Photo By Scott Jontes

Because of most Chicago Cubs fans’ distance from the prospect game – I include myself – the cycle of hype and deflation is one marked by particularly pronounced peaks and valleys. Typically, we hear about the next great Cubs player – a top draft pick, a kid tearing up AA, or the latest trade acquisition – and there is a feverish rush of literature about the player. We love him. We can’t wait to see his future.

And, with a few exceptions, we soon forget about him.

That is, of course, not a reason not to become more well-acquainted with the Cubs’ farm system – in fact, it’s exactly the opposite. We would be better served taking a more measured approach to our excitement about prospects, particularly younger ones who’ve not had a multi-year demonstrated record of success.

Where am I going with this?

Well, last Fall, Cubs’ shortstop prospect Junior Lake exploded onto one of those aforementioned peaks by virtue of a great start to his year in High-A, a quick promotion to AA (at just 21), a surprise selection to play in the prospect-heavy Arizona Fall League, and then a huge offensive performance in that league. Inevitably, by November, Lake was one of a handful of names on most folks’ lips when they talked about the “future.”

The Cubs didn’t exactly disagree, placing Lake on the 40-man roster, and then bringing him to CubsCon. Prospecting services didn’t really disagree either, placing Lake on most of their team top ten lists.

These are all good things, engendering positive thoughts, none of which I’d like to dissuade you from.

Instead, I’d like to remind you that Lake is a 21-year-old kid, who, before 2011, hadn’t had much offensive success on his climb up from Dominican ball in 2007. He’s a great athlete, which helps his future stock. He’s got a rocket arm – some say it’s the best in the minors – but many doubt that he can stick at shortstop long-term. If he can’t, to have much value, his bat is going to have to be more like what he did in 2011 than what he did in the preceding four years. And that bat, even in 2011, was inconsistent.

FanGraphs recently offered a thorough take on Lake, and it’s well worth a read. A selection:

In terms of athleticism, Lake has the frame and explosive movements to make scouts swoon. Listed at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, it’s easy to dream on a more disciplined Lake eventually learning how to tap into his power potential to become a 20-20 threat at whatever position he settles into. But for all his raw athleticism, Lake’s perceived lack of body control negates at least some of his ability to turn tools into baseball production. Even if Lake does not blossom into a big leaguer, his tools alone are likely to keep him in the game for many years to come on the small chance things click.

Offensively, Lake’s swing is messy and in need of significant quieting. With explosive wrists and plus bat speed, he simply does not need the extra movement to generate power. In fact, Lake quieting his stance may result in a spike in power production as his timing may improve resulting in more consistent, hard contact….

Fortunately for Lake, the Boston Red Sox were excellent at quieting hitters with “loud” hitting mechanics and pieces of that regime are now in Chicago. This leaves me much more bullish on his ability to adjust after witnessing Oscar Tejeda post back-to-back campaigns of sub-.300 wOBA’s in the South Atlantic League before a mechanical overhaul led to a spike in production and a .350+ wOBA at the high-A level.

On defense, Lake has one of the best arms in all of minor league baseball. At some point, a move to the mound may become an option if the organization were to deem his development as a position player a lost cause. In the field, his lack of body control leads to poor footwork and many errors. In the AFL Rising Stars game, his defensive flaws were on display as he made a throwing error and also muffed a softly hit ball behind the pitchers mound. A need to move off the position is likely with center field or third base being a more likely landing spot in the long run.

In pulling a 60-65 run time on the 20/80 scale from video, Lake is a plus runner. With 38 stolen bases in 44 attempts, base running is the most polished aspect of his game. With his physique, his speed should continue to be a weapon for years to come leaving him with the potential for 25+ stolen bases annually should he reach Chicago for good. In many respects, his game resembles that of a poor man’s B.J. Upton without the added value of bases on balls.

It won’t surprise you when I say that Lake’s scouting report reads like my admonition at the outset of this post. His talent is extreme, and there are reasons for excitement. But there are holes. There are concerns. For every reason to be excited, there are two reasons – statistically – that he won’t make it to the bigs.

That’s just the way it is with most prospects. It makes the prospecting game interesting and difficult. But also very important.

  • Tim M.

    Does Lake start in Iowa to begin the season?

    • Noah

      Lake will almost certainly be back in Tennessee next season, as he should be. He only posted a .248/.300/.380 triple slash in 262 PAs in AA last year. He needs to repeat the level, and honestly should probably spend the whole year there unless he makes a HUGE jump.

    • ferrets_bueller

      I sure hope not.

    • Luke

      He should start in Tennessee. He only got half a season there in 2011 and could use more polish at that level.

