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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

Pre-Season Evaluation

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?

Post-Season Verdict

No.

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.

Future Prognosis

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

Pre-Season Evaluation

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.

Post-Season Verdict

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.

Future Prognosis

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.

  • ichabod

    saw exactly the same thing when i saw him this summer. was kinda disappointed to be honest

  • Idaho Razorback

    Luke:
    Junior Lake=Shawon Dunston?

  • Believe in 2015

    Great article Luke! I hope that Lake continues to harness his skills and contribute to the Cubs in the near future. Maybe a Castro 2.0?

  • MightyBear

    Great job as always Luke. Theo mentioned when he first came to the Cubs that the farms system lacked potential stars. I believe Lake is a potential star as mentioned. It also sounds like he’s a potential bust. However, the fact that he is so young is an indicator not to give up on this kid. Hopefully he’ll come around. If Lake could fill 3B and Watkins could do what I think he can do at 2B, the Cubs would have one great young infield that could all peak together.

  • http://bleachernation DL Huyck

    Lake looks like a major leaguer and I agree he can make the great play easliy. As stated strikes out way too much and makes stupid errors.

  • http://www.viewfromthebleachers.com Norm

    Lake “definitely” made progress???
    I’m not so sure.
    His first 7 games he had 8 walks and 3 k’s. That, to me, seems like quite an aberration.

    I know I’m cherry picking stats, but remove those 7 games, and Lake’s BB rate is 6.5%, K rate is 24.3%.

    Then look at his baserunning. It seems to have fallen off a cliff; going from 38 steals at 86.3% success rate all the way down to 21 steals and only 63.6% success rate.

    I don’t know if he made ANY progress at all. Just as much boom or bust as he ever was, IMO.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      If I remember correctly, Lake surprisingly grew a couple inches and added the associated weight between the start of 2011 and the start of 2012, so there’s a pretty plausible explanation for the change in stolen bases.

      • terencemann

        I hate to repeat this from below but I’ve read other fans comments (on BCB) that somewhere around half of Lake’s 2011 steals were delayed steals. Anybody else remember seeing that?

  • http://bleachernation.com lou brock lives

    If his arm is as great as you say it is then he should be pitching for this organization or be traded for a top quality pitcher because that is what we need.

    • WGNstatic

      Perhaps, but there is no position on the diamond where staying focused and repeating consistently repeating a physical movement is more important than for the pitcher.

      Sure, he’d be a fireballer, but what is the likelihood he would be able to harness that and be anywhere close to hitting his spots.

      • terencemann

        I think if they felt he could command a fastball well enough to pitch he’d be on the hill.

  • Fastball

    I think a lot of this lack of concentration / focus is pretty wide spread in the Cubs system. I believe it’s a direct reflection of the coaching we had in our farm system. Pitching, Fielding and Hitting mechanics and philosophy/approach has been extremely lacking at all levels. These kids are young and they can’t figure it out on their own. I believe that we started to see some improvements in the hitting late this past season. That’s because Theo made changes in the organizations hitting instructors. This off season he has made some changes in the pitching instruction leadership. I believe we will see vast improvement from these raw talent kids this year. It takes a full year to implement change in any type of organization and then see what those change impacts are. It takes time for acceptance, implementation, application, enforcement and then results. I think a lot of these kids where just kind of wandering aimlessly through the minor league careers and got lost along the way. Sometimes great baseball minds don’t know how to teach.

    • DocPeterWimsey

      Teaching “concentration” is and always has been far beyond the abilities of baseball coaches. I suspect that this is just a more general issue that is more prominent due to the banning of things like amphetamines and other PEDs that let one focus better. After all, in the “old days,” if a guy screwed up on the bases or made an obviously bad throw, then he made damn sure that his teammates saw him drinking from the “leaded” coffee before the next game.

