Yesterday, I wrote about Junior Lake’s time with the Cubs so far, evaluated his performance in light of an elevated BABIP, and tried to project his future value. This exercise, without drawing any hard conclusions, pointed out that it was going to be difficult for Lake to sustain the level of production necessary to be a quality regular in left field, even if his defense there became above average.
I briefly noted that Lake’s bat would play much better in center field – and there was a large discussion in the comments on that very issue – but, because Lake has been a mainstay in left field since Alfonso Soriano was traded (a trade that was partly precipitated by the need to open up regular playing time in the outfield for Lake), the focus was whether his production in left field would be sufficient long-term.
Later in the day, apropos of the discussion (though I’m implying no cause-and-effect here), Lake was flip-flopped with David DeJesus in the outfield, with Lake starting in center last night, and DeJesus starting in left. Suddenly, the discussion of Lake’s future value changes considerably.
For his part, Dale Sveum said the switch was primarily about getting a chance to see more of Lake in center field before the season ends, but it would be up to the organization whether it was worth trying to develop Lake as a center fielder, given that Albert Almora might be just a couple years away. (Per ESPN. The Almora bit is an interesting side note: it’s rare that you’d hear a Major League manager mentioning a low-A player as the future at any position, even if he’s “only” two years away.) I think that was a great move by Sveum.
Why not give Lake a little more time in center heading into the offseason? It’s where we saw him initially play when he was called up, and he did spend some time in center field over the offseason in the Dominican Winter League. The Cubs don’t have an obvious internal option to start in center field next year, with Brett Jackson still working out his offensive struggles at AA. The Cubs control David DeJesus on a $6.5 million team option, but he can play anywhere in the outfield, and isn’t necessarily a lock to start in center even if he’s brought back. The Cubs could also bring back Ryan Sweeney (free agent) or Brian Bogusevic (team control), but they are better used as fourth outfielders than as true starters.
Against that backdrop, and given the uncertainty of the offseason, the Cubs might as well see what they’ve got in Lake as a possible center fielder. Even if, as discussed yesterday, Lake’s BABIP regresses to where you’d expect it to be, he could easily put up a satisfactory (or better) line in center field, assuming he was playing adequate defense. And, on that defense, Lake has the arm, athleticism and speed to be a quality defensive center fielder if he takes quickly to the necessary instruction.
There’s very little to lose by giving Lake more starts in center field as the season winds down, even if it isn’t every single start. I’m glad the Cubs may have initiated that process last night, and I hope it becomes a relatively regular thing.
For planning purposes, having a good idea of what they do and do not have in center field could really help the Cubs heading into the offseason. One thing we all know the Cubs need is another big bat or two, and it’s a hell of a lot easier to find a big bat in left field than it is to find one in center. Further, you can find that big bat in left field without committing $100 million and a bunch of years (which is what it might cost to get someone like Jacoby Ellsbury in center).*
*And, yes, for you dreamers, opening up left field would leave open the possibility – although I cannot underemphasize how faint – that the Cubs could go after Cuban defector Jose Abreu, hoping that his bat could carry any theoretical deficiencies in the field (he’s a 1B/DH type by trade).
We’ll see how many starts in center Lake gets the rest of the way, and then we’ll see if he continues making center field starts during offseason ball, assuming he plays again in the Dominican Winter League.