SIOUX CITY -- Ten years ago, fresh out of high school in the southeast suburbs of Los Angeles, Josh Vitters was the third overall pick in the major league baseball draft.
The Orange County Register suggested the senior standout from Cypress High might be the No. 1 guy in those 2007 selections. And, even though he did reach the “bigs” for the last two months of the 2012 season, he’s preparing to begin his 10th professional campaign as the third baseman for the Sioux City Explorers.
Once again, we’re reminded that American Association baseball brings some high-level talent to our town and each of the 11 others in the league.
Backtracking to the draft in ’07, the prestigious top pick went to the Tampa Bay Rays, using it on Vanderbilt University pitcher David Price. And, Price, who made it to The Show late in the following season, has been one of the game’s top lefthanders ever since, currently dialing for the Boston Red Sox.
Selected second by Kansas City was another L.A.-area native, Mike Moustakas, both a teammate and rival with Vitters when those two were touted among the elite in American high school baseball. Moustakas, as you probably realize, has been the Royals’ regular third baseman since 2011, not counting the knee injury that limited him to 27 games last year.
Next came the Chicago Cubs, grabbing Vitters. More than two months later, mere minutes before an August 15 deadline, a $3.2-million signing bonus won out over the national letter of intent the 6-2, 200-pound slugger had signed with Arizona State.
It was a financial windfall that provided some financial freedom. Together with his paychecks from eight years in the Cubs’ organization -- he finished 2012 in Chicago after a promotion in early August -- it allows him to keep chasing the dream, so to speak.
Mindful that a superstar named Kris Bryant blocked his path to third base at Wrigley Field, Vitters hasn’t thrown in the towel. He’s hopeful of finding another chance through an independent team that has had nine players signed by organizations since September of 2015.
“Obviously, the reason we’re able to land a guy of this stature is the success we’ve had in moving people on,’’ said X’s Manager Steve Montgomery.
This isn’t a development Montgomery anticipated after securing Tommy Mendonca to return for a fourth season here at the hot corner.
Mendonca, the Most Outstanding Player as a sophomore for champion Fresno State in the 2007 College World Series, has now been traded to the Lincoln Saltdogs for the infamous “player to be named later.’’ So, he’ll most surely be a thorn in his old team’s side, playing for a Central Division rival.
Montgomery, who makes his off-season home in Lithia, Florida, near Tampa, has spent 16 years around independent baseball, learning that many players’ competitive fire tends to wane when the likelihood of moving up is all but gone.
In this instance, “Mongo” didn’t question Mendonca’s potential for another quality season as much as he wondered what Vitters might bring to the table.
“I saw him at a tryout with the Tigers,’’ said the X’s fourth-year pilot. “He’s spending his own money to go down (come from California to Florida) and try out. It showed me that the love of the game and the passion is still there.’’
Vitters didn’t regain this mindset until he’d sat out the 2015 season, disappointed over his release by the Cubs. He wasn’t very inspired last year, either, struggling through a lackluster season in the independent Atlantic League.
There were mitigating circumstances, though, not the least of which was a dubious diagnosis after batting only .213 in 112 games with the 2014 Iowa Cubs of the Class AAA Pacific Coast League.
Prescribed medication typically used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder, he experienced adverse side effects.
“I finally got off the medication and I feel a hundred times better,’’ he said. “I took it for the last few years and it never really sat well with me. They thought I had ADHD and it was getting to the point where even I thought I had it.’’
Re-energized, Vitters was one of two players that in Montgomery’s view stood out at the Tigers’ workout. The other just happened to be shortstop Nate Samson, the 2016 American Association MVP who played alongside Vitters at several stops in the Cubs’ farm system.
They’ll be side-by-side again here.
“It was really late and everyone had their players kind of set for spring training,’’ said Vitters, surmising why strong showings didn’t get he or Samson picked up. “We’re both hoping to show what we can do and hopefully help Sioux City win some games. I’m really happy for the opportunity to continue what I love to do. I just know I’m going to have fun this year and that’s really all I can control.’’
Like Samson, Vitters had several former teammates to congratulate when the Cubs ended their 108-year World Series championship drought in November. He becomes the third player here from a talent-rich Cubs organization that couldn’t make room for everyone in Chicago. The X’s are also bringing back reliever P.J. Franceson, the closer for the Cubs’ Class AA affiliate (Tennessee Smokies in Knoxville) two seasons ago.
“There were a few tough years with that rebuilding process (by the Cubs),’’ said Vitters, whose older brother, Christian, played for half a season in the Association, batting .303 for the 2013 Gary SouthShore Railcats. “There was a lot of pressure on people. It clearly worked out for them and I was rooting for ‘em. I obviously wish the best for them. They’ve given me the biggest opportunity to live out my dream.’’