Mooney: The clock is ticking on Vitters

Mooney: The clock is ticking on Vitters
February 26, 2011, 3:01 am
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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.