Is Junior Lake for real?

Is Junior Lake for real?

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

Avg. .285

HRs:  17

2B: 27

3B: 9

SB: 54

OBP: 324

SLG: .470

OPS: 794

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.

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  • John,

    I wouldn't read too much into what Law says, he is also especially hard on anyone associated with the Cubs. I think the biggest argument I have seen in favor of Lake, and his abilities, is the fact that he was batting 3rd yesterday in the rising stars game. Both teams were loaded with high quality hitters, yet it was Lake that was hitting in the 3rd spot. A place normally reserved for one of the best hitters on the team.

    If he continues to develop as he has this year, how far away do you project him to be? It would/will be fun to see him and Castro together on the left side of the infield and batting back to back in the line up. With their speed and ability to put that bat on the ball, they could (in a year or two as they continue to grow and develop) be a nightmare for opposing pitchers.

  • In reply to supercapo:

    Whoever his scouting contacts are, they are no fans of the Cubs. Nothing is more evident of that in how Hak Ju Lee was completely off Law's radar and only made his top 50 AFTER he was traded to the Rays -- this was before he even had a single AB with them.

    I still think Lake needs at least a year in the minors. It depends on how quickly he can adapt to the new approach he'll likely be asked to follow. As I said, he did adapt to shortening his swing very quickly, so the hope is that he can at least learn to grind out ABs. He'll probably never walk a whole lot. I'll take bumping up that walk rate to 7-8%, but it's the approach that's important.

  • The Cubs have to develop him slowly. Don't jump him to a level
    (i.e., AA) unless he is ready. We all know what happens when
    you jump a young prospect to quickly through the system.

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    I agree with respect to Lake. For all his natural talent, he is a player who relies a lot on his raw ability. I think he'll go back to AA to start the year, possibly play more 3rd base to get ready for his possible future role and to also let Logan Watkins play some more SS.

    I will also say that some prospects, like Castro, need to be promoted quickly so that they continue to face tougher competition and get better. Kind of little geniuses that need to skip multiple grades so they don't get bored.

  • I'll take Jim Callis anyday over Law or Goldstein. Jim Callis is the godfather of minor league reporting, and as you said John, he has guys who cover the Cubs system exclusively . Keith Law seems to have a bias against the Cubs farm system and Goldstein is always all over the map. Lake is still raw , but if they let him develop he can become their 3rd baseman of the future

  • In reply to Steve Flores:

    I've mentioned before that I'm a huge Jim Callis fan definitely a guy who's been an influence for me. If Callis told me that Lake had no chance, no instincts, and could only make it a a pitcher, I'd be much more inclined to believe it -- but Callis doesn't write that way.

    I don't disagree that there is much to be concerned about with Lake, I just think the way they present it is sort of obnoxious.

  • Sounds like Goldstein & Law are seeing what they want to see, maybe a little biased.

  • In reply to ChiRy:

    I think once some people make up their minds on something, it's hard to change it. Lake has been getting panned by some people almost since the day he was signed, yet he's made it all the way to AA and to the AZ Fall League rising stars game. It seems to me they're invested in their original opinions and that won't change until Lake succeeds at the major league level. It'll be interesting to see how they justify it if they turn out to be completely wrong.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I think that is especially true with guys like them who scout so many prospects, and don't focus on a small number of clubs as Callis does.. They don't have the time to delve deeply into each and every prospect from every level of every club. They get 1 or 2 looks, then they've already made up their mind.

  • In reply to ChiRy:

    Exactly ChiRy! I noticed that in regard to Szczur. Evaluation is still the same as it was over a year ago. His power, defense and arm strength have all improved since then.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    That's one of the things that I took away from one of the linked Bohringer interviews -- prospects are always changing from year to year, sometimes even within the year, and there are always peaks and valleys. There are so many prospects out there, you really need as many scouts as you can, and you need them focused in on certain teams.

    Do you have any idea how many scouts were working under the pro scouting department last year, and potentially how many there could be this year? The more the better as far as I'm concerned. The longer the looks you can get at these kids, the more true the evaluation.

  • In reply to ChiRy:

    Nice observation, ChiRy. Prospects are anything but constants and unless you evaluate and constantly re-evaluate then you fall behind. Guys like Lake and Szczur are different and better players than they were a year ago.

    I don't know the exact numbers on scouts but I do know it's an area the Cubs will address over the next couple of years.