      He could be anywhere from 2 months to 2 years away from the majors.

      If he doesn’t make it as an offensive player for whatever reason, he still won’t drop completely off the list. Moving him to the mound has been on the radar for awhile now. In fact, had it not been for his big first half to 2011, I think he’d be learning to pitch right now.

  • Noah

    This is what I’d say about Junior Lake: of everyone in the Cubs’ entire system, including Starlin Castro and Javier Baez, Junior Lake’s ceiling is in the Top 5. However, of the Cubs’ Top 10 prospects, he’s also probably the most likely to never play a Major League game.

  • ferrets_bueller

    IMO, He’s still kinda a lottery ticket. Can’t wait to see what happens this year, though. Here’s to hoping his mechanics get straightened out…

    • Kyle

      He’s definitely on my “we’ll see what he does this year and evaluate” list. I’m not going to ignore all the scouts who love him, but there’s just so much that can go wrong there as well.

      • ferrets_bueller

        Or so much that can just…not change. The guy has so many serious issues at the moment, that so many aspects of his game need to change…His inability to walk is actually impressive, in how bad it is.

      • Luke

        In 2011 he moved himself safely out of the Abner Abreu / Michael Burgess category of drool-worthy long shots, but he’s still no safe bet. I love his ceiling, though.

        The other nice thing is his age. If he spends three more years putting it all together, he still makes the majors at 24. That’s not such a bad thing. There is no reason for the Cubs to rush this guy. Challenge him, but not rush him.

  • BD

    If you get a bunch of guys like this, hopefully a few stick. Hopefully the organization can help clean up his hitting mechanics. I think his best bet will be a move to the OF, perhaps RF with that cannon. Depends on which guys (Jackson, Szczur) you like in CF.

  • RoughRiider

    At one point when Castro and Lake were in the low minors at the same time, Lake was the one that was supose to be the better of the two but very close. I’ve been keeping an eye on Lake ever since. When I first saw Castro in the Fall League I thought he would be a solid hitter with not much power. Everything Castro hit, even if it was an out, was hit hard.

    • Luke

      Lake has the higher ceiling. Castro added polish much more quickly, but I don’t think there is any question that Lake has the higher ceiling.

      • Kyle

        Not a chance. Not now, anyway.

        The list of shortstops who hit like Castro did at Castro’s age is littered with HOFers and long-term All-Stars. Short of inner-circle HOFer, I’m not sure how Lake’s ceiling could be any higher than that.

      • ferrets_bueller

        I really can’t agree with that…

        Castro’s hit tool is off the charts, and he brings the same 20/20 potential Lake does, with plus defensive potential. Aside from arm, I dont see a single tool where Lake tops Castro, and Castro has him by several stages in Hit and glove.

        • Luke

          Lake has more power and speed than Castro, is not far behind him in range at short, and has a better arm.

          Castro has better hands and is a much better hitter.

          Castro is far more likely to hit his ceiling than Lake, but if he maxes out his tools Lake is the better player. 20HR/20SB is about the best we’ll see from Castro. In Lake, I see the potential for 25HR/40SB. Lake is likely to move to third base, which hurts his value, but that is due in no small part to Castro holding down short ahead of him.

          Now, the odds of him getting near his ceiling? Maybe 1 in 10. He has major gaps in his game, particularly at the plate; I’m not denying that for a minute. But when just talking ceiling, I rate Lake over Castro.

          And I’d take Castro over Lake every day of the week. There is more to a prospect than his ceiling and Castro has always been the better prospect.

          • Cedlandrum

            People need to understand the difference between ceiling and polish. Read what Luke is saying. It is very well laid out and I certainly agree with his premise.

            • Kyle

              I understand the difference between ceiling and polish, and I just flat-out disagree.

              Lake has a better power ceiling, sure.

              But Castro’s defensive ceiling is a bit better, and Lake’s contact ceiling is average MLBer. Castro’s contact ceiling is elite. That’s more than enough to make up the difference in power potential.

              • ferrets_bueller

                Castro’s hit tool potential is beyond elite, IMO. Its HOF type potential. Its a good 5 or 6 notches above Lake’s, while lakes power and speed potential are only a notch above Castro’s.

                I mean, really…which is a better ceiling?

                .330+, 20HR, 30SB, GG Defense, great arm, perennial leader in hits
                .265, 25HR, 35SB, Elite arm, average defense

                Anyone in their right mind would say player one has a higher ceiling.

                • JR 1908

                  Do you really think Castro has Gold Glove potential at Short? I know he has the tools for good fielding. And is still young and improving. But man, his Dfence was ridiculously bad in many ways last year. It was almost hard to watch at times. But I hope your right.

