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.

Cubs, White Sox react to tragic deaths of Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte

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AP

Cubs, White Sox react to tragic deaths of Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte

The sports world woke up to some tragic news on Sunday morning.

Former major leaguer Andy Marte and Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura were both killed in separate car accidents in the Dominican Republic within an hour of each other, according to multiple reports. A Royals representative confirmed the death of 25-year-old Ventura.

The Cubs and White Sox took to Twitter to give their condolences:

Ventura was a member of the Royals from 2013-16 and won a World Series title in 2015 with Ben Zobrist and Wade Davis, who the Cubs acquired this offseason for Jorge Soler. Ventura also played with White Sox pitcher James Shields in 2013-14.

Marte, 33, played a majority of his seven-year career with the Cleveland Indians. He was teammates with Todd Hollandsworth (Atlanta 2005), Kerry Wood (Cleveland 2009-10), and Miguel Montero (Arizona 2014).

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Theo Epstein's front office is heading into Year 6 with the Cubs and they're finally talking about a pitcher as one of the organization's most exciting prospects.

That's how senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod framed his Dylan Cease report to fans at the Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago last weekend.

It was a tongue-in-cheek summation from McLeod after he spent the previous few minutes fawning over Cease, the Cubs' sixth round pick in 2014.

Of course, McLeod and the Cubs can poke fun at the lack of impact pitching the farm system has developed when the homegrown position players like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber just helped lead the franchise to its first World Series championship in over a century.

Cease, however, has been one of the more intriguing Cubs prospects for years — a right-handed pitcher capable of touching 101 mph on the radar gun.

"This guy is throwing lightning bolts out of his arm," McLeod said. "It's really exciting. But we also understaned he's only in Low-A this year, so he's far away."

The Cubs expect Cease to pitch for Class-A South Bend in 2017 after spending last season pitching for short-season Eugene and the 2015 campaign working in the rookie league in Arizona.

Cease — who just turned 21 in late December — put up some impressive numbers at both stops in the Cubs system, posting a 2.36 ERA and 1.165 WHIP to go along with a whopping 91 strikeouts in 68.2 innings. He also only surrendered one homer and walked more batters (41) than reached via a basehit (39).

Control is obviously an issue for Cease, but the upside is evident.

"He's so far away," McLeod said. "He's gonna go into 2017 as a starter. As with a lot of young guys, it's gonna come down to command and depend on that third pitch and the ability to land them for strikes.

"It's a special arm. He can pitch 95-100 mph with a big power curveball. He's unlike anyone else we have in our system since we've been here in terms of pure stuff."

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One fan compared Cease to Carl Edwards Jr. in terms of their lanky build and high velocity, setting McLeod up for a layup joke.

"Well, Dylan is much stronger physically than CJ is...as is everybody in this room," McLeod said as the ballroom filled with laugher. "Don't tell [CJ] I said that. 

"They have different body types, obviously. Carl is long and lanky and Dylan has probably put on 20 pounds since we drafted him, so he's more like 6-foot-2, 190."

By comparison, Edwards — who goes by "The String Bean Slinger" for his slight build — is listed at 6-foot-3, 170 pounds.

Edwards was drafted in the 48th round in 2011 and spent his whole minor-league career as a starting pitcher until the Cubs converted him to a reliever in 2015.

Cease may eventually go down the same path, but the Cubs are going to give him every opportunity to make it as a starter first.

Cease was one of the top pitchers available in the 2014 draft, but his stock took a hit when he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow while at Milton High School in Georgia.

That scared off a lot of teams — as did the potential signability issues with college offers looming — but the Cubs took a chance and have now watched Cease soar to a top prospect in the system (No. 4 by Baseball America; No. 7 by FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus) despite the cautious approach and lack of innings in professional ball.

"We have to thank Kyle Schwarber, actually, as one of the main reasons we got to sign Dylan Cease," McLeod said. "Because we took Kyle fourth overall, we were able to save money on the selection with him, which gave us the resources to go get Dylan Cease.

"He was a Top 10 pick in the draft — a high school arm that got hurt, fell down to the fifth round and he had a commitment to Vanderbilt, I think it was, and we were able to use the money we saved from Kyle.

"Just another reason to love Kyle Schwarber."