  • fb_avatar

    Good stuff per the usual John. Lake is definitely one to keep an eye out for.

    I heard on MLB Radio that the Cubs might be shaking the A's tree to see if Gio Gonzales falls out.

  • In reply to Michael Caldwell:

    Now that would be a move to really get excited about. It would take prospects but I'm sure this new front office has an idea of which guys they would consider trading. Getting a young pitcher like Gio isn't an opportunity you get everyday.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to John Arguello:

    It sounds like Oakland is definitely shopping Gio.

  • In reply to Michael Caldwell:

    Yankees in on him too and they have two top pitching prospects to deal. I'm not sure we can compete with them, especially given their urgency to win now and not later.

  • In reply to Michael Caldwell:

    And thanks!

  • Do you believe it is wise for a prospect to skip a whole level.
    Or is better to promote within the season. I know each player
    is different, but I don't believe in skipping a whole level.

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    I think it depends on the prospect and how advanced they are. You have guys like Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey, Mark Prior, Steven Strasberg, etc. where it would have been a waste of time. The same is true, to a lesser extent, with Starlin Castro. But those guys are the exceptions rather than the rule. I think for the most part, one level at a time fits most younger prospects.

  • John, what do you know about Lake's background? His name seems rather unusual for a Spanish-speaking Domincan. Does he have English ancestory, so that his last name has a one-syllable English pronounciation, or is it a two-syllable Latin pronounciation (even though "k" is not a common letter in Spanish)?

  • In reply to CubsFanInNorway:

    It's pronounced like the body of water when people talk about him. I imagine growing up he may have been called Lah-keh, or something like that.

    The Dominican Republic is an interesting place. About 3/4 of the people are a mix between Spanish and indigenous backgrounds. The remaining 1/4 is European and African. I imagine Lake has a European ancestor somewhere in his bloodlines but I don't know for certain. Before Lake, there were former Cubs George Bell and Manny Alexander, both Domincan players with Euro names.

    Another possibility is that, like the US, some in the DR took the names of their slave owners.

    Is there a historian in the house that can confirm one way or the other?

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Your question really had me thinking, Norway!

    I thought of a few more Dominican players with Euro surnames. ...

    Mariano Duncan
    Alfredo Griffin
    Jose Offerman

    I'm sure there are more, but that was all I was able to come up with right now.

  • Thanks, John. Never realized that George Bell, Manny Alexander, and the others were Domincan. They were all just ball players to me back in the day.

  • In reply to CubsFanInNorway:

    I know what you mean...
    The one that really threw me off was Dickie Thon. The first time I heard him speak, he had a thick accent and then I later heard him speak Spanish fluently. Had no idea he was Puerto Rican.

  • LOL! Dickie Thon! There is a trip down memory lane.

    Those who complain about Marlon Byrd's lack of production should look up Dickie Thon via wikipedia, for example. Anyone who gets hit in the face by a pitched ball and returns to play should be given a break or three.

  • Did someone call for a historian? I am a Latin Americanist though the Dominican Republic is not exactly my specialty. If there is a one size fits all answer for surnames that are not Spanish in background it is a lot of migration over the last, say 519 years. Much of the Caribbean was taken from Spain in the late 1600s, bringing English, Dutch, French, Swedish, Danish, etc., and then their slaves as well. And there is and has been a lot of travel between empires and ex-colonies.

    In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there were programs in much of Latin America, including the DR, to "whiten" the population by bringing in Europeans. Add foreign ownership of much of the economy bringing in managers and agents as well as US occupation early in the 20th century and there has been a lot of opportunity to diversify.

    That is the short answer. But, hey, I come here to take a break from work!

  • In reply to bruno14:

    Thanks Bruno! Great info!

  • In reply to bruno14:

    THIS is why I LOVE this blog!

  • In reply to CubsFanInNorway:

    We have some of the best readers/commenters out there!

  • Take a look at the "Cubs Destinations" Spring Training link on the team's homepage for a cheap laugh. They are running a slideshow comprised almost exclusively of what appears to be a tourist couple getting directions from Reed Johnson and Koyie Hill... The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  • In reply to Eddie:

    Haha! Maybe they were getting directions for the fastest way out of town?

  • Look at us John - caring way more about a promising 21 year old prospect who could be our 3B of the future than what 31 year old free-agent Jim Hendry is going to ink at the Winter meetings. What a difference a year makes. I like this new world as a path forward a lot better than the old way.....

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