Chicago Cubs: Josh Vitters
Vitters was drafted No. 3 overall in 2007 as a third baseman, but his progress has been slowed by injuries and ineffectiveness.
"He's going to come to spring training ready to re-establish himself," Epstein said.
The Cubs drafted and traded for two third-base prospects this summer, forcing a move to the outfield for Vitters. He was a minor league call-up last season but struggled to a .121 batting average and .193 on-base percentage in 109 plate appearances. He had a leg injury in spring training this season, putting him behind. He had back and rib problems as well.
"He has a program in place that we've signed off on that does not include winter ball," Epstein said. "It involves making himself a more complete baseball player. Working on the mental side of the game. He's really excited about it."
Epstein wasn't as certain about another first-round pick, Brett Jackson. He also was slowed by injuries and struggled during his time in the majors last season. This year he was demoted to Double-A.
"Still to be determined," Epstein said of Jackson's immediate future. "He may end up taking the same path."
Epstein said injured prospects Jorge Soler (foot) and Albert Almora (groin) are on pace to be healthy for the start of the Arizona Fall League.
Two of the Cubs' star players are injured and other players they are counting on have some medical issues.
Sveum hopes to get shortstop Starlin Castro back in the lineup within the next four or five days.
"We are looking at Sunday or Monday," Sveum said.
Also agreeing to terms were pitchers Michael Bowden, Brook Raley, Chris Rusin, Alberto Cabrera, Rafael Dolis, Trey McNutt, Hector Rondon, Arodys Vizcaino and Robert Whitenack, catcher Steve Clevenger, infielders Junior Lake, Christian Villanueva, Josh Vitters and Logan Watkins as well as outfielders Brett Jackson, Dave Sappelt and Matt Szczur.
“I’d be so happy if I win that job,” he said after the game. “Happy because of the work I do all year. Winter ball and spring training, that’s what I try to do -- put everything together.”
Valbuena says he’s being aggressive at the plate, and the results are starting to show. He wasn’t supposed to play in Friday’s intra-squad affair, but after Stewart and Josh Vitters were injured the day before, he promptly hit a ball out of Hohokam Park. Then came the long one on Saturday. Third base might be his job to win while Stewart is healing.
“It’s not my decision,” Valbuena said. “I’m just competing. I do my job like I know how to do.”
Cubs pitcher Travis Wood knows he’s in a numbers game to make the rotation. When all are healthy, the Cubs have seven starters for five spots. With two (Matt Garza and Scott Baker) behind in terms of health, Wood has a great chance to be there come April.
“I like it, where I’m at,” he said after throwing two innings against the Angels on Saturday. “There’s still other guys out there, and everyone is competing for the same spot. It’ll be fun the rest of camp. We’ll see what happens.”
Wood was inconsistent last season but better in the second half; that’s what he wants to build on. He started Saturday’s game surrendering a walk and a double but got the next six batters out before departing -- though not before those two runners scored.
“I hate leadoff walks, but it was nice to get back out there and get in the flow of things and game situations,” Wood said. “It was nice to go out and have a good second [inning] once I calmed down and got the first out of the way and back to business.”
He struck out two in that second inning, while the two runs he gave up came on ground outs.
The first two at-bats of the Cactus League for Jackson resulted in triples, which is not bad for a guy who is re-tooling his swing. Like Valbuena, he’s carrying over a hot bat from an intra-squad game the day before in which he had three hits. Jackson has stated he expects to start the year with the Cubs, though the team has been adamant he’ll begin in Triple-A Iowa. It remains to be seen if their minds can be changed.
Jesse Rogers covers the Cubs for ESPN 1000 and ESPNChicago.com
“It sounds like, at the earliest, they’ll be on the field in two weeks, but realistically three weeks,” manager Dale Sveum said before his team’s Cactus League opener on Saturday. “It’s unfortunate for them.”
It’s particularly bad for Stewart, who is coming off a wrist surgery that caused him to miss most of last season. He played in just 55 games, hitting .201. In the offseason, Stewart signed a one-year, $2-million contract, which is not guaranteed. The Cubs can cut him before the season while paying him a small termination fee.
