By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) Lake Superior. Ken Griffey Junior Lake. Great Lake. Summering at Junior Lake.
Those are all puns I’ve made about the Chicago Cubs latest savior (status pending in case Logan Watkins becomes messianic) in an otherwise bleak existence. Well, bleak is a strong word. The Cubs actually are watchable, though they’re far from great.
2013 is obviously a wash on the North Side, but anyone with any sense knew that before the season’s first pitch. But as someone who enjoys watching the game as much as the next person, I have to find any little flowers protruding through the barren concrete of Chicago baseball whenever I can.
Through Sunday, the outfielder was working a .884 OPS. His 78 plate appearances don’t even come close to qualifying him for the official league leaders, but only six guys in the National League that do qualify have a higher one—San Francisco’s Buster Posey (.887), New York’s David Wright (.904), Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt (.940), Cincinnati’s Joey Votto (.950), and Colorado’s Michael Cuddyer (.956) and Carlos Gonzalez (.958). Lake is the first player in 10 years to have two four-hit games in his first 16 played, and the first Cub to do it since 1916.
It stands to reason that scouting reports will catch up to Lake’s comet tail and pull it back a notch. Two years ago fans caught wind of the name Lake was making for himself in the minors and began asking scouting experts about him. The reviews weren’t exactly favorable.
Kevin Goldstein, formerly of Baseball Prospectus and who used to field almost-nightly questions on Twitter about Lake, encapsulated him as such:
Year in Review: Lake was on the verge of a breakout year, but his first exposure to the upper levels exposed many holes in his game.
The Good: Lake has always had impressive tools. He’s the best-looking player in a uniform, and has above-average power and speed to go with an easy 80 arm that one scout called the best in the Cubs’ system since Shawon Dunston.
The Bad: Lake’s game is ugly. He’s a complete mess at the plate with very little discipline, and he’s a sloppy defender who needs to improve his actions and footwork. He certainly has upside, but there is so much work to be done that several teams who want to turn him into a power reliever have approached the Cubs.
Ephemera: Lake began 2011 by going 27 straight games without a walk. That ended on May 7, when he drew a pair of free passes.
Perfect World Projection: He’ll be a player with some power, some speed, and at some position to be determined.
Fantasy Impact: He could contribute in several categories, but we don’t know what his peer group is; Lake’s value deteriorates if he ends up in the outfield.
Path to the Big Leagues: Lake will return to Double-A, and he’s one of those players who could reach the big leagues quickly , or get stuck at the upper levels.
ETA: Late 2013
To be fair—as many people have not been to Goldstein since Lake’s call-up, taking the “Look at how wrong you were about Lake, you wrong person!” route—Goldstein was far more correct on analysis of players in his writing career than incorrect (and we was right about Lake’s call-up ETA). And whenever someone wants to needle him for the minority of misreads he’s had, he need only to point to his new job title of pro scouting coordinator for the Houston Astros that all that wrong writing got him.
Ditto the unfair schadenfreude some are directing toward Keith Law who has long shared Goldstein’s feelings about Lake and believed Lake would be better served becoming a pitcher. Likely Law isn’t buying Lake’s hot start and is waiting to turn the “I told you so” table on his detractors.
In the meantime, damn if Lake isn’t fun to watch. His supposed defensive liabilities haven’t totally shown yet—two errors in 17 games patrolling the outfield after having played 590 of 602 games in the infield in the minors. Small sample size sure, but has there been anything to suggest he can’t fill Alfonso Soriano’s sketchy defensive shoes in left? (And Lake’s two errors came playing center field. He’s been in left since David DeJesus’ return from injury.)
And one can’t help but think if the Cubs now have one less worry for 2014 and maybe beyond with Soriano’s replacement and a guy who can fill the 2 hole and leadoff at times, too. That OPS isn’t typical of a guy at the top of the batting order, and Lake has only walked twice since being in the majors while striking out 18 times.
But if he can keep his on-base percentage reasonable in other ways—he has multi-hit games in seven of his 16 starts so far—and presumably continue to be molded by the Epstein school of learning to take more pitches going forward, the Cubs have a guy who has shown that he will crush a ball if you leave it over the plate. Better plate discipline would present quite a problem for pitchers that wish to keep Lake’s speed off the bases.
“He’s got a chance to be a really exciting player,” Epstein said. “But there’s still a lot of development left. He’s got that incredible physical ability, amazing tools, where when he is locked in, and when he is seeing the ball well, he can do some things on the baseball field that make you drop your jaw.”
Lake seems to understand he can improve himself, and it’s a good thing he recognizes that. ‘‘I feel good,’’ Lake said. ‘‘I have a better approach at the plate. I feel good, but I have to keep working.’’
As a jaded consumer of Cubs baseball for decades, I’m tempering my excitement about Lake as best I can. I know he’s a wild card with serious questions. When he went hitless in three straight games I thought, “Well, there it is. Back to reality.” Then he went 10 for 28 after that before an o-fer Sunday in the Cubs 1-0 shutout loss to the Dodgers, and I’m back to battling that Cub fan dreamer thing that creeps up from time to time.
That’s just me thinking too much, I guess. Maybe I should be more like Junior Lake, who just goes out there and plays and does it really well so far. At least try and enjoy this for now.
Tim Baffoe attended the University of Iowa before earning his degree from Governors State University and began blogging at The Score after winning the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He enjoys writing things about stuff, but not so much stuff about things. When not writing for 670TheScore.com, Tim corrupts America’s youth as a high school English teacher and provides a great service to his South Side community delivering pizzas (please tip him and his colleagues well). You can follow Tim’s inappropriate brain droppings on Twitter @TimBaffoe , but please don’t follow him in real life. He grew up in Chicago’s Beverly To read more of Tim’s blogs click here.