Lake hopes to make best of chance in 2014

MESA, Ariz. -- Junior Lake took the major leagues by storm after getting called up in July last season, batting .295 in his first two months all while the former infielder adjusted to the outfield.

Now, as he gets the chance to play everyday in the outfield, it's time to prove he can do it for more than a few months.

"He's really grown into himself as a player," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said from spring training. "His trajectory has been straight up the last two years. You really hope that continues in the big leagues."

The 23-year-old Lake, signed by the Cubs as an amateur free agent in 2007, took Alfonso Soriano's place in left field after the veteran slugger was traded to the New York Yankees in July. Lake had a seven-game hitting streak to open his career and batted .310 average for the month of July. He followed that up with a .287 batting average in August while hitting four home runs those first six weeks.

"I learned a lot," said Lake, who no longer needs an interpreter after working on his English in the offseason.

Starlin Castro, Lake's best friend on the Cubs, said: "I told him he needs to learn English because here everyone speaks English."

Learning English wasn't the only thing he did this offseason. Lake says he worked hard on his game.

"I took fly balls every day," he said. "And my grandmother taught me some more English."

Lake's athleticism makes him an intriguing player. At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, he has the ability to do it all.

"The tool set has always been there," Hoyer said. "He's so athletic. He can run, throw, show power. I was pleasantly surprised that he bunted so well for hits. He did a good job laying off sliders and showing some plate discipline against righties as well."

Lake had six bunt hits in the first six weeks of his career. Even after flashing power, Lake continued to lay down bunts, confounding defenses and pitchers with that combination of finesse and power.

"I like that kind of game," Lake said. "I bunt or homer. I like it ... If they're playing back I like to bunt."

Lake flashed that ability on Sept. 6 against the Milwaukee Brewers. After hitting a grand slam, Lake came up with runners on first and second. Instead of going for the huge RBI day, he laid down a bunt for a base hit.

"Not many guys can do that or are willing to do that after hitting a home run," Hoyer said.

Castro sees a committed player who isn't satisfied with a few good months.

"I see him working hard every day," Castro said. "I told him you have to work hard in the outfield. You can hit but you have to work hard out there."

Lake played more in the outfield in the majors in 10 weeks last season than he did in his entire career in the minors. He likes center field more than left, but he's fine wherever he gets the playing time.

"I feel like I can play the whole year, every day," Lake said.

Despite the great start last season and his chance to play every day, Lake is far from a lock as a core player. That's what 2014 is all about. Will he be a starter -- or even a role player -- when the Cubs are ready to contend?

"He has some rough edges he has to sand off, but it's an exciting tool set, for sure," Hoyer said. "It's hard to say he proved anything in a short amount of time. This is the year he can play a ton and show that. Pitchers made their adjustments, he'll have to make some back."

Lake tailed off in September, hitting .254, and he struck out 55 times in the final two months. His OPS against lefties (.956) was much better than against righties (.692) so there's work to be done. But the athleticism is there and the chance is there. Now it's up to Lake.

"That's what I told him," Castro said. "It's open for him. You have to show people you're ready."