Cubs see some growth in Vitters

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Cubs see some growth in Vitters

Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Posted: 1:44 p.m. Updated: 5:31 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

PHOENIX Aramis Ramirez can opt out and become a free agent at the end of this season. Its a complicated, multiyear deal Ramirez signed months before the Cubs selected a 17-year-old kid with the third overall pick of the 2007 draft.

Ramirez says hes healthy and doesnt know how long he wants to play. Privately, the Cubs like how he stood up to Carlos Silva, and think hes ready to put together a big season.

The Cubs dont know for certain who will be playing third base next year. They can discuss with Ramirez their 16 million club option for 2012. They have a strong relationship with his agent, Paul Kinzer, who also represents Geovany Soto and Starlin Castro.

Josh Vitters, who was among the 18 cuts made Tuesday, isnt ready for prime time just yet. But the Cubs feel better about the 21-year-old third baseman from Californias Cypress High School, who skipped college to get an education in being a professional.

Ive seen a kid that matured, manager Mike Quade said. You get a brief look at a guy like Vitters last year and I tease him about being a little spacey. Ive seen a totally different person this spring. He deserves a ton of credit and should be real proud of that.

This offseason Vitters attended Camp Colvin, the strength and conditioning program run at the teams complex in Arizona. They all saw what Tyler Colvin did last spring, tearing up the Cactus League and forcing the Cubs to bring him to Chicago.

Outfielder Brett Jackson, the 2009 first-round pick from Cal-Berkeley, envisions himself playing alongside Colvin one day at Wrigley Field. He doesnt lack for confidence. Hes on a fast track that could put him in the majors sometime this year.

But first he has to go to minor-league camp with: pitchers Chris Carpenter, Jay Jackson, Trey McNutt and Scott Rice; catchers Steve Clevenger and Chris Robinson; infielders Bryan LaHair and Marquez Smith; and outfielders Jim Adduci, Lou Montanez and Brad Snyder.

Pitchers Robert Coello and Thomas Diamond were optioned to Triple-A Iowa. Pitchers Alberto Cabrera, Rafael Dolis and Kyle Smit were optioned to Double-A Tennessee.

The Cubs are particularly high on the pitchers they mined from the 2008 draft, a group that includes Andrew Cashner, Casey Coleman, Carpenter and Jay Jackson. Their impact can already be felt.

We have a mutual respect for each other, Jay Jackson said. We kind of came through the organization together. Its always been a fight to see (wholl be) the first one to the top. Weve all had success at every level. (Weve) all pushed each other. You see one guy go, youre like: Well, I want to be next.

But the Cubs have historically had more trouble developing position players. There have been concerns where Vitters ultimately projects as a corner infielder.

If he makes the kind of progress from last year to this year to next year, Quade said, hes going to be a good third baseman.

Here are a few names the Cubs passed on in the 2007 draft: Orioles catcher Matt Wieters (No. 5); Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner (No. 10); Braves outfielder Jason Heyward (No. 14); and Tigers pitcher Rick Porcello (No. 27).

Vitters knows those arent necessarily fair or direct comparisons, and he doesnt pay attention to any of the prospect rankings anymore. His fifth professional season will be a pivotal one. The clock is ticking.

People are trying to make an impression, Quade said. Theyre trying to show you they can handle themselves in this environment. There are a lot of different things kids can accomplish even if they dont break with us.

Now its time for them to go to work and be ready when the phone rings.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Brett Anderson’s personality mixing well with Cubs: ‘I don’t hate anybody yet’

Brett Anderson’s personality mixing well with Cubs: ‘I don’t hate anybody yet’

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Joe Maddon's T-shirt slogans can get a little old at times, but the Cubs manager found a new audience in Brett Anderson, who liked the idea of "Be Uncomfortable" after signing a one-year, prove-it deal with the defending champs.

"It's been awesome so far," Anderson said. "That's my running joke – we're a month into it now or whatever it is – and I don't hate anybody yet.

