Junior Lake has now played exactly 162 games in the major leagues, all in the outfield. Over that time, he has posted a career batting line of .247/.284/.393 over 559 plate appearances. Lake has walked 23 times in the majors and has struck out 170 times. Even those numbers are driven by an abnormally high batting average on balls in play (babip) last season. This season, Lake has an OBP of .243, albeit with nine home runs in 305 trips to the plate.
On top of those poor hitting numbers, Lake is an abysmal center fielder. Among major league center fielders with more than 200 innings this season, Lake ranks dead last in UZR/150 according to FanGraphs with -49.7 runs. Second worst is Dexter Fowler with a -36.7. But you don't need the stats to tell he's terrible out there. He moved to center because he was a terrible shortstop in the minors, but the only advantage to him in center field is that he doesn't get as many balls hit at him out there.
It's time for Junior Lake to forget about being a major league outfielder. But he shouldn't retire. It's time that Lake becomes a pitcher.
Lake does one thing well on the baseball diamond and that's throw. Maybe two if you count "hit for power," but he doesn't make contact often enough for that really to come into play. He used to run well, but as he's gotten bigger he's slowed down to the point where his speed just isn't all that special. But Lake can still throw hard. It seems obvious that the solution to Lake's problems is to let him pitch.
Major league baseball has seen several successful pitchers in recent years who started their professional careers as position players. Kenley Jansen and Sean Doolittle are two of the best closers in the majors at the moment and both started as hitters. Sergio Santos was a first-round pick out of high school as a shortstop. The Cubs' own Blake Parker, who has been riding the Des Moines-to-Chicago shuttle this season, started as a catcher. Of course, we all remember that Carlos Marmol started as a catcher as well. There are dozens of other examples.
The difference between Lake and those players, however, is that all of them converted to pitching while they were still in the minors. The list of position players switching to pitching after making the majors is much shorter. The most successful example of this is Hall of Famer Bob Lemon, but Lemon was an odd case in a different time. Lemon came up to the majors and played a handful of games over two seasons at third base. Then he joined the Navy to fight the Axis menace, but never got sent into a combat zone. While working at naval bases in California and Hawaii, he spent his spare time learning to pitch. When the war ended, he returned to the Indians as a pitcher good enough to make it to Cooperstown.
The most prominent recent example of such a move is Jason Lane. Lane, if you remember, was a right fielder for the Astros who had a couple of solid seasons in the mid-aughts, but stopped hitting after he turned 29. He hung around in the minors as an outfielder for a while, bouncing around from organization to organization as Triple-A roster fodder, hoping for a break that would get him back to the majors. It never came and in 2012 at age 35, he found himself in independent ball. There, with nothing else to lose, Lane moved to the mound. The Padres saw him and thought enough of him to sign him as a pitcher. He even made an emergency start for the major league team this summer, going six innings and allowing only one run.
Getting back to Junior Lake, even from his earliest days in the minor leagues most scouts thought he was miscast as a shortstop. Some thought he'd move to third base or the outfield, but several thought his future was on the mound. His arm has always been his best tool and usually gets a grade of 70 to 80 on the 20 to 80 scouting scale.
As a hitter in the minor leagues, however, Lake was a mixed bag. He struggled badly in his first attempt at full season ball in Peoria in 2009. He only hit .248/.277/.365 while striking out 138 times (and walking only 18 times) in 491 plate appearances. Still, he was only 19 and in the Midwest League. It was expected that he would struggle, although those K/BB numbers were certainly troubling.
In retrospect the time to convert Lake to pitching should have been then, although it's understandable why he didn't. His numbers improved in Daytona in 2010 and when he repeated the level in 2011, his stats in Daytona actually looked quite good, earning him a promotion to Tennessee. But again, he struggled in Double-A and he struggled to control the strike zone. Even in his promising 2011 season, Lake struck out 109 times and walked only 19 times in 478 plate appearances between Daytona and Tennessee. And those good numbers in Daytona were driven by an exceptionally-high .384 babip.
And that's always been Lake's problem. He's always hit just enough to convince both himself and the Cubs not to give up on him as a position player. Plus, Lake just has this great reputation of being an athlete. And there is no doubt that he's very athletic and there is a natural reluctance to put that kind of a player on the mound where his athleticism would be minimized.
But to anyone who has seen Lake play this season (or even just taken a cursory look at his statistics) can see that Lake simply doesn't have the instincts to be a position player. He can't recognize which pitches are in the strike zone and when he does, he doesn't make contact often enough. And as bad as he was fielding ground balls in the minors, I think it's possible he's actually worse at tracking fly balls to center field. He's had a full year in the majors to make adjustments at the plate or in the field, and he just hasn't done it. Junior Lake is a bad major league ballplayer.
But he's still a young ballplayer. Only 24, he still has time to convert to pitching. He shouldn't wait until he's 35 and hits rock bottom like Jason Lane did. Lane is never going to have a significant career as a pitcher. Lake could. Lake still has the opportunity to become a fireballing relief pitcher who could enter the game in the seventh inning with men on and the team needs a strikeout. Heck, it's even possible he becomes a closer. We'll never know until he tries it.
There are two obstacles standing in the way of Lake becoming a pitcher. One is that since he's already been in the majors and on the 40-man roster, he'll have to occupy a spot on the 40-man roster and he'll burn option years while he's down in the low minors learning to pitch. If he's moved off the 40-man, another team could snap him up before he could help the Cubs. But that's a chance worth taking because Lake isn't going to help the team as an outfielder. He's already been passed by Arismendy Alcantara on the depth chart in center, and Albert Almora, Jacob Hannemann and even Billy McKinney are likely to pass him soon.
The other obstacle is simply that Lake has to want to do it. That's the biggest issue in getting a player to make the switch. For players like Jansen, Doolittle or Lane, the alternative to moving to the mound was being released. If they didn't become pitchers, they weren't going to be ballplayers anymore. Lake doesn't have that sword hanging over him. If the Cubs decide that he's not going to be a position player anymore, some other team would give him a chance to play the outfield on the premise that they've got nothing to lose and maybe he'll figure it out. If Lake doesn't want to pitch, the Cubs really can't make him.
I don't know how stubborn Junior Lake is. Maybe he looks at how bad he's been this season and thinks that with just a tweak here and there and more experience, he can still succeed as a center fielder. But I don't buy it. Lake has never shown any real baseball instincts throughout his career, either at the plate or in the field. With no idea of how to use it, his athleticism is wasted. The one thing he still has going for him is a golden arm. It's time for him to see how far it can carry him.