Dave Keller on Top Cubs Hitters

May was a good month for many players in the Chicago Cubs' farm system. Minor League Baseball's hottest hitter and "Triple Crown" leader earned a promotion to Chicago while the Cubs' top overall prospect came alive with a slew of home runs and batted. 386 for the month.

INF/OF Jake Fox earned a call-up to Chicago after leading the minor leagues in batting average, home runs and RBI. He hit .423 with 17 home runs and 50 RBI in 40 games with Class AAA Iowa prior to the promotion.

"We talk about it being Nintendo numbers or whatever you want to call it, but it just goes to show you that when guys get the feeling and mentally everything slows down, and physically everything seems relaxed and easy, it makes the game a lot easier to play," said Dave Keller, the Cubs' Minor League Hitting Coordinator.

Fox opened 2008 at Iowa, but struggled in 29 games, batting only .222 before being sent to Class AA Tennessee. He came alive with the Smokies, hitting 25 home runs, 29 doubles and totaling 79 RBI while batting .307.

Since the demotion to Tennessee last season, Fox has hit 43 home runs and driven in 129 runs.

"Confidence is such a huge part of this game that when you have players like Jake or anyone else that's been at the higher levels, that have gone though the lower levels, that have gone through successes and failures, you're trying to get them to develop some consistency with their approach at the plate and the way they play the game," Keller said. "It has been a tremendous credit to Jake that he has reached out and made some changes physically and mentally with his approach at the plate."

Fox is 3-for-7 with a double in five games since the call-up.

Shortstop Andres Blanco joined Fox in getting a big league promotion after batting .314 with nine doubles, four home runs and 25 RBI in 43 games for Iowa. Blanco is in his second season with the Cubs after spending seven seasons with Kansas City, three of which included big league service time with the Royals.

Since joining Chicago, he is 3-for-17 with two doubles.

"Andres is a switch-hitter that uses the whole field," said Keller. "He could probably bunt for hits more often. We're trying to get him to put that into his game a little bit more since he's been over with us the last two years. He's a better left-handed hitter than a right-handed hitter. He uses the whole field."

With Fox promoted, there is no doubt as to the hottest hitter in the Cubs' system. It is the team's consensus top prospect, 19-year-old third baseman Josh Vitters.

Vitters exploded in May, batting .386 for the month with 12 home runs and 27 RBI in 29 games for Class A Peoria. In 48 games overall with the Chiefs, he's batted .348 with 13 homers and 34 RBI.

Keller said the Cubs' main focus with Vitters is his pitch selection.

"Josh has such good hand-eye coordination, and he's got good bat speed, which is virtually impossible to teach," Keller said. "The thing with Josh that we're trying to do more than anything is to continue to emphasize with him his zone as a hitter and what he needs to do to be successful when he goes to the plate.

"He makes contact and sometimes he gets a little bit impatient early in the count. Because he makes contact, he'll put the ball in play, but he doesn't put it in play with authority. Then later on during an at-bat, if he sees a couple of pitches, he'll get a good pitch to hit on his first pitch and he doesn't miss them.

"He's hitting the ball hard to the pull side and pulling home runs, and hitting the ball hard up the middle and driving the ball all over the field."

Keller was asked about Vitters' anemic walk totals. Through 48 games, Vitters has drawn only five walks in 184 at-bats.

"As time goes by, if he continues to hit in the middle to upper .300's, he's not going to get a lot of pitches to hit and the ones he does are going to be mistakes," Keller said. "So he has to really understand the situations that come up during the game when that other team knows he can do some damage and they're not going to throw him strikes.

"That is going to test his patience and his knowledge of the strike zone. In time, he's going to understand the importance of a walk. I think all good hitters from whatever level, they take their walks and then they understand other times when they get a good pitch to hit and they don't miss it."

Vitters leads the Chiefs in home runs and is tied for the team lead in RBI, but he hasn't been a one-man show in Peoria this season.

Outfielder Kyler Burke is enjoying the most success he's had since being traded to Chicago from the San Diego Padres for catcher Michael Barrett two years ago.

