It seemed to be a big question yesterday as Lake played SS and batted 3rd or the AFL rising stars game last night.
The bombardment of questions obviously obviously bothered Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein as he seemed to gleefully report anything that Lake did wrong during the game. Meanwhile Keith Law has said on multiple occasions that he'll wind up a pitcher and has said that Lake has zero instincts in the field or at the plate. Goldstein has said something similiar, but then again, they often agree.
I respectfully disagree. Lake obviously has some instincts and I'll get to Lake's ability to learn and adapt later. For now, let's look at the numbers. He hit well at Class A Daytona with a .315 average and 6 HRs. His ISO was a very solid .182. He held his own as one of the youngest players in AA (21) where he hit .248 with 6 HRs, though he did far better after an adjustment period where he started off slowly.
For the fall league this year he's hitting .315 with 5 HRs and 16 SBs. Of course, you'll hear it's a small sample size, and it is. You'll also hear it's a hitters league. That may well be too. But the Florida State League isn't a hitter's league and neither is the Southern League, yet Lake has put up some decent numbers in both. If you put the three "seasons" together, you get about the number of plate appearances you would for a full MLB season. Just for fun, this is what it would look like...
At Bats: 534
The Cubs will take those kinds of numbers from their 3rd baseman. In the field, Lake has average hands and what scouts call an "80" arm, which is top of the scale. If Lake makes it to the majors, he'll have the type of arm we haven't seen since Shawon Dunston.
Jim Callis of Baseball America has a much more positive report than Goldstein or Law. BA divides up teams, so their writers become more like specialists for certain teams. As a result, Callis covers the Cubs more closely than the other two do, so I trust his opinion and his scouts most when it comes to evaluation on Cubs prospects. Phil Rogers in today's tribune quotes the following from Callis,
"He might have the best infield arm in the entire minors, he has above-average raw power and he's suddenly running wild on the bases this year. He probably winds up moving to third base in the long run because he's so big (6 foot 3, 215 pounds), but he has the tools to profile as an everyday guy there." …
This is similar to what I've heard in other conversations I've had.
Make no mistake. There is work to be done. He's not a finished product, but remember he's just 21, so deciding that he should be a pitcher at this stage is premature. Lake has already made some progress. He's made an important adjustment in that he has shortened what was previously a long swing without losing any power -- and he still isn't done growing and getting stronger. His walk rate has climbed since the beginning of the year, though it's still well below average at around 5% for both AA and the AZ Fall league. Lake may not have the same feel for the game that Starlin Castro does, but he does have some instincts and the ability to adapt to his competition.
There is reason to be cautiously optimistic. If his other tools continue to play up and Lake continues to show a good blend of power and speed with solid defense at 3B, the Cubs can live with a below average walk rate. Even with their new philosophy, the Cubs will find room for him to play if he puts up the kind of numbers he did over the 3 leagues this season.
However, when you factor in Lake's youth and the Cubs new emphasis and instruction, don't count out the potential for him to improve his overall approach at the plate as well. His ceiling is as high as almost any Cubs prospect, particularly at the upper levels. This coming year will be a big one for Lake as we see how he adapts to Epstein's new philosophy of grinding out at bats. If he picks that up, he has an excellent chance to make it and prove his doubters wrong.