a mid-90s fastball that, according to some, has a good late sink to it, along with a very nasty curveball. Both pitches grade out as plus and project as high as plus-plus. If he can add a change-up or some other off-speed pitch, that arsenal could propel him to the No 1 or No 2 slots in a lot of major league rotations one day.
There were also some questions about his delivery, though. Some scouts thought he looked too stiff and that he could be at greater risk for injury as a result. Many expect the Cubs to work on those mechanics early in Maples’ career.
Maples pitched in 6 games and threw a total of 10.1 innings in the Arizona Rookie League team. There is very little here to evaluate, and any conclusions come with giant blinking warning lights due to the small sample size. That said, his 12 Ks were nice but the 10 BB are moderately concerning. I love the 3.75 GO/AO, but at this stage that is little more than a confirmation that he has a sinking fastball and a good curve (both of those pitches produce grounders). Hitters had little success against him (.162 BAA), but few hitters would have had a chance to see him twice.
In all honesty, we don’t know much more now than we knew twelve months ago. The injury concern that led to his late start this season seems to be a thing of the past now, but reports are not in agreement as to how severe that issue actually was to begin with. He did finish the year healthy, but beyond that we cannot draw many conclusions from his numbers.
Patience is well and good, but at some point the Cubs are going to want Maples to get into some consistent games against some tough competition. For that reason I think he will open the 2013 season in Kane County. If he dominates at that level (not impossible), I would not be shocked to see him promoted to Daytona by the of the year. I doubt he moves any higher than that, though regardless of how well he pitches.
Odds are also quite good that he will be on a hard innings count for the season. Do not be surprised if he spends time both in the rotation and the bullpen. That will not mean the Cubs have given up on him as a starting pitcher already, only that they are trying to keep him pitching a full season while holding down his workload.
Until we do see him in some full-season league games, it is going to be tough to project his major league arrival. Conventional wisdom says 2016, but it really all depends on his mechanics, his endurance, and his off speed pitches. If he stays healthy, consistently repeats his delivery, throws regular strikes, keep inducing ground balls, and develops an average-to-plus off speed pitch over the course of the next 18 months, he could be a candidate for a September call up in 2014. It is simply too early to say for sure.
He is one of the players on my watch list for the upcoming season. I hope to make at least one trip to Midwest League territory this year, and Maples is one of the pitchers I most want to see.