"That's a testament to the group as a whole – and maybe me evolving as a person."

Yes, Anderson's sarcasm, social-media presence and groundball style fits in with a team built around short-term pitching and Gold Glove defense. The if-healthy lefty finished his Cactus League tour on Saturday afternoon by throwing four innings (one unearned run) during a 7-4 loss to the Colorado Rockies in front of 13,565 at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.

Anderson will open the season as the No. 4 starter after a camp that has been remarkably low-key and drama-free.

"I'm kind of cynical by nature, but it's a fun group to be a part of," Anderson said, "(with) young guys that are exciting and happy to be here. And then obviously the mix of veterans, too, that are here with intentions of winning another World Series."

To make that happen, the pitching staff will have to again stay unbelievably healthy. Anderson rolled with a general question about how he physically feels now compared to where he's usually at by this time of year.

"Obviously better than last year, because I was walking with a gimp and all that stuff," said Anderson, who underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a bulging disk in his lower back last March. "No, my body feels good, my arm feels good and you're getting into the dog days of spring training where you're itching to get to the real thing."

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella appears to be the final decision as the Cubs shape their Opening Night roster.

That's assuming good health – manager Joe Maddon sounded unconcerned about Ben Zobrist (stiff neck), Addison Russell (stiff back) and Albert Almora Jr. (stiff neck) – and the Cubs carrying an eight-man bullpen.

Maddon appeared to eliminate one variable, confirming that La Stella has signaled a willingness to go to Triple-A Iowa if necessary, which would normally be an obvious statement, except for last summer's "Where's Tommy?" episode.

"I haven't even thought about it," Maddon said during Saturday's media session at the Sloan Park complex. "It's not an issue. I thought we handled it pretty openly last year and there's been no blowback whatsoever from the players."

Beyond this – La Stella initially refused to report to the minors last July, moved back home to New Jersey and talked briefly about retirement – an American League scout and a National League scout tracking the Cubs in Arizona both agreed that Szczur looks like the superior player.

Plus Szczur – and not La Stella – is out of minor-league options now.

"When you get this kind of a talent, depth-wise, it's a wonderful problem to have," Maddon said. "And then, of course, the rules start creeping in. The rules in this situation would benefit Matt, which is a good thing, because he's a big-league guy that's been riding the shuttle. He's done it in a very stoic manner, and he's been great for us."

La Stella has allies in the clubhouse – Jake Arrieta got a Coastal Carolina tattoo on his right butt cheek after losing a College World Series bet – and goes about his routine in a quiet, diligent manner.

La Stella is not a distraction at all and can hit left-handed and play the infield – two attributes that Szczur can't bring to Maddon's bench.

"Matt Szczur, to me, is a Major League Baseball player," Maddon said. "You're seeing what Tommy can do from the left side of the plate right now. And then it's just a matter of balancing things out. We've already mentioned that some guys on the infield can play the outfield within this group, thus it presents differently regarding what you need."

[MORE CUBS: Javier Baez won’t change his style around Cubs after World Baseball Classic: ‘We’re not showing anybody up’]

Szczur is hitting .361 with a .994 OPS through 14 Cactus League games and can play all over the outfield. But that skill is diminished when the Cubs already have four established outfielders plus Zobrist and Kris Bryant able to shift from the infield.

Then again, defensive wizard Javier Baez should have the Cubs covered all across the infield in case of an emergency. With the defending World Series champs a week out from facing the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, we're about to find out if Maddon made his recommendation or had a possible trade scenario or disabled-list situation in mind.

"I love Matt Szczur," Maddon said. "This guy as a teammate – you're not going to get a better one. Nobody's going to get a better one on any team for any reason.

"We haven't decided everything or anything yet. Stuff happens in a very short period of time. He is a major-league baseball player. So we'll just wait a couple more days, see how it plays out. But he's a benefit to any group that has him."