Too soon to tell Junior Lake's future

CHICAGO -- Junior Lake might be one of the more intriguing prospects to come through the Chicago Cubs system in a while. Throughout his minor league career he’s received mixed reviews from scouts, who could always see that the tools were there for him to be a very good major leaguer. However, a lack of a plan at the plate and poor defense wherever he found himself playing led many scouts to doubt that all those tools would really come together and create a viable major league ball player.

But through 58 games in his major league career, Lake is trying to silence the critics. With a slash line of .305/.346/.459 and six home runs and 16 doubles, Lake looks like a solid piece of the Cubs’ future.

However, small samples sizes aside, there are still plenty of questions about Lake.

“Not being so aggressive at the plate,” manager Dale Sveum said when asked what he’d like to see Lake improve upon. “Cutting down at two strikes and a willingness to drive the ball up the middle and hit the outfield grass with men in scoring position.”

And that says nothing about Lake’s defense. Primarily an infielder in the minors, Lake was thrust into the outfield for a half dozen games at Triple-A Iowa prior to being called up to the big league club. And those six games were only in right field, his 27 games in centerfield in the majors is the only experience he has at the position in his professional career.

“The learning process is still going on in the outfield,” Sveum said. “He just doesn’t have enough reps, he needs a lot more reps. Whether it’s winter ball, then spring training and all that to just see balls off the bat. You can take all the fungoes and all that stuff you want in the outfield, it’s just not the same as fly balls off the bat.”

Sveum added that he didn’t know for sure if Lake would play winter ball, but he expected it to happen because Lake needs the experience in the outfield.

While Lake’s slash line is definitely impressive, a deeper look into the numbers shows it may not be sustainable.

Lake is striking out in 25.1% of his plate appearances and walking in only 4.3% of them. That gives him a strikeout to walk ration of 5.90. Of qualifiers, only two players in the big leagues have a worse K/BB, J.P. Arencibia (who has a -0.6 WAR according to Fangraphs) and A.J. Pierzynski.

But that doesn’t mean Lake’s extreme K/BB ratio automatically dooms him to a career filled with struggles. Both Adam Jones and Starling Marte have had success this year with high K/BB ratios. In Marte’s case, he also provides value by being one of the best defensive left fielders in the game.

Jones’ career may be a best-case scenario for Lake. A player who plays average to slightly-below-average defense in center and who strikes out a lot and walks very little at the plate. Jones makes up for those extremes by hitting for a strong enough average to keep his OBP slightly above average and by hitting for a lot of power. Add that all up and you have a very valuable player.

It’s not Lake’s K/BB that makes his early success possibly unsustainable, it’s his unreasonably high batting average of balls in play (BABIP) of .394. Only one regular, Chris Johnson, has a higher BABIP and in all likelihood he’s headed for a deep regression in 2014.

It’s not impossible to have a higher than normal BABIP. Players like Joe Mauer and Joey Votto will consistently do so because they make a lot of hard contact, leading to more hits than the average player. Mike Trout will perennially put up a high BABIP because not only does he make a lot of strong contact, but he’s blessed with some of the best speed the game has seen.

Lake could very well prove to be one of the many players in baseball who consistently posts a high BABIP. Lake has speed -- though not nearly as elite as Trout -- and when he makes contact, it’s definitely quite hard. However, approaching a .400 BABIP on a regular basis is an unreasonable expectation. Especially when you consider that Lake’s contact rate is 66.4%, well below the league average of 79.6%.

“He’s learning the process in the big leagues,” Sveum said. “(He’s) hitting .300 in the big leagues and doing some good things at the plate. And (he’s) learning in the same process that these guys can pitch to a scouting reports and how do I change and adjust to what they’re doing to me. All those things start happening in the big leagues. He’s got a couple 100 at-bats now, so he needs to start making adjustments as well.”

Lake may be able to succeed with his weak K/BB numbers, but sustaining his high BABIP is a near impossibility. To continue to be a valuable player throughout his career, Lake is going to have to show a more mature approach at the plate and improve significantly in the outfield.

Lake’s 2013 is definitely a step in the right direction. But to assume he’s out of the woods after just 235 plate appearances would be foolhardy. There’s still more to be done by Lake before all those tools really do come together to form a major league regular.