Third base was his “job to win” Sveum said recently, and now the Cubs won’t have as much time to evaluate him.
“Three weeks from now basically puts you at March 14, which puts you about three weeks from Opening Day, so if he’s capable and the leg is fine but it will be a cram session, that’s for sure,” Sveum said.
Stewart hurt his leg in an intra-squad game on Thursday and said it was sore going into the weekend. Luis Valbuena will start at third base on Saturday and probably be the starter if Stewart isn’t ready or is cut.
“Competition is what the game is meant to be,” Sveum said. “That’s the essence of spring training.”
The Cubs aren’t deep at the position. Prospect Junior Lake will get extra time there, as will Brent Lillibridge, so Stewart still has a good chance of earning his job back.
“We don’t have a whole lot of other third basemen -- they both just went down,” Sveum said laughingly.
Jesse Rogers covers the Cubs for ESPN 1000 and ESPNChicago.com
CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs' biggest void this past season was at third base, which is saying something considering the team lost 101 games.
It’s still unknown how much of Ian Stewart’s struggles were caused by his injured wrist, which limited his season to just 55 games. Josh Vitters showed he isn’t ready for prime time after getting called up in August. In between, Luis Valbuena did what he could to hold down the fort.
The final numbers: Cubs third basemen combined for the worst batting average (.201), least amount of runs scored (50) and the lowest number of total bases (184) in all of baseball. They were second to last in OPB (.611) ahead only of the Chicago White Sox (.600).
On the other end of that spectrum, though, was third baseman Josh Vitters, who struggled mightily since he was recalled in early August. Vitters entered Wednesday’s play batting .111 with two home runs and five RBIs.
“Some have shown a lot, some have done enough to certainly, if not earn a position on the team then strong consideration going into the winter,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Some have indicated that they need more seasoning and starting next year in Iowa is probably for the best.
“So I think that it is a mixed bag. Certainly every guy who has come up has not shown that we need to reserve a spot for him at the beginning of next season but that’s to be expected.”
Vitters, Dave Sappelt and Joe Mather were all scheduled to play in the opener of a three-game series in Denver against the Colorado Rockies.
Vitters has started just once since Sept. 16 and that opportunity only came about because Luis Valbuena was dealing with a sore knee.
Vitters has been overmatched at the plate since arriving to the major leagues at the start of August and manager Dale Sveum elected to play him sparingly on the homestand in games against Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and St. Louis, all of which were playoff contenders at the time the Cubs faced them.
Vitters is batting just .167 this month and .114 in 88 at-bats since he arrived in the big leagues.
The Cubs have just three series remaining this season with the three at Colorado this week, three at Arizona over the weekend and a three-game series at home next week against the Houston Astros to close out the season.
Only the Diamondbacks have not been completely eliminated from reaching the playoffs but they began Tuesday 5 1/2 games out of the second wild-card spot with nine games to play.
The Cubs and Rockies began the series with identical 59-94 records. The only team with a worse record in baseball is the Houston Astros at 50-104.
The Cubs’ complete Tuesday lineup against the Rockies:
1. Sappelt, RF
2. Darwin Barney, 2B
3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
4. Alfonso Soriano, LF
5. Starlin Castro, SS
6. Welington Castillo, C
7. Vitters, 3B
8. Mather, CF
9. Chris Rusin, P
Vitters was brought up in August to get some exposure at the major-league level, but so far all that has happened is that he has been exposed himself.
Vitters entered play Wednesday with a .108 batting average and .157 on-base percentage. On defense, he continues to have problems making accurate throws to first base on routine plays.
“His throwing on the spontaneous play is, it’s the routine play that’s giving him trouble,” manager Dale Sveum said. “That might be one of those things where you drop down, you throw side arm. Talking to him, the bottom line, once you get to the big leagues, we don’t really care how it gets down, just get it done.”
The coaching staff is currently trying to assess if a traditional method of defense suits Vitters best or if he needs to put his own signature on how he plays in the field. Sveum talked about guys like Carney Lansford and Cal Ripken, who incorporated a side-arm throwing motion, while Robin Ventura used to play deep and charge balls.
