Junior Lake (Chicago Cubs Shortstop)
Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2007
Cubs fans are looking for reasons to be optimistic about the organization’s near future. While it’s nice to have a competent front office in place, there’s not a lot of talent down on the farm upon which to be stoked. Don’t get me wrong, the system has a handful of future contributors at the major league level, just no true stars. This includes Junior Lake, who has an interesting set of tools but has yet to overly impress anyone with his performance. Even though his value ceiling isn’t notably high, Lake’s development will be one of minor league baseball’s most interesting to keep tabs on simply because he may be subject to three (yes, three) positional changes down the line.
Lake is going to grow out of shortstop. He’s listed in the AFL guide as 6’3”, 215lbs. That’s an inch taller and fifteen pounds heavier than he was at the beginning of the season. He’s only 21 and looks like he’s going to get bigger. Not a good, upper body development, power improving bigger, but a thigh and ass widening bigger. That kind of bigger usually means slower, and as an already fringe average runner (I had times from home to first in the 4.34 to 4.38 seconds range) that sort of sluggishness doesn’t play at short.
Lake has the physical tools to be an offensive asset. He has very good eye-hand coordination and fine bat speed. His swing path has some leverage to generate natural loft. When he makes contact, it’s usually very hard. His raw strength and the torque generated by rotation in his hips give him above average raw power. His plate coverage could use some work. Lake starts out in an open stance and doesn’t come totally closed when he strides, leaving him vulnerable on the outer half. What really limits his offensive output is his approach which, to put it nicely, is “aggressive”. It borders on reckless with lots of early count hacks. He had 19 walks in 478 plate appearances in 2011. That’s deplorable. He doesn’t allow himself to get into favorable counts where he can unleash his physical gifts into offensive production.
That recklessness carries over to the bases where Lake tries to swipe bags every chance he gets despite his fringy speed. He likes to run on first pitches and is unopposed to attempting to steal third base as well. The weird thing about Lake’s irresponsible and predictable base running is that it worked in 2011. He stole 38 bases and was only caught six times.
I’ve already discussed the growing issues Lake has with his range which is fast becoming (if it isn’t already) insufficient for shortstop. He does have good hands and an arm that grades out as at last a 70 on 20-80 scale. He’ll likely move to third base in the near future, where the lack of range won’t be as big of a deal. If he outgrows that position, he’ll move to right field where the arm can still be an asset. He’d probably play a fine right field, but you have to wonder if he’ll hit enough to be a regular in the outfield. Based on what I saw in Arizona, I doubt it.
Junior Lake’s career could travel down several avenues. He could stick at third base where replacement level is so low that a .260/.330/.480 line would stick. He could outgrow the infield altogether and move to the outfield where he’d just be an extra guy. Perhaps most intriguingly, the Cubs could move Lake and his howitzer to the mound, teach him to throw a slider and have a power bullpen arm for a few years. Until Lake’s swing happy approach falls through at the upper levels, the Cubs likely won’t cross that seldom traveled bridge.