Chicago Cubs

Mooney: The clock is ticking on Vitters

Mooney: The clock is ticking on Vitters

Friday, Feb. 25, 2011Posted: 9:00 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. The executives, coaches and agents gathered now at the NFL combine in Indianapolis already have a good idea of what theyre going to get.

The players are close to fully developed physically. They have worked at established football factories, sometimes in front of crowds that exceed 100,000. They have dealt with the media. The fittest have already survived.

It does not work that way with Josh Vitters. The kid hadnt even turned 18 yet when the Cubs made him the third overall pick in the 2007 draft.

Spring training is the time to imagine the possibilities. The sun is shining and the sky is blue as Vitters signs autographs at Fitch Park. Baseball America, ESPN and MLB.com have each released its rankings of the games top prospects. Vitters is nowhere to be found.

I stopped looking at that stuff a long time ago, once I realized that it didnt matter at all, Vitters said. It really has nothing to do with the game. Its all about going out there and performing.

Its really just something for readers and bloggers to look at and feed off. (I) dont really pay attention to any of that.

The Cubs are still high on the 21-year-old Vitters, even if they may not be certain whether the corner infielder projects at third or first base.

Vitters has hit .328, .316 and .291 across parts of the past three seasons at the Class-A level in Boise, Peoria and Daytona. Last year ended at Double-A Tennessee in July, when he was hit by a fastball that broke his hand.

Sure, a few impact players chosen after Vitters in the 2007 first round have already emerged: 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).

But youve probably never heard of most of the other names and maybe never will.

And they all loved Vitters coming out of Cypress High School, where he was Californias Gatorade player of the year. Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus rated him as the drafts best prep position player.

The main thing with Josh was just getting used to the routine of playing baseball all the time, said Cubs coach Dave Keller, the former minor-league hitting coordinator. Any time you get young kids like that signed, theyre not used to playing every day.

(Theres a time) where they cross over and they realize that this is a little bit more of a job. And its easy for them to get burned out.

Vitters played in the Arizona Fall League and spent six weeks at what the Cubs now call Camp Colvin. Its the offseason strength and conditioning program at the Mesa complex that Tyler Colvin has found so beneficial.

Several club officials have remarked that Vitters seems more mature. Hes always around Brett Jackson, perhaps the organizations top prospect, and on Friday the two were working on a handshake. Jackson comes across as supremely confident and totally at ease with the attention. It hasnt been that way for Vitters.

(Its) not only dealing with the pressure of: Im a first-round pick, I got to live up to all these expectations, vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita said. Youre trying to find your place. And last year was the first time it looked like (Vitters) came out of his shell. Hes interacting with his teammates (and) maybe these guys grabbed it and pulled it out of him.

No one can predict a career path with certainty Jeff Samardzija tossed a football around the clubhouse on Friday morning. Scouting director Tim Wilken has an excellent reputation, but the process takes time, even for first-round picks like Colvin and Andrew Cashner.

Colvin played three seasons at Clemson University and wasnt a major-league contributor until the age of 24. Cashner was drafted three times before he finally signed with the Cubs, after attending junior college and Texas Christian University.

Vitters doesnt focus on what he hasnt done yet. He looks forward to what he can still become.

I dont really feel any pressure from it, Vitters said. I know everybody has different maturing rates as far as growing up and getting to the big leagues. Im not really putting a timetable on myself. Im hoping that I can put together a good year and see what happens.

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

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

MILWAUKEE – Teammates swarmed Kris Bryant in Miller Park’s visiting dugout late Thursday night, flinging sunflower seeds and forming a mosh pit around the National League’s reigning MVP.

Are you not entertained? The Cubs haven’t always played with this urgency or made it easy while nursing a World Series hangover. But they can feel it now, how close they are to October and how much they learned last year while making history.

It’s too early to pop champagne bottles, but the Cubs won a huge swing game in the NL Central race, beating the Milwaukee Brewers in the 10th inning when Bryant blasted Oliver Drake’s 92-mph fastball off a beam underneath the gigantic video board.

The Cubs watched it ricochet back onto the right-center field grass for a go-ahead two-run homer, bumping up the division lead to 4.5 games while cutting the magic number to clinch the division down to six.

After a head-spinning 5-3 victory that lasted 3 hours and 57 minutes and ended at 11:08 p.m., Bryant didn’t sound surprised or overexcited, the same way he didn’t overreact when the Cubs struggled to gain traction before the All-Star break and the Brewers swept the defending World Series champs two weekends ago at Wrigley Field.       

