Today I'm starting a new feature I call "Brick or Bait?" in which I look at a Cubs prospect and ask if you think that player is a building block for the future or someone that should be dealt off while his value is still high.
This is asking for a little bit of deep thinking on your and my parts. Everyone can be dealt. Albert Almora is clearly a brick that, if he lives up to his potential, could be the starting CF on a World Series winning team. But if Mike Rizzo called up Jed Hoyer and said "We'll give you Bryce Harper for Almora," I think we'd all wish Albert a good career in Washington. But unless Mike Rizzo has started up with psychedelic mushrooms again, that trade offer isn't going to happen. So the question is "Do you think the future value of this player will exceed what the Cubs could reasonably get back in trade?" If you think their value is higher to the Cubs than to other teams, then he's a brick. But if you think the player could fetch more than he's worth, then he's trade bait. Remember, as a general rule all teams value their own prospects more than other teams do. That's why they have them.
A player doesn't have to be a future all-star or even a starter to be a brick. Just as long as you think he could be a productive player on a pennant winner, even a bench player, you should vote "brick" as long as you believe the player would not fetch a much better player in return. But if you think the prospect is going to be a bust, then he's bait no matter how little you think the Cubs would get back in return.
That brings us to the first subject of debate, the shortstop for the Tennessee Smokies Junior Lake, or "Pond" as he's been nicknamed around here. The Cubs signed Lake out of the Dominican Republic in February of 2007, just a few months after they signed another shortstop out of the DR, Starlin Castro. Through 2007 and 2008, the two shortstops alternated playing time at short in the Dominican Summer League and in Rookie complex ball in Arizona. The two players, who were born only three days apart, were regarded fairly equally as promising but raw shortstops.
Then in 2009, the Cubs decided that both players needed more playing time than they were getting sharing the shortstop position, so Lake was sent to Low-A Peoria and Castro was jumped all the way up to High-A Daytona, skipping two levels. You know what happened to Castro. Lake, on the other hand, struggled to make contact in Peoria, hitting only .248 with seven home runs. He also struck out 138 times and walked only 18 times.
But Lake, at only 19, was still pretty young for the Midwest League and the next two seasons he cut down on his strikeouts and has had productive seasons. He's spent a year and a half in Daytona and a year and a half at Double-A Tennessee. Despite missing all of April with a back injury, Lake had a fairly productive season with Tennessee in 2012. He hit .279/.341/.432 with ten home runs and 50 RBI. He even stole 21 bases. His strikeouts were still high with 105, but that's a big improvement over what he did in 2009. Lake tied his career-high in walks with 35.
PROS: Lake has a lot of things going for him. For one, he's always been a toolsy player. He's athletic with good speed and a cannon for an arm that is an easy raw 80 on the scouting scale. He's a big shortstop at 6'2" and is listed at 215 pounds and that gives him the strength to drive the ball for at least average power and maybe even plus power. He turns 23 in March and already has a year and a half in Double-A, including a pretty successful season this past year. All in all, young shortstops who can hit are rare commodities and you don't give one up for nothing, even if you do have an All-Star at the position locked up until 2020. Besides, if he continues to hit in Triple-A Iowa or as a bench player in the majors, his trade value will only increase in future years.
CONS: The biggest con is that he's probably not really a shortstop anymore. Lake has probably outgrown the position and may no longer have the quickness to play short. You might think "Great! We'd have to play him at third base anyway in the majors" and you'd be right, but his bat just isn't as special at third base as it would be at short.
Another issue is that while his arm strength may be a raw 80, he hasn't harnessed it so much that it is an effective 80. He's been known to throw the ball to the fans in the third row on numerous occasions. He committed 34 errors in 2011, and 33 in 2012. On the other hand, he was playing third base about a third of the time as well.
His size is starting to get in the way of his speed as well. While he managed to steal 21 bases last summer, he was caught 12 times, and that kind of a SB/CS ratio doesn't help anyone. The added power that would come with the extra weight (I'm talking about muscle, not fat) has been slow to develop.
Finally, he's the kind of hacker at the plate that has driven Cubs fans nuts over the past decade or so. It's undeniable that he's made improvements in that area over the past year, but he'll still chase bad pitches and he doesn't draw many walks. The raw power and bat speed aren't any good if you're swinging at bad pitches.
Current value: We can all debate what Lake would fetch on the trade market this off-season, and of course, a lot of what any player's value these days is tied up with their contract situation. But assuming the Cubs weren't just taking on a contract that no one else wanted or a player heading into free agency at the end of the year, I can't see Lake fetching much more than a back-of-the-rotation starter or a good set-up man right now. Other teams are aware of the problems that he has making contact and playing shortstop. There would definitely be some interest because of his raw tools, but no one would pay a premium on that right now.
The danger in trading Lake is that he's still only 22 and there is a chance that he figures out how to harness those impressive tools and lay off bad pitches. Then he could end up being a quality starting infielder. Even if he doesn't improve his strike zone judgement much, his power and his arm could make him a valuable utility player.
So does Junior Lake have a bright future at Wrigley Field, or should the team deal him for whatever they can get while his value is high?
Photo courtesy of the Smokies Radio Network.