Junior Lake (Chicago Cubs Shortstop)
Weight: 215 lbs
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. Fans of a franchise mired in torment can, in their desperation, overrate the players who hold the keys to the team’s future. This seems to happen with Cubs fans especially, whether they think Starlin Castro is going to stay at shortstop long term or think Brett Jackson is a future star or that Matt Szczur is the next Carl Crawford. Don’t get me wrong, the Chicago 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. He’s the flavor of the month in the prospect world. Even though Lake’s 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.
Body: Lake is going to grow out of shortstop. He’s listed in the AFL guide as 6’3”, 215 lbs. That’s an inch taller and 15 pounds heavier than he was at the beginning of the season. He’s only 21 and looks as if 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 (He has had times from home to first in the 4.34 to 4.38 seconds range), that sort of sluggishness doesn’t play at short.
Offense: 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 caught only six times.
Defense: 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.
Conclusions: 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.