“For certain people, they can do things by the book, but when you play third base, it’s more spontaneous, it’s more how you get the job done, what’s more comfortable to you,” Sveum said. “If you watch some of the great third basemen of all time, none of them were the prototypical of the way you teach infield play.
“It’s such a position where you don’t get many routine plays. There are a lot of different bounces, different angles, obviously swinging bunts.”
Vitters isn’t expected to play much on the remaining homestand with games against contenders Cincinnati and St. Louis remaining. He could start getting more chances when the Cubs hit the road for Colorado and Arizona next week.
While Vitters hasn’t shown much in his short big-league stint so far, Sveum wasn’t about to say that the Cubs will be interested in finding somebody else for third base next year. They also have Luis Valbuena on the roster, with Ian Stewart arbitration eligible this offseason.
“We don’t know,” Sveum said. “Wherever we have the resources to spend money we don’t know where we’re going to spend it right now. Obviously we have some holes in a lot of areas that might need to be fixed and we don’t know exactly where that money is going to go.
“Valbuena is going to be part of the organization and he does a heck of a job himself. We don’t know what is going to happen there. Being pushed (by a third baseman from outside the organization) isn’t exactly one thing to look at now. You have to be the guy before getting pushed.”
WASHINGTON –The move to the major leagues has been rough on Josh Vitters so far and the Cubs still aren’t seeing what they need out of the young third baseman.
After a solid Triple-A season, Vitters hasn’t been able to get going in the major leagues. He entered play Thursday batting .076 with a .127 on-base percentage and a .152 slugging percentage. He does have three extra-base hits, but just five hits total in 66 at-bats.
Asked if he is seeing enough from Vitters’ approach at the plate, manager Dale Sveum spoke in general terms and it didn’t sound like a compliment.
“I think it’s like anything, adjustments have to be applied in the game,” Sveum said. “We can do all the batting practice and teaching all we want, but if it isn’t applied in the game.
“That’s where you have to start evaluating. Can people apply it and make adjustments on the fly in a game?”
So far it doesn’t seem like it, although it isn’t as if Vitters is intentionally blowing off what he is being taught.
“They make us feel good and they make us feel comfortable,” Vitters said. “We’ve been preparing really hard and working a lot. I think it will start to show a little bit in the next few weeks to end the season strong.”
Now that he is in the major leagues he is being analyzed like never before, but Vitters doesn’t seemed bothered by any negative assessment of his game.
“I put more pressure on myself than anybody else does so I try to stick to my gameplan and stick to my approach of having quality at-bats every at-bat,” he said. “Things will turn for the better eventually.”
Vitters is still new enough at the big league level that his struggles can be chalked up to the awkward transition to big-league life. After all, Anthony Rizzo batted just .141 with a .281 on-base percentage and a .242 slugging percentage in 128 at-bats last season with the Padres.
But Vitters doesn’t project into a Rizzo type so his adjustments will be key as the staff works on maximizing the abilities he does have. Reducing his strikeouts and hitting from power alley to power alley could help his production levels.
“The hardest part of anything is the application of things during a major league baseball game,” Sveum said. “That’s the hardest thing about teaching is the game situations at hand.”
That leaves the third player in the Cubs’ impressive trio of youngsters to show what he is made of.
One National League scout remarked recently that he isn’t yet sold on Cubs rookie Josh Vitters, and interestingly it is Vitters' play at third base that has him concerned about the young player’s overall game.
The way the scout sees it, Vitters’ throws to first base, especially with two outs, are a sign that he is somewhat scrambled mentally as he tries to adjust to life on the big-league level. Vitters appears to aim his two-out throws, showing that that he is trying to control the situation instead of letting his instincts take over.
Manager Dale Sveum, who has been careful to not put pressure on his young players, has even admitted that Vitters seems to be overloaded on the mental side.
“Some people take on a little more than they can bite off sometimes and right now he’s got a lot going on at the plate and defensively,” Sveum said. “He’s done an OK job defensively, but he needs to develop on an everyday basis in at-bats and understand the sequences of a pitcher and what he is trying to do with situational hitting. There’s a long way to go yet.”
