Junior Lake has always been an incredibly talented player. In fact, there was a time when fans of the Chicago Cubs were more excited about the future of Lake than they were about current starting shortstop and two-time All-Star, Starlin Castro. As they both rose through the minor league systems, scouts marveled at the rare combination of power and speed that Lake possessed.
The issue with Lake has always been inconsistency. There are some games where the guy looks like a future Hall-of-Famer, and the very next day he plays like he just started playing baseball. Plate discipline will always be a concern, and every ball that gets hit his way in the outfield is an adventure, but the raw tools that Lake has are obvious, making the potential almost limitless.
The Cubs signed Lake out of the Dominican Republic as a 17-year-old shortstop before the 2007 season. The Cubs signed Castro just a few months earlier out of the Dominican Republic. Both players showed a ton of promise early in their minor league careers as the Cubs had them sharing the shortstop position at the lowest levels of the minor leagues.
In 2009, both players were legitimate prospects and the Cubs needed to find playing time for each of them. Castro was the more polished hitter, so the team aggressively promoted him to High-A. They continued to aggressively promote Castro as he reached the big leagues in May of 2010. Castro started strong in the majors, and the Cubs later locked him down through the 2020 season with a long-term extension, making him an obvious core piece to the team.
Meanwhile, because of his inconsistencies, Lake slowly rose through the minor leagues. He was solid at the plate and very impressive on the basepaths, but his defense lagged behind. The Cubs tried him all over the infield before finally trying him in the outfield during Spring Training last season.
The change seemed to work for Lake. He does not always take the most ideal route to the ball, but his athleticism allows him to make up for it most of the time. Not to mention, the outfield allows him to showcase his incredible arm strength more frequently. The Cubs promoted Lake to Triple-A to start the 2013 season. After only 40 games at that level, including six in the outfield, the team decided to bring him up to be a full-time outfielder.
While the inconsistencies certainly still remained, Lake had a nice MLB debut last season. He showed the ability to handle the outfield, even handling center field about half of the time. At the plate, Lake hit .284/.332/.428 with six home runs and four steals. While he did not exactly have the debut of say, Yasiel Puig, those numbers are impressive for a rookie.
That being said, he still has plenty of work to do. In 254 MLB plate appearances last season, Lake struck out 68 times and only had 13 walks. He is always going to strike out too much and not walk enough, but Lake needs to control those numbers if he expects to be a big league regular.
This offseason, Lake spent time in his native Dominican Republic playing for Estrellas Orientales of the Dominican Winter League. The DWL is a very competitive league filled with legitimate major league talent. The Cubs eventually shut down Lake from the DWL, allowing him rest to get ready for the MLB season. At that time, Lake led the entire DWL in batting average with .343 and was sixth in slugging percentage with .457, all while playing a great CF.
Between last season and his DWL performance, I think it is safe to say that Lake will be a starting outfielder for the Cubs. There are definitely some bugs left to work out, but Lake is a supremely talented player. The 2014 season will probably tell the story, but I think it is safe to say that the Cubs are looking at the 23-year-old Lake as a core player for the future of the team.