In the long run, the failure of one Cubs prospect most hampered the Cubs ability to rebuild quickly, and may have doomed the Jim Hendry regime as much as any poor free agent signing: Josh Vitters. The third pick in the 2007 Rule 4 Draft, even as a prep star he gained renown for having one of the prettiest swings in baseball. Unfortunately, a combination of an injuries, poor approach at the plate, and a failure to improve defensively at third base leave him as all but a non-prospect at this point.
The Heights: After being drafted with the third pick in the 2007 draft, Vitters performed very well through his first significant stretch in full season ball: the first 70 games of 2009, where he put up a .316/.351/.535 line in the Low A Midwest League.
The Depths: Vitters’ fall was not as precipitous as some, but more a long, slow march towards irrelevance. A part of this was related to injuries. Vitters missed significant time in 2010 and 2013, which delays any prospect’s progress. Vitters also entered a pattern where he struggled in his first run at each new level, before having moderate success in the second run. This, however, is not that uncommon. More significantly, Vitters showed himself to not be equipped to handle third base defensively, limiting him to an outfield corner at this point. Worst, however, Vitters has not shown significant improvement in his approach at the plate. This is the downside to Vitters’ pretty swing. He can make contact with a pitches he should not swing at, at least in the minors.
The worst came with a promotion to the Majors in 2012, where he put up a miserable .395 OPS in just over 100 plate appearances, and then only played in 28 games in Triple A in 2013 due to myriad injuries. On the good news front, he was effective in his limited playing time, posting a strong .295/.380/.511 line, including an 11% walk rate, by far the best of his career.
Best Case Scenario: Still only 24 years old, Vitters still has a bit of time to prove that he can be a productive big leaguer, but he needs to stay healthy and hit now. I’m not a Junior Lake fan, and think that a BABIP regression on Lake’s front will lead to him losing the starting left fielder job early in the season. Best case scenario is that Vitters takes it, shows he can hit in the Majors, and at least becomes an average Major League starter. Not quite what you would be looking for in a third pick in the draft, but it would be considered a success at this point.
Worst Case Scenario: Excluding injuries, the worst case scenario for Vitters is that he fails when given his next shot at the Major League level, firmly establishing his status as one of the biggest draft busts in recent memory.