Vitters was not in the starting lineup Tuesday against the Milwaukee Brewers as Luis Valbuena played third base and batted second. In 16 games this season, Vitters is batting just .093 (5-for-54) with a .185 slugging percentage and a .107 on-base percentage.
He put together an impressive season at Triple-A Iowa, batting .304 with 32 doubles, 17 home runs and 68 RBIs in 110 games, while being named a midseason All-Star.
There aren’t too many top prospects left to add to the expanded September roster, but for the ones that do arrive, the expectations are somewhat simple.
“If you’re here for a short amount of time, you’re not worried about stats, you’re worried about what you see with bat speed, the intelligence, the willingness and the ability to make adjustments when things might be out of whack,” manager Dale Sveum said. “Those are the things you’re judging and evaluating more than the stats.”
For Rizzo the assessment has been easy. He was well ahead of the learning curve when he arrived to the Cubs and put on an impressive offensive show practically immediately. Jackson and Vitters, on the other hand, have been evaluated more on intangibles.
Jackson has had a rocky start to his major league career, entering Monday’s game with 31 strikeouts in 63 at-bats. But he has settled into a comfort zone as his three home runs over a seven-day stretch would show.
Vitters has dealt with his own struggles on offense, but has been better than advertised with the glove, which isn’t to say that he won’t need additional defensive work. He was in the starting lineup Monday, carrying a .102 batting average into the game and a .118 on-base percentage.
Sveum was asked if he knew he would already be in development mode in August when he was hired over the winter.
“I don't know if we used the word ‘know,’ but there was a possibility,” he said. “Obviously we all knew that going in because Brett Jackson's development was going to be up, Vitters development was going to be up, as well as maybe some of the pitchers we (brought) up got here because of (various) reasons. Because of trades they might not have the complete development that we wanted but we knew that there was a very good chance after the trade deadline that these things were going to happen.”
As of Tuesday the Cubs were back on pace to lose 100 games, and they entered play Wednesday last in the National League in runs, hits, on-base percentage and walks.
“There are a lot of young things going on right now that are starting to be glaring things,” Sveum said. “We’re not producing enough winning at-bats at all to win baseball games. They are not winning at-bats whatsoever.”
Loses have mounted steadily since July 31, a byproduct of a lineup that has gone young with guys like Anthony Rizzo, Bret Jackson and Josh Vitters, not to mention a young catching corps as well as recent offensive struggles from Starlin Castro, who is actually still the youngest of the Cubs regulars.
Shortly after crushing his first major league home run, the Chicago Cubs were buried under an avalanche of eight Brewers runs, six of which came with two outs. Vitters was even trumped when the Brewers closed out their scoring with back-to-back home runs from Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez.
The chance to start Monday and the home run to follow were reassuring for a youngster in just his 11th major league game.
“It felt really good, it’s just a shame it couldn’t have done a little bit more,” Vitters said. “It’s kind of good for my confidence right now and hopeful. I’m going to work on seeing balls and hitting more balls like I did tonight.”
He did strike out twice so it wasn’t a perfect evening by any stretch of the imagination, but he did make progress in one area.
“He has to identify his sliders a little better even though he hit a slider,” manager Dale Sveum said. “He didn’t get a guy over in the first inning. I don’t know what was going on there. But that’s what they’re here for -- to see major league breaking balls and to evaluate them on what is needed to go to the next step.”
Despite the low batting average, Vitters believed the final six weeks are plenty of time to show the coaching staff what it needs to see.
“I’m a really confident guy so my confidence never drops too low,” Vitters said. “But it is nice to have it reassured a little bit. I’ve been doing really good, feeling good and I’m excited to play more baseball.”
Defense is still a work in progress as well. Vitters threw two balls in the dirt with two outs that first baseman Anthony Rizzo managed to dig out and turn into outs.
But there is progress being made and despite Sveum’s concern over his ability to identify breaking balls, Vitters is sure he can make progress in that area too.
“He was hammering with the breaking balls all day so it was nice to make the adjustment and get one,” Vitters said. “Every day I come in here and take batting practice and play games, and even if I’m not playing, just the feeling of being here grows inside of me. I’m starting to feel really comfortable here and I’m really excited for the future.”