Most of the baseball attention in Chicago this past weekend focused on the sputtering trade talks between the Cubs and Rangers regarding Matt Garza. However, this weekend also marked the debut of Cubs prospect Junior Lake, who hasn't received as much notice as organization-mates Jorge Soler, Albert Almora, or Javier Baez, but who is a very intriguing talent in his own right.
Lake was signed by the Cubs as a free agent from the Dominican Republic in 2007. He opened his career with a .274/.341/.404 line in the '07 Dominican Summer League, then moved up to the Arizona Rookie League in 2008, hitting .286/.335/.417. At both stops he demonstrated superior tools and athleticism (more on that below), but was raw with his hitting approach.
This rawness was exposed at Low-A Peoria in 2009: he hit .248/.277/.365 with 18 walks and 138 strikeouts in 491 plate appearances. He split his fielding time between shortstop, second base, and third base, combining for 42 errors. His tools stood out, but he had a lot of work to do.
Moved up to High-A Daytona in 2010, he improved somewhat and hit .264/.333/.398 with 35 walks and 99 strikeouts in 447 plate appearances. He split '11 between Daytona (.315/.336/.498 in 49 games) and Double-A Tennessee (.248/.300/.380 in 67 games), then put on a display in the Arizona Fall League, stealing 18 bases while hitting .296.
He returned to Tennessee in 2012, hitting .279/.341/.432 with 10 homers and 21 steals, 35 walks and 105 strikeouts in 448 plate appearances. He was hitting .295/.341/.462 with four homers and 15 steals for Triple-A Iowa before moving up to Chicago this past weekend, with 10 walks and 33 whiffs in 170 plate appearances.
All told, Lake is a career .271/.322/.411 hitter in 619 minor league games, stealing 117 bases with a 146/579 BB/K ratio in 2468 plate appearances.
Lake is a 6-3, 215 pound right-handed hitter and thrower, born March 27, 1990. The numbers are those of a guy making slow but steady progress refining his skills. That's true as far as it goes, but you really need to see Lake play to fully appreciate his potential, as well as his problems.
The tools stand out, particularly an outstanding throwing arm. He has a genuine cannon, reminding me of Shawon Dunston. Although Lake has lost some speed with maturity, he still runs well and has shown a knack for stealing bases, at times. He's physically strong and has a knack for hitting homers too, at times. The Cubs have played him all over the place; he'll make some spectacular plays at third base, shortstop, or the outfield, at times.
That's the problem with Lake: "at times." In his best moments, Lake looks like a superstar: fast, strong, a 20/20 guy with a terrific arm, like a cross between Dunston and Andre Dawson to use Cubs references. In his worst moments, Lake looks completely lost: he'll swing at a breaking pitch two feet off the plate, botch a routine defensive play, run himself into a bonehead out. Sometimes he does all of these things in the same game.
The Cubs have long hoped that Lake would iron out the flaws in his game with experience. He has made progress; the mistakes aren't quite so frequent now, although they still occur more often than they should. His swing is better than it was four years ago; he gets to his power more often now. However, pitch recognition remains a significant issue: it will be interesting to see what happens if/when major league pitchers feed him a steady diet of breaking balls.
Lake has been in professional baseball for seven years now, and it is still uncertain what kind of player he'll become. He has a window of opportunity, although with other prospects coming up behind him, he needs to take advantage of it. Having seen him play several times over the last few years, I find him a frustrating player to analyze. I've come away from games thinking he's going to be excellent, and I've come away thinking that he has no chance.
If you told me that Lake will be an All-Star four years from now, I'd believe it. If you told me he would be flailing at breaking pitches in Triple-A four years from now, I'd believe that too.