Vitters eager to pounce on opportunity
Third-base prospect anticipating first big league call
CHICAGO -- This may finally be the year for Josh Vitters.
The third baseman was the Cubs' first pick in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, and third player taken overall. Of the top 10 selections that year, Vitters and pitcher Casey Weathers, now with the Cubs after a trade with the Rockies, are the only ones who have not reached the Major Leagues.
Vitters was one of 17 high schoolers drafted in the first round, and eight have already tasted big league life, including the Orioles' Matt Wieters, the Giants' Madison Bumgarner, and the Braves' Jason Heyward.
What's held Vitters back are his youth and injuries, including a fractured finger on his left hand in 2010. The 2011 season was different. He was healthy.
"It was definitely successful," Vitters said of last season, during which he played at Double-A Tennessee. "I played and I was healthy the whole year. That's all I can really ask for. I made some good adjustments and learned some new things. I think that will definitely carry me into next year and an even more productive season next year."
A right-handed hitter, he batted .283 in a personal-best 129 games with the Smokies, hitting 28 doubles, 14 homers and driving in 81 runs. After the season ended, he joined the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League for the third straight year, and hit two home runs in his first game. What was different?
"It's always a constant battle of adjustments every season," Vitters said. "It's good to be armed with a lot of good techniques to learn how to fix your swing when it needs fixing."
Give credit to Mariano Duncan, who was in his first season as Tennessee's hitting coach. A 12-year Major League veteran, Duncan spent five seasons as the Dodgers' first-base coach (2006-10), and also coached in Los Angeles' Minor League system.
"He's a great coach, knows a lot about the game," Vitters said of Duncan. "I definitely learned a lot from him this season. He was awesome."
Vitters, 22, said Duncan kept things simple.
"He tried to really teach me to know my swing better and know what I need to do as a hitter to hit like I know I can hit," Vitters said. "There's definitely some good techniques he taught me as far as making sure you're staying comfortable in the box and waiting back and seeing the ball deep."
In the AFL, Vitters played first, third and the outfield. Being versatile would definitely make him more attractive to a Major League team.
"Any way I can get to the big leagues to help the team is perfect for me," he said.
He'll get a chance this spring to show he's ready.The Cubs acquired Ian Stewart from the Rockies, along with Weathers, for Tyler Colvin and DJ LeMahieu. Stewart is projected as the Cubs' everyday third baseman but is coming off a rough season, beginning the year with the Rockies, but shuttling between the big league club and Triple-A Colorado Springs. He was demoted in mid-April after a 2-for-26 start, and batted .419 in nine games in the Minors. He rejoined the big league team in May, but was sent to the Minors again after going 1-for-21 in nine games.
For the season, Stewart hit .275 with 14 homers and 10 doubles in 45 games with Colorado Springs, and .156 with zero homers and six doubles in 48 games with the Rockies.
He's got a big bat to replace in third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who left via free agency to sign with the Brewers. Ramirez belted 26 homers and led the team with 93 RBIs last season.
"There are things I will be changing, and not so much my approach but timing and mechanics and things that go with my swing," Stewart said, "but honestly, I feel no pressure replacing Aramis.
"Garrett Atkins was in Colorado before me and Vinny Castilla and guys like that," he said. "I've come in behind some good players and never felt I needed to replace them but just be myself and work hard. That's all I can do is control how hard I work."
Stewart has gotten a head start. He attended a mini-camp with Cubs hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo in early January in Mesa and the reports were good.
Vitters and the rest of the Cubs Minor Leaguers know that with the new front office, there is a fresh set of eyes watching them, and new people to impress. He's watched as Minor League teammates such as LeMahieu and Tony Campana have gotten called up.
The scouting report on Vitters in 2007 focused on his offense.
"Vitters entered the  season as the top high-school hitter on most Draft boards and he did nothing all season to upset that standing, even though he dealt with a bout of pneumonia during the season," according to the report on MLB.com's Draft Tracker. "With an uncanny ability to make hard, consistent contact, Vitters has the ability to hit for average and power at the next level. He makes terrific adjustments at the plate and rarely gets cheated. His defensive game isn't as strong as his bat but he should be just fine at third base."
Last year was a positive step for Vitters. Is he frustrated that he hasn't gotten the call?
"I wouldn't say frustrated," he said. "I definitely would've liked to have been there [in 2011]. I'm still young. I'm ready to do whatever it takes to get there. I'm just being patient. It's not up to me, it's up to the guys up top. I'm going to be ready whenever they call upon me."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter@CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.