                  • ferrets_bueller

                    Easily. He might not reach it, but the potential is there, to be absolutely elite.
                    He already has amazing range, and theres nothing wrong with his arm. He can make hard plays look easy, and routinely makes easy plays look hard. Most of his errors come from plays that he should be able to make with his eyes closed. i think as he becomes more comfortable, and stops rushing so much, he can greatly improve.

                  • Luke

                    Castro absolutely has Gold Glove potential. Pick any great shortstop you care to name and watch them field the position at a similar age to Castro. The vast majority of them will look just as rough. Age is not an excuse when talking about Castro’s defense, it is an absolute and historically verifiable reason. It takes a lot of experience to play shortstop well.

                    If he does not pick up a couple of Gold Gloves by the end of the decade, I think we’ll have reason to be disappointed.

                • Luke

                  That comparison isn’t ceiling to ceiling.

                  I’ll give you Castro’s of: “.330+, 20HR, 30SB, GG Defense, great arm, perennial leader in hits”, but your ceiling for Lake is pretty low.

                  Lake’s is closer to BA of .285, 30+ HR, 45+ SB, Gold Glove defense (but not as good as Castro), best arm in the majors.

                  Again, Castro is far more likely to reach that ceiling and Castro is far and away without a shred of doubt absolutely the better prospect. But I think Lake has a higher ceiling.

                  If both guys max out their ceilings, both are first ballot Hall of Famers. What I think would surprise a lot of people is the number of players who never make it out of the minors who have ceilings just as high but never put it together.

                  • Kyle

                    We’re getting into one of my huge pet peeves about the concept of “ceiling.”

                    It apparently means “how good can a guy be if he quite magically makes humongous leaps forward in hand-eye coordination and pitch recognition.” As if those aren’t raw physical skills, too.

                    Lake’s about as likely to hit .285 in the majors on a consistent basis as Castro is to hit 40 HRs.

                    • Luke

                      If I were assuming a magical improvement in hand eye coordination or pitch recognition, I’d agree. I’m not. I’m projecting that Lake, with reasonable improvements to his swing that are not inconsistent with other players of his age at his level of experience, could hit at a slightly above league average pace in the majors, but that his speed will turn enough outs into hits to raise his overall average to the .285 range. He’s likely to always be an extremely aggressive hitter (which means he’ll be hated by the ‘OPS or bust’ crowd), and his success will depend on how well he can harness that aggressiveness and to what extent he can further iron out his mechanics.

                      His swing already looks better just over the course of 2011. Compare videos of him playing in Daytona to some of his AFL at bats. He still gets killed by a good breaking ball low and away (name me a 21 year old who doesn’t), but his overall mechanics look much smoother. It still needs some polish, but the head of his bat no longer looks like its tracing a seismograph during an earthquake.

                      If he reaches the majors at as offensive player, he’s most likely to be no better than league average at the plate, possibly a little worse. He has a longer swing and I suspect he always be vulnerable to good breaking pitches low in the zone. That said, his speed can offset quite a bit of that loss in average (especially if he can improve his bunting). He only needs to be a little better than league average in order to post that .285 average.

                      I maintain that his odds of maxing out his ceiling are still 1 in 10. He has a lot of work to do. But historically, most players never reach the ceilings indicated by their raw tools. That’s why there is more to the status of a prospect than just the height of the ceiling, and why ceiling is one of the worst methods of comparing two prospects ever devised.

          • JulioZuleta

            I’m a HUGE Lake fan. Probably one of his biggest fans, actually. I’ve always been partial to the longshot superstars. That being said, I can’t make the statement that he has a higher ceiling than Castro. I really think Starlin has the makings of a guy that will hit close to .330 each year in his prime. I also think he will consistently be around 20 HR, maybe not this year but soon after. I also think he will be a plus to plus plus defender once he gets some experience.

            Lake will not be a SS for the Cubs if he makes the majors. He’ll be 3B or a corner outfielder. By being pushed off SS, he will need to jack up his numbers even more to still be considered as valuable as Starlin. I know its a longshot, but I think Lake’s ceiling is a perennial All-Star, but I don’t think it’s at all a stretch to say, at 21, Starlin has had a Hall of Fame type start to his career.

            Pretty damn good pair of 16 year old shortstops they signed back in 2007, though.

            • bluekoolaidaholic

              Excellent post, thank you.

            • bluekoolaidaholic

              Excellent post, thank you!
              I totally agree.