“We’ve done that so many times,” Bryant said. “We’ve had a nice run with that. I guess it is experience. The heartbeats aren’t going too fast when the game’s on the line there. It kind of plays to our advantage.”

So did the Brewers pushing their bullpen so hard this week trying to catch up that Cubs manager Joe Maddon would have to admit “their A-listers were not available,” meaning Corey Knebel, Anthony Swarzak and Josh Hader. Classic response from Bryant, who has 28 homers and likes to think of pitchers as nameless, faceless opponents: “I didn’t find out their top three guys were down until after the game was over.”

Maybe that changes the ninth-inning rally against Jeremy Jeffress where Ian Happ sprinted for a “Respect 90” single and scored the game-tying run when Javier Baez delivered a two-out, two-strike single up the middle. But the Cubs are in their element now, playing games that matter, not what-if.

“I just think we like loud,” Maddon said. “I think we’re a little bit like adrenaline junkies with the fact we’re used to 40,000 people a night.”

Just look at the stone face Wade Davis made in the ninth inning, escaping a bases-loaded jam by striking out Domingo Santana swinging at an elevated 95-mph fastball and forcing Orlando Arcia to chop a 3-2 pitch back to the mound. The All-Star closer who’s 32-for-32 in save chances went back out for the 10th inning and struck out the side to notch the win. That is a five-out playbook Maddon can use in October.

“You definitely feel it,” Davis said of the playoff atmosphere in a road stadium filled with Cubs fans. “It’s a lot easier to get up for the moment itself instead of having to create it yourself. You feel that.”

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

MILWAUKEE – This was the type of game Jake Arrieta visualizes, a loud atmosphere with 35,114 fans on their feet and an opponent that really doesn’t like the Cubs at all.

This one would ultimately be out of his hands, lasting 10 innings and almost 4 hours on Thursday night at Miller Park, but Arrieta looked like a Game 1 starter as the Cubs roared back for a 5-3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.

Those playoff plans are coming into focus, the magic number to win the National League Central title down to six and Arrieta managing the Grade 1 right hamstring strain that has been one of the biggest question marks hanging over the defending World Series champs.

“It’s just good to be back out there,” Arrieta said. “These are big games, and I want to be a part of as many as I can, especially to try and clinch the division as quick as possible and then kind of line things up for us in October. But we got to get there first.”

Arrieta threw his first real pitch in 18 days at 7:16 p.m., firing a 92-mph fastball toward Brewers leadoff guy Eric Sogard and giving the Cubs a shot of adrenaline. That always wears off, but the Cubs are a different team when Arrieta sticks his chest out and triggers his perfect posture into a crossfire delivery.

Arrieta looked sharp in his first real action since Labor Day, even as his five-inning, 71-pitch limit exposed how fragile this pitching staff might be right now. If it’s not Jon Lester laboring at the top of the rotation, it’s the softer spots in the middle of the bullpen, or questions about how much wear and tear the Cubs can take after a deep playoff run in 2015 and last year’s World Series madness stretched into early November. 

But Arrieta basically picked up where he left off as the NL pitcher of the month for August, realigning his unique mechanics and generating enough power from his right leg, restarting the momentum in a second half where he’s shown the flashes of dominance you saw during his 2015 Cy Young Award season. 

Arrieta exited this game with a 2-1 lead – before it spun out of control – and passed one test by hustling to cover first base to complete an inning-ending 3-6-1 double play in the fifth. He walked just one of the 20 hitters he faced and could really only regret one pitch in the fourth inning, the 92-mph fastball Domingo Santana drilled off the batter’s eye in center field.

“I felt OK,” Arrieta said. “I can tell that something happened. I think it’s just the residual feeling of something like a hamstring strain. But no pain, really no discomfort. That’s a good sign.

“Tomorrow is the biggest indicator moving forward of how we’ll be able to approach this. I don’t see any reason that I won’t feel good tomorrow.”

Arrieta is scheduled to make two more regular-season starts, but this dramatic comeback means the Cubs might be able to treat those as controlled experiments instead of must-win situations.

“Just an incredible baseball game,” Arrieta said. “This is a really awesome time to be in an organization like this, in a division like the NL Central, where there’s a couple teams that have playoff aspirations in mind. If we take care of business here over the next few days, we get a couple steps closer.”