  • Starwin Bastro

    Hopefully his numbers in the very competitive LIDOM in the Dominican will point to a new focused and motivated Lake. Through 20 games with the Estrellas Orientales (who coincidentally are referred to as the Chicago Cubs of the LIDOM having not won a title since 1968 which is truly remarkable considering its a 6 team league) Lake has a slash line of .354/.386/.523. I would like to see the K/BB ratio a little lower since it is currently at 4/1 but his 5 SB in 5 tries is also a plus. Asides from one bad game early in November his defense has been steady and I believe he is playing mostly 3rd base.

    • Starwin Bastro

      Actually his numbers have dropped in the past week his slash line is now 330/389/464 but nonetheless still impressive numbers

    • terencemann

      I haven’t seen it but I’ve read that Lake has this crazy delayed steal that takes advantage of inexperienced catchers and pitchers. The steals might not translate to the ML level.

  • joe atamian

    More importantly, can we have the baked ham recipe.

    • Joker

      ^^^^ Seconded

      • CubFan Paul

        yea…recipe please.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      More of a glaze recipe. I take a pre-sliced ham and stick it in the slow cooker on high with just enough Mountain Dew to cover the bottom of the vessel and a splash of hot sauce. The steam from that helps heat and open up the same slices allowing the glaze an easier time getting in between the slices.

      Then on the stove, I pour a can of Mountain Dew into a small pan and simmer it until it has reduced by about half. Then add about a third of a cup of brown mustard (I don’t measure any of this, by the way), a quarter cup or so of brown sugar, a couple more splashes of hot sauce, a heavy pinch of salt, and a shot of real soy sauce. Stir that up and keep it simmering until it has reduced down enough that it will coat the back of the spoon you’re stirring with.

      Then remove the ham from the slow cooker, dump out any liquid remaining in it, turn the cooker down to low, put the ham back in, and pour the glaze evenly over the top. I didn’t use a hot enough mustard this year, and the ham came out a little sweet. Still delicious, though.

      • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

        That sounds like heaven …

        … if I liked ham.

        • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

          Should work just as well on most pork dishes. Drop the brown sugar and I think it would work for chicken too. Or could be adapted to, anyway.

          • fromthemitten

            how thick are the slices?

            • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

              Whatever you prefer.

          • cheryl

            Sounds a little bit like the fireman’s winning recipe in the New York City contest between firemen and chefs, but better.

  • Joker

    Chalk me up as one who hopes Lake figures it out and makes it (3B is his to take it would seem) but I too am highly skeptical. I got the opportunity to watch him play a couple of times versus Chattanooga this year and one thing I noticed was glaring to me: The kid wouldn’t tuck in his jersey! Call me old fashioned but that’s a sign that he is either immature, defiant, or a space case.

    Of course, the fact that none of his coaches MADE him tuck it in speaks volumes as well. Wonder what Theo’s “The Cubs Way” says about adherance to and administration of the uniform policy?

  • Fastball

    At 22 I’m sure we all had perfect concentration. Wonder what goes through a kids mind at 22. Every 15 seconds he is probably thinking about something other than his next ground ball. They do make legal drugs for concentration issues. Maybe they just need to add those to the gatorade bucket. I hope he learns to concentrate. He may not have had much structure in the area of concentration growing up. It’s a skill that has to be developed along with everything else in life.

  • terencemann

    The two times I saw McNutt pitch he was incredibly hittable.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      If that was early in the season, I’d believe it. It wasn’t until late July or August that he figured what to do as a reliever. When I saw him, he didn’t impress me as much as Zych, but he did look like a major league reliever.

  • fortyonenorth

    They do make legal drugs for concentration issues.

    The most common drugs for treating ADD and ADHD are amphetamines. Can a baseball player, with a legitimate diagnosis and prescription, take these without running afoul of the PED guidelines?

    • DocPeterWimsey

      Can a baseball player, with a legitimate diagnosis and prescription, take these without running afoul of the PED guidelines?

      Yes, or at least in some circumstances. Some players with asthma have to get some clearance to use treatments with steroids, for example, and I am pretty sure there have been players taking ADD drugs. Of course, the issues is whether they really have ADD, or if they are trying to go from “normal” to “Zen Master.”

