My wife and I skip the turkey for Thanksgiving and make a beeline straight for the ham. It isn’t any ordinary ham, though. After I attack it with a mixture of Mountain Dew and brown mustard, it’s an amazingly delicious specimen of meaty awesomeness. I honestly look forward to crafting that particular dish as much as any other part of this holiday season.
Writing today’s article will not be as easy as making that delectable ham. I’ve been looking forward to writing this one since I began the series, but I’ve been dreading it as well. Junior Lake might be the single most contradictory and enigmatic player in the farm system, but summarizing his progress is like summarizing the Saturn V. It can only be done by leaving out virtually everything, or by including far more detail than most people really want to know. Joining Lake in the spotlight today is Trey McNutt. Until fairly recently McNutt was the best pitching prospect in the system. What is he now?
Prospects’ Progress does not rank prospects, it only checks in on their progress over the past season. Rankings and lists will come, but this isn’t it.
Trey McNutt, RHP
McNutt started 22 games for the Tennessee Smokies in 2011, but he only pitched 95 innings. A series of minor injuries had something to do with that lack of work, but so did his general lack of effectiveness. His SO/BB was just 1.67 that year, and his WHIP was 1.674. Those are not the numbers we expect of a highly regarded pitching prospect.
And yet, McNutt was one of the best regarded pitching prospects in the Cubs’ system, not to mention one of the fifty best prospects in all of baseball (Baseball America pre-2011 ranking). His prospect status had everything to do with a fastball that regularly touches 98 with good movement, and a very good breaking pitch, sort of a high velocity curve that can be darn near unhitable at time, and little to do with his actual numbers. However, as those numbers indicated, he had not yet learned how to harness those pitches in a way that led to consistent success as a starting pitcher (in part because he lacked a quality off-speed pitch). Would 2012 be the year he emerged as the front of the rotation candidate his pitches suggest he could be?
So the Cubs moved him to the bullpen where he really started to take off.
Blisters again slowed McNutt in the 2012 season, and again he just was not having much success as a starter. His walks were up, his strikeouts were down, and, most disturbingly of all, he was giving up home runs at a rate of about one per six innings pitched. In order to really take advantage of his stuff, McNutt needs to live at the bottom of the strike zone. A home run rate that high strongly suggest he was spending too much in the upper part of the strike zone, and it hurt him.
And so the Cubs moved him into the bullpen. He struggled mightily at first, but that is normal for a pitcher transitioning into a new role. By August, however, he had not only adapted to his new job description, he had emerged as one of best relievers in a Tennessee bullpen that was loaded with some very good pitchers. He allowed just 5 hits in his 14 August innings, struck out 13, walked 8 (still a little higher than I’d like), and produced a GO/AO of 1.15. Once he learned how to use his arsenal effectively, his two main weapons proved to be quite effective. And I do not see that changing as he moves up the system.
I think McNutt will continue to work on his change up, and if he ever polishes it into sufficient form, he would be a candidate to return to the starting rotation. In the meantime, toss his hat in the ring for the Cubs 8th and 9th inning duties in the later part of 2013 and 2014. McNutt mainly pitched in the 7th and 8th inning for Tennessee, but that had more to do with who else was in the pen with him (namely Tony Zych and Frank Batista) than his ability to close. McNutt definitely has the pitches to close in the majors if he can continue to locate them successfully.
He could move into the Cubs bullpen fairly quickly. After spending 205 innings in Double A, the Cubs might be willing to leave him Triple A for only a few months, should those months prove effective, of course. I do not expect McNutt to break into the bullpen out of spring training, but I would not be surprised at all to see him in Chicago in August.
The key number to watch with McNutt next season will be his GO/AO. We want to see McNutt pitching low in the zone and inducing ground balls. He’ll always have the stuff to wrack up some strike outs, but the ground ball should be a regular occurrence with McNutt on the mound. I think he’ll open the season in the Iowa bullpen, but I do not expect him to necessarily be the closer. The Cubs have a good crop of bullpen candidates heading into Iowa this year, and there will not be enough save chances to go around. Ultimately, though, what inning he pitches does not matter. If he wracks up the strike outs, ground outs, and avoids the long ball, he’ll be pitching those innings on a major league roster by the end of the season.
