There may be no Cubs prospect more polarizing than Junior Lake. He's a player that's been hyped -- at times overly so. Others, like some prospect writers, have gleefully exaggerated his shortcomings, as if consciously trying to counter that hype.
The feedback I've gotten back from my own industry sources is that the answer may be somewhere in between.
You don't need to have the eye of a baseball scout and the instincts of a world class poker player to bet against a player like Junior Lake. It's not hard to see the flaws in his approach, both in the field and at the plate. In fact, if I were forced to make a bet on whether or not Lake makes an impact as an MLB player, I'd have to bet against it -- though this is not a particularly bold statement. Admittedly it's much safer to bet on those prospects who won't make an impact than those who will. The odds are greatly in your favor. This is true for the simple reason that most prospects, especially those not among the top 50 in baseball, never reach that level.
There have been many betting against Lake from the moment he was signed for $500,000 out of the Dominican Republic. He's always had enormous physical gifts yet he was frightfully raw, much more athlete than baseball player. When Lake hit .248/.277/.365 at Class A Peoria with atrocious defense in 2009 -- and then had a disastrous start to the 2010 season at Daytona (.187 with 0 HRs at the all-star break), the "I told you so's" were almost deafening. Some even speculated that the Cubs were about to give up on their would-be phenom.
And then something clicked for Lake. He hit .302/.351/.496 with 9 HRs the rest of that season.
In fact, since the middle of 2010, including a stint in the Fall League in 2011 and the Dominican Winter League in 2012, Lake has put up some pretty good numbers. If you tally up the totals (almost 1500 PAs) and make them proportional to a 600 PA season, you get the following "season"...
.289/.339/.467 with 16 HRs and 38 steals.
The majority of these numbers have been compiled at a reasonably high level of competition. Two-thirds of the numbers have been put up at what we can call AA competition or above (AA, AZ Fall League, Domincan Winter League) and the other third was compiled in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League.
But we can't let ourselves get too excited yet. Lake still has an unrefined approach at the plate. He will still swing at some pretty bad pitches. He has put up a below average 6.4% walk rate over the time frame discussed here. In the field Lake has tremendous athletic ability and elite arm strength, but questionable instincts and occasionally sloppy play.
To be fair, he has improved his approach and walk rate since last season. Between AA and the winter league, Lake has put up a respectable 8.1% walk rate over his last 621 PAs. You also may hide some of those defensive issues by putting him in the OF, where his speed and arm should play very well. But by doing so, you also increase the burden on his bat, particularly if he has to play one of the corners.
It's for many of these reasons that I still have my doubts as to whether Lake can be an everyday player in the big leagues, much less a star -- but it doesn't mean he can't at least be a useful MLB player. Perhaps he can find a fit somewhere as a starter, but right now I like him best as a potential multi-positional player who comes off the bench and adds speed and power. When you consider he can probably play 3B, both OF corners, SS, and CF, he can add tremendous value to a team's bench. In my opinion, a super-sub type role where you give him favorable pitching match-ups is ideal. Defensively, you can utilize his athletic ability while limiting his exposure at any one position.
For now though, I'm going to ignore the naysayers and just enjoy Lake's raw talent and his ability to make the occasional eye-popping play, win a game with his legs, or hit tape measure HRs. I'll worry about his ultimate role and potential impact with the Cubs when the time comes.
Dale Sveum spoke about Junior Lake yesterday...
Per Carrie Muskat
Expect to see Junior Lake in the outfield for the Cubs in Cactus League games. Lake, who has primarily played third and short in the Cubs' Minor League system, did play in the outfield in the Dominican Republic winter league.
If the Cubs need a utility player during the season, Lake could be the one.
"He's obviously the guy who has played Double-A and will go to Triple-A, and with those abilities and power, speed, athleticism, he's definitely on the radar," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. "If somebody goes down, hopefully he's doing well and progressing at third base and can get called up and get the playing time."
Lake is a little unorthodox in terms of his defensive play at third, which is why the Cubs want him to play more in the Minors and get more experience.
"You can't simulate games by [hitting] ground balls [in practice]," Sveum said. "Guys with that kind of arm don't realize how much time they really have to get rid of a ball because nobody is going to outrun that kind of arm."