Should Junior Lake Be Trade Bait?

Tasos Katopodis

Junior Lake has been one of the few bright spots this season for the major-league Cubs. Should he be actively shopped this off-season?

On his way up through the Cubs system, Junior Lake was a controversial subject. Whether on Cubs blogs, prospect analysis sites, or as a member of a historically weak system, there have been wildly varying expectations on how his future will play out. His hot start this season has done nothing to quell the lack of a clear consensus, Should the Cubs' front office actively attempt to trade Lake this winter?

I can see the "Brock Redux" headlines already.

Signed in 2007 for a $110,000 bonus, Lake started through full-season ball in 2009 at Low-A Peoria. His results were maddening, in that he made errors on easy chances, but made spectacular ones as well. He struck out far too much up the ladder, and his first start in center field was as a Cub.

Regardless your assessment on the rebuild, Theo Epstein, or Lake's future with the team, Lake as a trade chip is the elephant in the room. Whether David Price, Carlos Gonzalez, or Giancarlo Stanton is your preference, any key addition will require two major pieces to acquire him. Few Cubs fans are interested in parting with any of the top five or so prospects, but league general managers aren't planning on surrendering quality pieces for a combination of five guys like Brooks Raley, Logan Watkins, and Reggie Golden. That just isn't happening.

If someone wants a quality veteran from a team that is well-run, some talented pieces will have to be coughed up. Lake is having a solid rookie campaign, which is a huge positive to his trade value. Not all teams will want him, as his defense is still less than you would want in an everyday center fielder at the major-league level. He still swings at too many bad pitches, upping his strikeouts, and lowering his walks.

Which types of teams would want Lake? Probably lower-end teams looking for a cheap, entertaining option to plug into center field. Despite the interest in anything young and cost controlled, I doubt Lake would be 'the key piece' in any major trade. Getting a Stanton from the Marlins might be possible with Lake as a second piece, but not as a first piece. I'm not sure the Rays or Rockies would be all that enamored getting him in a trade for their stars.

It will be a long winter. Lake's name will be floated in many trade possibilities. I don't imagine Epstein and Jed Hoyer would bother moving Lake to a team that doesn't value the youngster more than the current regime does. I would consider it a coin flip on Lake returning in 2014. If he does wind up being dealt, it might be as a piece in a blockbuster, or it may be in a smaller deal for a piece more pleasing to the front office.

I like Lake, but I think this may be the best season he will ever have. If that is the case, getting something for him now trumps him hitting .230 for the next four seasons. Or, it might be Brock redux, though I doubt Ernie Broglio is coming back in return. Or even David Price.

In any trade, it always boils down to the principles involved. I like Lake's season, and figure I will be rounding up a certified Cubs autograph of his in the future. He represents a potential face of the Cubs future. With team cost control, he has potential trade value, to be sure. Will he start in center next season? If so, will it be in Chicago? Will he be 'sold high'? Or, is he even nearing a high yet? Junior Lake has always been controversial, and now is no different.

***

And that's where I was going to stop. My poll question was written. 15 percent would say "Trade him", 15 percent "Keep him", and 70 percent "Depends on the return". I'd even written it up as such. That is, until two apparently unrelated things happened on late Tuesday. The Cardinals' Michael Wacha took a no-hitter 26 outs in. And I realized I didn't like the above article as written, at all. It was nice, cheery, happy, and incomplete.

Major league baseball is forever changing. For 80 years or so, racial minorities were kept out. The 1960s brought expansion, and the June draft. The 1970s brought the designated hitter, and free agency. Since then, we've learned about steroids, sabermetrics, and arbitration. Major league baseball is ever-changing. It isn't 1932 any more. Or 1975. Or 1988. Or 2005. Baseball now is baseball now, and this frustrates and saddens many people. Whether you would prefer to jet back to baseball 10 years ago or 50, what worked then isn't so viable now anymore.

In many years, the Cubs would open the gates, field a competitive (but by no means good) team, fans would attend, drink a few Old Styles, complain about Old Man Wrigley, Sam Zell, or whoever, and fight the traffic on the way home. The inner machinations of the game didn't matter. Baseball was baseball, not business. Now, that has changed.

***

Guessing right on Junior Lake is now more important, somehow. Developing players (see Wacha) is somehow de rigeur. Most of the above-mentioned baseball changes found the Cubs woefully behind the curve. With all the ticket prices now through the roof, many fans expect/demand a better squad than the team now displays. Nobody has confidence if/when respectability will return. Here comes the part where I like my article again.

I'm not asking cynics to buy into the upcoming drop of prospects. I'm not expecting those buying into Javier Baez, Kris Bryant & Co. to temper anything. What I am saying is, to compete with the good teams, the system has to start producing more effectively. And, the brass has to get better at guessing right on free agents. And, extending the right guys staring down free agency.

This is not a "Yay everyone on the team" sort of way of looking at things. If anyone just "wants the team to be better", that's fine. However, happenstance and serendipity won't make it so. And my articles will rarely glorify the ease of likelihood of that ever happening in the future, though it may have in the past (see the Braves of the late 80s, or possibly the Brewers from the late 70s through 1982).

Baseball is now a business. This really can't be argued. A reasonably expensive business at that. As long as I write, whether on-site or elsewhere, regardless the topic, I want to make people think. Myself included. The concept of Junior Lake being traded makes sense, as the Cubs have few proven pieces other teams really want. Guessing (and it is guessing) Lake's future contributions is the key to whether he should go. If he's about to put up WAR numbers over 3.5 for the next few years, the team should probably keep him, regardless the return. If he will be at or under 2 WAR annually, he should get dealt. Since I lack confidence in pegging the future there, I'll probably trust the front office, and await the results.

However, make no mistake. Being right on this instance is probably important. If there were a way to add a Price, Stanton, Gonzalez, or frankly any other player of merit, in their prime, on the cheap, it wouldn't matter so much. In reality, tickets are expensive, frustration level is high, and the Cubs division has three really good teams.

Good teams today often have a string of home-grown talent making under a million a year. And posting quality stat lines. Then, they can also add quality free agents for a 'first-place team' discount. The Cubs have rarely been able to take advantage of either above method.

Welcome to present-day major-league ball. It isn't about opening the gates and fans paying any price to watch. Young would-be fans have other options. Adults have kids that cost a whole lot of money as well. Baseball is no longer a cheap get-away day anymore. Fourth and fifth place are made more intolerable by the prices.

Is Junior Lake worth building around? Will he be a key part on the next good Cubs team? Will another team value him enough to justify a trade? In the broader scope of society, undoubtedly very trivial. But in this sub-sector of the internet, getting this right seems rather important. Am I a bit over-the-top on it? Probably.

On the other hand, baseball is different now. Not so much the game, but the industry. In many fields of entertainment, C- used to be good enough. Now, it rarely seems to be. Football coaches get fired off of 10-6 seasons, and fans expect quality for the dollar spent. And everyone is justified in their stances along those lines. Even ticket scalpers.

Whether Junior Lake stays or goes should depend on how he will do in the future. Cubs executives have been lousy about projecting that in the past far too often. If that continues too long, Wrigley will be even more of a ghost town on game days. Most every layer in the system has to get far better, the sooner the better. One of the ways to improve the attitude at and beyond Clark and Addison is for the brass to properly prognosticate how Junior Lake will be the next three to four years. Since, to those of us still reading, it matters, what say you? And, yes, I've doubtless stirred up more controversy than the player involved.

Is Junior Lake a keeper? Or trade bait?

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