Junior Lake, INF
Junior Lake is raw baseball talent, with a heavy emphasis on the raw as well as the talent. His tools, in virtually every category, are among the best in the farm system. His arm might be the best infield arm in baseball, majors, minors, college, high school, foreign, domestic, human, or robot. He puts more heat on a simple, running, side armed flip than most infielders can manage with planted feet and perfect mechanics. Couple that arm with very good bat speed, plenty of raw power, enough speed to swipe thirty bags a season, not to mention good instincts and soft hands in the field, and you have physical makings of a fantastic baseball player.
But Junior Lake is not a fantastic baseball player. He’s a good one, no doubt about that, but his total package is no where near the level of his tools. If he ever put it all together, he’d be one of the system’s elite prospects. The question, as it has been since he appeared in 2008, is whether or not that will ever happen.
He definitely made progress in 2012. In fact, he made enough progress that I would not be shocked to see him break out in a big way when he reaches Iowa in 2013. There are still some significant areas of concern, though, and the biggest one does not really appear on the stat sheet.
In a nutshell, Junior Lake is an exaggerated version of Starlin Castro. He is bigger than Castro, faster on the base paths, has more power, better bat speed (I think, some may argue), and a better arm. He also has all of Castro’s bad habits and concentration issues similarly exaggerated. For example, when I watched him play this August in Tennessee, I witnessed one of the best plays a shortstop could be asked to make. Charging forward on a hard grounder, he changed direction easily when the ball took a bad hop, picked the ball off the grass with his bare hand on the run, and flipped one of his patented rockets to first in time to beat a very good base runner by a wide margin. It was the sort of play that regularly makes SportsCenter. Not five minutes later, I watched him give up on what should have been an easy play because (I presume), he thought the pitcher was going to field the ball. Lake pulled up, and the ball went right past him. A few minutes later he did it again, this time behind the third baseman.
I saw the same Jekyll and Hyde effect at the plate. In one at bat he was too loose in the batting box. His head was all over the place, he flailed at pitches that were no where near the strike zone, and not surprisingly he struck out in short order. In his next trip to the plate he was a totally different hitter. It was obvious as soon he stepped in the batters’ box. His was still, balanced, and locked in on the pitcher. He checked his swing on a borderline pitch, laid off a couple low, outside breaking pitches, and then lined an inside pitch over the left-center field fence. In the first at bat he looked like Matt Garza. In the second one, he reminded me more of Derrek Lee.
On the whole, though, 2012 was a step forward. His plate discipline did improve, and as a result he walked in 7.8% of his at bats. That’s a nice improvement over 2011. His K% rose a little (to 23.4%), but he has enough power to get away a rate that high. He can’t afford for it to go much higher, though. That said, 23.4% is one of the lower rates of his career. His base running game took a bit of a step backwards again, but he still stole 21 bases in 33 attempts. His ten home runs and 26 doubles were both career highs.
Thanks in no small part to the hitter-friendly nature of the Pacific Coast League, I think his best work is yet to come. He has the potential to put up some Rizzo-like numbers in Iowa next season, if he can maintain his focus on a consistent basis. He could also struggle mightily, though. There is just no telling with this guy.
Lake has the bat speed and raw power to hit .280/.345/.490 with 20 home runs and 30 steals in the majors. Defensively, he has the athleticism to play literally any position on the diamond, including shortstop. He will never be as good a defender as Castro at short (he lacks Castro’s quickness and jump), but his arm would play very well at third or in right field. However, unless he can tame his apparent concentration issues and remain focused through every play and every at bat, his career will go nowhere fast.
The good news is that he has time to make that adjustment. Lake is only 22. He will be among the younger players in Iowa next season, and no doubt he will be among the most exciting as well. And unless something changes, he’ll also be among the most frustrating. If all goes well, he could get the call to Chicago as soon as September. Keep an eye on his BB% and K% as he adjusts to Triple A. If those numbers hang out around 7% and 23% or better, he could fight his way into the mix at third base sooner than I expect.
There is so much talent in this kid that I hate to give up on him, but I am not convinced he will ever be able to harness his tools. The ceiling is sky high, but the basement is abyss low. He could yet have a better career than anyone currently in the farm system, but I would include him in a trade without hesitation. Every prospect is a mix of risk and reward; Lake offers a tremendous amount of both, but I think the ratio is tilted towards risk.
That said, I strongly recommend that you take any opportunity you may have to watch him play in person. Reading about this guy is one thing, but watching him is a totally different experience.