Is Josh Vitters the Next Jeff Baker?

When the Cubs selected Josh Vitters with the third overall pick in 2007, he reportedly had the best swing in the draft and was thought to be the top high school bat with an excellent combination of bat speed and power. Scouts thought so much of Vitters at the time that he was receiving 70 grades on his future power potential and hitting ability. The only question was about his defense at third base. But other than that, all signs pointed to him eventually taking over for Aramis Ramirez.

Josh Vitters struggled staying on the field early in his professional career. Nagging injuries and a broken left hand slowed his development to the point he played 100 or more games in a single season two times in his first four full years of pro ball. Vitters has had 500 plate appearances in a single season one time. He topped 480 plate appearances twice and in a third season, Vitters went to the plate 452 times before finishing the year with the big league club.

The Rockies selected Jeff Baker in the fourth round of the 2002 draft. Signability concerns and questions about him being able to hit with a wood bat dropped Baker to the fourth round. The Rockies still gave him a $2 million signing bonus. At the time he was drafted, scouts saw legitimate power and the ability to drive the ball to the opposite field.

Jeff Baker’s development was slowed by wrist and thumb injuries over the first three years of his pro career. Baker did not play in at least 100 games until 2006, the same season he topped 500 plate appearances for the first time. Like Vitters, Baker was drafted as a third baseman and did not play a different position in the minors until his fourth year of pro ball.

Josh Vitters’ big season came in 2012 with the Iowa Cubs before he received his call-up to the Show. Josh Vitters put together a .304/.356/.513 slash line in 110 games (452 PA) in the PCL. The 22-year old Vitters hit 32 doubles, two triples, 17 home runs, walked a career-high 30 times and posted a .869 OPS. Vitters played 95 games at third base and nine games at first base. The Cubs started moving Vitters around the diamond due to his lack of improvement at third base the season before last (2011). Vitters played 32 games at first base at Double-A Tennessee then saw action in the outfield during his time in the AFL (2011).

The Cubs’ called Josh Vitters up to the big leagues in August of last year where he hit .121/.193/.202 with two doubles, two home runs and a .395 OPS in 36 games (109 PA)

A finally healthy Jeff Baker played in 128 games (538 PA) for Triple-A Colorado Springs in 2006. The 25-year old Baker hit .305/.369/.508 with 30 doubles, four triples, 20 home runs and a .877 OPS in the PCL. Baker spent a majority of his 2006 season in right field (120 games) with an up and coming third baseman in the Rockies system on his heals at Double-A Tulsa. Baker received a cup of coffee with the Rockies the year before. In 12 games (43 PA) for the 2005 Rockies, Baker managed a .211/.301/.395 line with four doubles, one home run and a .697 OPS. The Rockies called Baker up again in 2006 and he responded with a .368/.379/.825 line with seven doubles, two triples, five home runs and a 1.204 OPS in 18 games (58 PA).

Josh Vitters has played in only 33 games this season due to more nagging injuries and three trips to the disabled list. Vitters was hitting .295/.380/.511 with four doubles, five home runs and a .891 OPS before hurting his hamstring in July and landing on the DL. Vitters returned briefly from the DL, hit a home run, re-injured his hamstring and could be looking at another stint on the DL.

The additions of Kris Bryant and Mike Olt have clouded Vitters’ future with the organization even more than before. Bryant has gotten off to a fast start and could be at Wrigley in the near future if he continues to develop the way he has since signing his first professional contract. Olt is a much better defender than Vitters, and put up a monster season at the Double-A level a year ago (.288/.398/.579/.977, 17 doubles and 28 home runs). Olt has really struggled this season while dealing with concussion symptoms after getting hit in the head during winter ball last off-season. The Cubs had Vitters working in the outfield and at first base after trading for Olt.

Jeff Baker found himself in a similar position before the Cubs traded for him in July of 2009. Baker started learning different positions to increase his versatility to the Rockies and other teams if necessary. Baker saw the handwriting on the wall that he would have to be able to play as many positions as he could in order to stay in the big leagues with the amount of talent coming up in the Rockies’ system.

Jim Hendry traded now Tigers’ reliever Al Alburquerque for Baker and the utility player was labeled as the poor man’s Mark DeRosa. Baker played all four positions in the infield, and the corner outfield spots during his time with the Cubs while mashing left handed pitching. Baker has a career .301/.353/.526 slash line against southpaws with a .879 OPS.

Baker’s ability to hit left-handed pitching showed up during his minor league career. Baker hit .303/.370/.576 against lefties in 2005 and .347/.419/.636 against southpaws in 2006.

Like Jeff Baker, Josh Vitters has hit extremely well against left handed pitching. Vitters put up a .270/.337/.483 slash line with a .820 OPS against lefties in 2010 while hitting only .238/.302/.374 versus right handers. And his numbers against left handers got better in 2011 (.299/.338/.465) and 2012 (.276/.320/.519) while moving up the system. In limited action this year, Vitters is hitting .343/.378/.600 with three doubles and two home runs against lefties and .227/.363/.394 with two doubles and three home runs against right handed pitching.

Josh Vitters still has plenty of time to develop into a big league regular, either with the Cubs or with another organization. But his career path, and production, is very similar to Jeff Baker.

Sometimes players do not end up meeting the expectations given to them on the day they are drafted. And sometimes players surpass their projections such is the game of baseball.

While this might be seen as a knock on Josh Vitters, it is not meant that way at all. Jeff Baker has carved out a very good career for himself and Vitters would be fortunate to have such a career. But maybe the expectations on Josh Vitters should be adjusted accordingly and allow him to become a successful big leaguer that just helps a team win ballgames.

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