  • JR 1908

    Off topic, but has anyone heard anything more about Castro’s legal situation? I can’t find anything relatively new on it… I was hoping this would be resolved by spring training, but guess thats a long shot at this point.

    • baseballet

      Uh oh, there’s an elephant in the room.

  • die hard

    Lake could be Cubs future CF if hes the athlete they say and he cant play IF

    • Luke

      Right field is more likely. He should have the power to play there. If he can get his swing straightened out and make more consistent contact he has a great future.

      If he can’t, he’ll start learning to throw curve balls.

  • Matt

    Perfect example of why most of our prospects are in the C range. High risk/reward system. We could blow up in one year, or we could be sitting in the same spot we have been for a long time.

  • Cliffy

    QT @Kevin_Goldstein: Hey Chicago kids, I’ll be at the desk again tomorrow on Comcast Chicago Baseball Hot Stove at 5pm.

    • Brett

      Thanks, Cliffy.

  • Norm

    I fall on the pessimistic side when a prospect can’t take a walk.
    I’m not writing him off by any means, but it’s just so much more difficult for players that don’t walk.
    I think he’ll be moved to pitcher in the long run.

    • ferrets_bueller

      I’d have to say I agree, odds wise. I’d put it at
      1/10- he makes it, and is a good player
      1/10- he makes it, as a replacement level player
      4/10- never plays in the majors/no significant time
      4/10- pitcher.

    • Noah

      I’m somewhat curious if the new regime will really focus on plate discipline. I know that it’s debatable if that can actually really be taught, but I will be interested to see if there is a big attempt at it and if that attempt is successful.

    • hansman1982

      you’re absolutely right that life is more tough if you can’t walk, but Lake doesn’t strikeout either so he is at least putting the ball in play. If I remember correctly, he has a sub 10% K rate which means that 90+% of the time he is forcing the defense to get him out.

      • Norm

        Lake is actually in the 22% K range…

      • ferrets_bueller

        Wrong guy- Lake averages about a K per game. You thinking about the kid from the Reds, Torreyes?

        • hansman1982

          I bet I was…I am willing to bet cash money that Torreyes will make it in the mjaors long before Lake does, I am just not sold on Lake at all. His K rate is waaaay too high and his BB rate is WAAAAAAY too low. For all of the knocks on Vitters, he has a K rate roughly half of Lake’s.

      • Luke

        I think you’re thinking of Vitters.

  • MightyBear

    He’s only 21 is the most important part of that article. If he gets 4 more years of “polishing”, he will still only be 25. He has what the Cubs have been lacking for years – athleticism and speed. I hope he makes it.

    • Noah

      He’s on the 40 man roster now, though (and had to be or he’d be eligible for the Rule 5 draft). If I’m correct, that means he has three seasons to get to the majors or he’s placed on waivers. Someone else will have to answer if he’d be able to become a free agent at that point or not. So if he ends up putting it all together four years from now, odds are he is not doing it for the Cubs.

      • Luke

        I don’t think he would be placed on waivers, he’d just become a minor league free agent. At that point he could sign with anyone (including the Cubs) and continue as before.

        • hansman1982

          In order to remain in the minors the Cubs would have to subject him to a waiver claim, if he passes through that then I think he would remain on the Cubs

          • Noah

            I’d agree with that statement because, in my opinion, if Lake isn’t on the Cubs’ active roster by opening day 2015 it’s almost certainly because he’s been converted to a pitcher.

  • steve

    I say lets let the Sox have him as compensation for Theo and be done with it. I think this would be fair for both.

  • hcs

    Cubs have claimed Cardenas from A’s…

  • Cliffy

    QT @Cubs: #Cubs claimed IF Adrian Cardenas off waivers from the #Athletics. In a corresponding move, IF Blake DeWitt was designated for assignment.

    QT @Cubs: Cardenas hit .314 with 28 doubles, 4 triples, 5 HR, 70 R and 51 RBI in 127 Triple-A games last year while fielding at 2B, SS, 3B and LF.

    • ferrets_bueller

      Nice. I’m still wondering why, exactly, Oakland DFA’d him.

      Guess what he can do that Darwin Barney can’t?

      Take a walk.

    • Luke

      Nice pick up.

  • Noah

    Hmmm, interesting. Cardenas is apparently an average at best fielder at 2B, but could the Cubs be looking at a Cardenas/Barney platoon?

  • Norm
  • Dick

    If Junior hits like he did in the Arizona Fall League, he may be the Cubs starting 3rd baseman before the end of 2012. I don’t have high expectations for Stewart.

    • Noah

      He’s not going to put up the numbers he did in the Arizona Fall League.