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.