The 21-year-old Burke, a Padres first-round draft pick in 2006, leads the Cubs' system with 20 doubles and batted .281 with four home runs, 15 walks and 24 RBI through his first 48 games.

Keller said Burke's confidence level has shot up noticeably from a year ago, and that has parlayed into his numbers this season.

"It was a big transition for him," Keller said of the trade that brought Burke to the Cubs. "I think when we were talking about confidence and repetition and all the things that Jake Fox went through, it applies the same way to Kyler. He's a very low-key guy, but he uses it to his advantage and has tremendous ability.

"The confidence factor I think is something he's fought for the last two years because he would go through streaks where you'd think he's coming around, and then he'd go into a tailspin. It just takes time to work your way out of it. It's a good thing for guys to go through adversity so they can understand when they're dealing with success how to deal with that as well."

Another hot hitter all season for the Chiefs has been versatile INF/OF Josh Harrison, who has played second base, third and the outfield for Peoria. Harrison, a 21-year-old sixth-round Cubs draft pick from Cincinnati a season ago, has led the Midwest League in batting average for most of the season.

Through 50 games, he has batted .356 with 15 doubles, four triples and three home runs and has combined for a .392 on-base percentage atop the Chiefs' lineup with 10 walks to 19 strikeouts.

"The best thing about Josh is that he is extremely confident when he goes to the plate," Keller said. "He's got a plan, he knows what he wants to do when he gets in there, and he's aggressive in the strike zone. You don't see him chasing out of the strike zone very much at all. He gets pitches early in the count to hit, finds a way to hit the ball on the barrel, and he's been a very big catalyst for this team."

At Double-A, second baseman Tony Thomas' numbers this season indicate that he might be developing more into a power hitter than a leadoff man. Entering the month of June, the 22-year-old third-round Cubs draft pick from Florida State in 2007 was batting .283 with a career-high eight home runs.

Thomas leads his team in that category and was tied for the team lead in RBI, but he had only three stolen bases in his first 10 attempts.

"The thing that Tony has to continue to understand is the consistency of the game," Keller said. "He goes through times where he's locked in and hitting everything, and he's got tremendous leverage and a little bit longer arms than most guys from a hitting standpoint. That leverage in time, he just needs to understand how to use it to his advantage because sometimes he'll get a little bit long with his swing."

Joining Thomas as a power threat in the Smokies' lineup is third baseman Marquez Smith, an eighth-round Cubs draft pick from Clemson in 2007. The 24-year-old Smith began the season at Class High-A Daytona before earning a promotion to Tennessee at the end of April.

For the season overall, he's hit .260 with 10 doubles, eight home runs and 32 RBI after splitting time a season ago between Peoria and Daytona.

"He's got great bat speed," Keller said of Smith. "He's done a great job of getting himself in better conditioning and I think every player goes through that after they have to play a full season. Last year, he ended up playing the second half in Daytona, and it's a grind playing in the Florida State League. Marquez has had a good two months and comes to play everyday."

Shortstop Darwin Barney doesn't provide much power, but he hasn't needed to. The 23-year-old Barney, the Cubs' fourth-round pick in the 2007 draft from Oregon State, has been arguably the Smokies' most consistent hitter all season with a .318 average through 51 games.

Barney has nine doubles, one homer and 17 RBI while drawing 18 walks to 22 strikeouts. He had a consecutive on-base streak of 14 games in May and entering play Thursday had been on base in 11 of his last 13 contests.

Barney had an up-and-down season at Daytona in his first full campaign a year ago, but ended the season on a strong note by batting .407 (11-for-27) in the Florida State League playoffs to help guide the Cubs to the league championship.

He followed that up with an impressive showing in the Arizona Fall League, batting .302 with six doubles in 23 games for the Mesa Solar Sox.

"He's playing very consistently and is getting his hits," said Keller. "He's bunting for hits and he's using the whole field, and I think that he's just kind of picking up from where he left off in the Fall League. He had a great Fall League and it was a good challenge for him after playing in ‘A' ball. He's a gamer that comes to play every day and creates the atmosphere on that team with his leadership and the way he goes about his business. It rubs off on everyone else."

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