      I’m pretty sure that this also applies to herpes medication, if you are willing to admit that you need it. :-)

      • Webb

        Y’know, I always wondered if Braun’s steroid case had something to do with an STI or impotence. That isn’t a joke BTW, there were a few quotes I heard through the whole saga that just made me speculate.

        • DocPeterWimsey

          It was widely speculated/rumored that this was the case. Herpes drugs in particular alter hormone levels in order to control outbreaks. Given that Braun basically repeated his 2011 numbers in 2012, it seems both unlikely and improbable that whatever caused him to test positive was affecting his play.

          • Kyle

            None of which explains the presence of synthetic testosterone.

  • muley

    looking forward to Junior’s AAA debut.. The wife and I catch about a dozen or so I-Cubs games each year… Hoping for big things from both these guys

  • Fastball

    don’t know. but if he has a real doctor prescribe them after a real diagnosis. can’t see how the league could make that illegal for a guy. Half of America is on that stuff I think. One of my sons had to take it for a little while. turned him into a 4.0 student in one semester. He didn’t need to be on them for very long but we saw a difference almost immediately and it has changed him ever since. So … I don’t like the idea of having to take them but in the right diagnosis it can have positive outcomes and it doesn’t have to be a long term thing.

  • BluBlud

    Its funny, because Lake(as well as Soler) seems like a mythical character. He is almost big foot like. Does he exist or doesn’t he. I have always been infatuated by Lake and would love to see him break out. I think he can be a huge impact player if he strings it all together.

    On the flip side, as much as I’m opposed to trading our prospect, I wouldn’t be heart broken if he was traded. If he could bring us a Justin Upton or a Giancarlo Stanton as part of a package, I would ship him out without blinking.

  • Kyle

    When you have to parse a season down to a guy’s best 14 innings to find some optimism, and in that 14 innings he still has a major red flag (8 BB), then I feel comfortable calling him a bust. I’m a little annoyed we rostered him.

  • http://bleachernation.com lou brock lives

    Wasn’t Marmol a catcher before he was converted to pitching ? How great was his concentration level ? All I know is if Lake has the ” best ” arm in all of baseball infielders it is a serious mistake not to at least try him on the mound before we trade him to someone else who does. I had heard Lake cannot hit a breaking ball to save his life & if that is true he will never make it to the bigs as a position player.

    • CB3

      Imo, he’s probably the real life version of Henry Rowengarter. Probably has some serious gassss, but the FO will need to teach him some secondaries. In any case though he’s probably a reliever, unless he can develop a 2nd plus pitch he’ll probably a be middle reliever.

    • Chris

      His other tools are too good to make him just a pitcher. Marmol became a pitcher because he hit .180 in Rookie ball. While being an enigma, Lake is not a prime candidate to move to the mound.

  • Kearnage

    I am not really up on my prospect development like some of the people on this site. i am just wondering if there are examples of players that are stars (or productive mlb players) now that did not put it together until they reached triple A.

    I mean is it a long shot that this kid can figure it out? is it common for players to finally break out at AAA? or at least possible?

  • Chris_RG

    I’m a huge skeptic of Lake. I too think he could break out in the Iowa — but I think he’ll have a PCL breakout. He seems like the type of guy that old-timey scouts drool over. A “tools” guy who “looks” like a baseball player. (Billy Beane, anyone?)

    He’s very much a product of the Jim Hendry era and I don’t see him ever putting together. He may be only 22, but he’s been in the system for six seasons going on seven now.

    I hope he does succeed — but I would rather see him traded to a team that values “tools” more than results.

    • MightyBear

      Again he may end up being a bust but he is only 22. It may take him longer to polish his entire game but he could end up being a superstar. or not.

  • Don

    Great article!!! Put Lake at third next year and see what he can do. We have no one else to play there. Why not? In two years it will be an infield from first to third of Rizzo, Baez, Castro and Lake!

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