The Arizona Fall League is known as a finishing school for the game’s top prospects. Every year, each team sends six or seven of their best minor league players to work on different aspects of their games and to prepare them for the next level by playing against the best prospects the game has to offer. Over six weeks and 32 games, these selected players have a chance to show their respective teams how ready they are for the next level.
For the Cubs’ Junior Lake, the Arizona Fall League has been the cherry on top of a breakout season and has placed him in the team’s future plans earlier than most expected. The 6’-3″, 215 lb 21-year-old, who was an unsigned free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2008, has been the most exciting player at the event this year. Over 21 games, he is hitting .315 with 15 R, 6 2B, 3 3B, 5 HR, 16 RBI and is 16/16 in stolen base attempts. He leads the league in stolen bases, while also ranking near the top with a .983 OPS.
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To put those numbers into an obscene perspective, here are what they would be over 162 games:
.315, 116 R, 46 2B, 23 3B, 39 HR, 123 RBI, 123 SB
That would be arguably the best season in major league history. Now, clearly he won’t put up those numbers over the course of an entire season, or against major league pitching, but it gives you an idea of his talent. Being consistent with those abilities has been the issue with Lake over the years, however.
He hit .286 with 12 stolen bases over 47 games at the Arizona Fall league in 2008, and the then 18-year-old appeared on the fast track to the majors. But he regressed in 2009, hitting .248 over 131 games for class-A Peoria. He stole 10 bases, while being caught seven times, and struck out 138 times to only 18 walks. He also committed 42 errors, spending most of his time at shortstop. He looked outmatched on both sides of the ball with the jump in competition.
At class-A advanced Daytona in 2010, he hit .264 over 120 games. He stole 13 bases and was caught nine times, still learning how to be a base runner with his elite speed. He did cut down his strikeouts to 99 and improved his walks to 35, but his defense remained a work in progress with another 41 errors.
He entered the season a no-show on both Baseball America’s and MLB.com’s top-10 team prospect lists. Whether he used that as motivation or was just maturing as a player, he started this season on fire at Daytona. Over 49 games, he hit .315 with 19 SB and 34 RBI, impressing the team enough with his offseason dedication to promote him to double-A Tennessee. He finished the regular season hitting .280 with career highs in HR (12), RBI (51) and SB (38), while only being caught six times. He cut his errors down to 31, still a high number, but with Starlin Castro cemented at shortstop for the foreseeable future, a position switch was inevitable anyway. He has played games at 2B, 3B, 1B and the outfield, so a transition should be seamless.
Championship teams are built from the inside out. The Cubs are starting to put together a farm system that is going to pay big dividends in a few years. When you can bring up your own at premium positions, filling in the rest is easy.
Lake started the season off the radar. He is going to end the season squarely on it, and Cubs fans should start paying attention to the kids down on the farm. The next wave is finally something to talk about.