Wednesday Dish: Vitters Letting It Rip

Josh Vitters had to take a bit of a back seat in 2008. The third overall pick in 2007, he was slowed by two bouts of tendinitis in his left hand. The first caused him to miss the first two weeks of the season, and the third baseman re-aggravated the injury in his first game with low Class A Peoria. The Cubs shut him down a few days later.

While other ’07 first-round high school draftees like Madison Bumgarner, Mike Moustakas, Jason Heyward and Ben Revere were excelling in their first tries at low Class A, Vitters had to wait two months before getting back into action with Boise of the short-season Northwest League.

Vitters, a righthanded batter, made the most of the assignment. He finished fourth in the NWL’s batting race with a .328/.365/.498 line and led the league with 25 doubles. His season included a 26-game hitting streak, and he was rated the league’s No. 1 prospect.

Now back in Peoria to take another crack at the Midwest League, the 19-year-old Vitters has picked up where he left off with Boise last year. Vitters has been the Chiefs’ best hitter, anchoring the middle of their lineup with a .371/.400/.598 line through 132 at-bats. He hit five home runs in 259 at-bats for Boise last year, but he nearly matched that total in his last four games alone. He homered in each game of Peoria’s four-game series in Beloit, which they wrapped up yesterday with a 9-1 win.

"He’s got a very, very compact, short, powerful swing," Peoria manager Marty Pevey said.

Vitters didn’t hit his first home run of the year until April 25, but his recent power surge has upped his season home run total to seven, placing him in a tie for third in the league. His .371 average is good for second in the league (behind teammate Josh Harrison’s .373) and he’s also second in slugging, behind Great Lakes’ Kyle Russell, who leads the league with 10 home runs.

The only offensive category Vitters has really been lagging behind in is walks, as he’s drawn just three all season. On the other hand, Vitters has struck out just 19 times, so when he gets pitches to hit, he’s not missing them.

"My opinion of walking a lot or not walking a lot is this: you walk a lot because you’re getting bad pitches to hit," Pevey said. "I spent 16 years with Toronto, who was the epitome of "Moneyball." They found out that didn’t really work, so they’re back to normal baseball, getting a good pitch to hit and hitting it hard.

"(Vitters) is that kind of guy. When he gets pitches to hit, he doesn’t miss them. He hasn’t been missing them, he’s not fouling them back, he’s not swinging through them—he’s getting the bat on the ball."

For now, Vitters still is seeing a normal diet of fastballs from opposing pitchers, though that figures to change later in the season and as he moves up through the minors. But for as long as that’s the case, Pevey isn’t concerned about dialing back Vitters’ aggressiveness either.

"If you take a fastball middle-in or middle-away in 1-0 count, you might not see it again," Pevey said. "When you get a good pitch to hit, you’ve got to do some damage."

Defensively, Vitters has committed seven errors in 32 games at third base, four of them throwing errors. But Pevey has been impressed with his hands and arm strength, saying his footwork is where he needs to improve.

Meet Henderson Alvarez

Only die-hard Blue Jays fans and Prospect Handbook readers have heard the name Henderson Alvarez before. He snuck into the Handbook at No. 29 in the Blue Jays’ system, but now the 19-year-old Venezuelan righthander might be on his way to being one of this season’s breakout prospects.

Alvarez carried an unspectacular 2-6, 5.63 career record after two seasons of Rookie-ball into his first shot at a full-season league with low Class A Lansing. But Alvarez has impressed with a 92-94 mph fastball and has shown outstanding arm speed on his changeup. His curveball still needs work, but he’s been plenty effective nonetheless. His strikeout total is low, with only 26 in 46 innings, but his control has been superb as he’s allowed only seven walks and has yet to surrender a home run.

Despite pitching for one of the Midwest League’s worst teams, Alvarez has managed to put together a 4-3 record with a 2.93 ERA in eight starts. If you take out a couple of back-to-back mediocre starts April 22 and 27, in which he allowed nine earned runs in 10 innings, Alvarez has allowed just six earned runs over his other six starts.

Alvarez has been hot lately, allowing only one earned run over his last three starts. In his last outing yesterday against Dayton, Alvarez allowed only an unearned run on six hits over 5 1/3 innings with five strikeouts and one walk.

F-Mart Open For Business

Triple-A Buffalo left fielder Fernando Martinez closed April on a 1-for-18 skid, but he’s opened May as one of the International League’s hotter hitters. After belting a pair of solo home runs yesterday against Pawtucket righthander Clay Buchholz, he was batting .343/.395/.700 for the month, with six home runs, five doubles and 15 RBIs in 19 games. And with a 6-to-9 walk-to-strikeout ratio in 70 at-bats, it appears that the 20-year-old Martinez has caught up with the speed of the Triple-A game. He leads the IL with 22 extra-base hits.

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