The Cubs’ brass has spoken ad nauseam about its policy for promoting top prospects to the major leagues: a prospect must dominate AAA baseball for an extended period of time. When the Cubs promoted Junior Lake on July 19, 2013, there were myriad reasons they violated that policy and unwittingly set Lake up for a failure that finally led the Cubs to demote him to AAA Iowa just a couple of weeks ago.
While Lake initially seemed to demonstrate prescience by the Cubs brass with an OPS of .760 and batting average of .284 in 254 plate appearances in the waning months of last season, there were signs even then that Lake was not quite ready. His walk percentage of just over 5% and strikeout rate of almost 30% portended an inevitable backslide.
Lake, 24, batted only .216 in Spring Training, following which he embarked on an almost five-month stretch of wretched play season that mercilessly culminated in his demotion. However, Lake must be recalled within 20 days of his demotion in order for the Cubs to preserve the one minor league option remaining on him. So his stay at AAA is likely too short to hone an approach at the plate that, in 305 plate appearances this season, led to a .216 average with nine homers and 30 RBI. He will need additional seasoning beyond this season.
A closer examination of Lake’s production shows just how overmatched he was at the major league level this season.
Among the 218 major league players with a minimum of 300 plate appearances this season, all statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.com, Lake has the fourth highest strikeout rate (33%); the third worst walk rate (3.3%); the second worst OPB (.243); the ninth worst weighted OBP (.267); the sixth worst WRC+ or Weighted Runs Created (64); and the sixth worst WAR or Wins Above Replacement Player (-0.8).
His 43.1% of strikes on pitches outside the strike zone; 21% of swinging strikes on pitches inside the zone; and 61% contact rate are all well below average.
Lake’s fielding statistics for 2014 are equally unsightly. Among the 83 outfielders with a minimum of 600 innings (Lake has played 601.2 this season), Lake has the worst fielding percentage (.959), has the sixth most errors (six), is 55th in Ultimate Zone Rating (-3.7); and is 57th in DRS or Defensive Runs Saved (-5).
Based both on conventional and advanced statistics, Lake’s 2014 season has been abysmal.
Was this plummet predictable? We would argue that it was, and certainly based on the Cubs standard for promoting its top prospects.
At the time of his promotion, Lake had only played a total of 40 games at AAA and tallied 170 plate appearances. He was batting .295 with an impressive .803 OPS. Shockingly, however, he had only played eight of his career 620 minor league games in the outfield, where he has played exclusively for the Cubs. He did not dominate the level, let alone do it over a sustained period of time and at the position he was being promoted to play.
Let’s now examine the AAA experience of other top prospects the Cubs’ brass has recalled since the 2012 season.
1B Anthony Rizzo: At the time of his promotion to the Cubs on June 26, 2012, Rizzo had accumulated 697 AAA plate appearances, had batted .336, walloped 49 home runs, tallied 163 RBI and produced an OPS of 1.075.
RHP Kyle Hendricks: At the time of his promotion on July 4, 2014, Hendricks had made 23 starts for AAA covering parts of two seasons and 142.2 innings. His ERA of 3.28 and WHIP of 1.150 were both exceptional, as was his record of 13-6 and SO/BB ratio of 4-1.
2B/OF Arismendy Alcanatara: At the time of his promotion on July 9, 2014, Alcantara had amassed 366 AAA plate appearances and was hitting .307 with 25 doubles, 11 triples 10 homers, 41 RBI and an OPS of .890 for Iowa. He had also stolen 21 bases in 24 attempts.
2B/SS Javier Baez: At the time of his promotion on August 4, 2014, Baez, while hitting just .260, was among the Pacific Coast League Leaders in home runs with 23, doubles with 24 and RBI with 80. His OPS was .833, and he had 434 AAA plate appearances.
RF Jorge Soler: When the Cubs promoted Soler on Monday, he was hitting .282 in 127 plate appearances with 11 doubles, eight homers, 29 RBI and a .996 OPS. While it is arguable that his promotion is premature given his limited number of plate appearances at AAA, it should be noted that his career minor league batting average of .307 and OPS of .935 are significantly better than Lake’s of .272 and .735, respectively. Moreover, Soler is not being asked to play a position he has not played extensively in the minors.
Even if we were to concede that Lake merited a promotion last season, there was simply no justification for letting him founder with the Cubs this season when he could have been gaining valuable tutelage from Iowa’s assistant hitting coach and countryman Manny Ramirez.
Since returning to Iowa following his demotion, Lake has batted .318 in 47 plate appearances through Tuesday with an .862 OPS.
While the Cubs, as explained previously, will have to promote Lake within 20 days of his demotion (by September 4) to retain one minor league option on him heading into next season, it would prudent for the Cubs to use that option at the outset of next season and allow Lake, who will not turn 25 until March 27, to collect several hundred plate appearances and defensive innings at AAA to hone his skills.
Lake undoubtedly has talent. Prior to the 2013 season, several reputable baseball publications ranked Lake as one of the Cubs top 15 prospects. Many lauded his unmatched arm strength within the system and his powerful build and quick hitting wrists. Patience and a less violent and more cerebral approach to hitting and more innings to address his inexperience as an outfielder were probably all that Lake needed this season to be prepared to help the Cubs in 2015.
However, in hastily promoting him and flouting their own policy for elevating top prospects, the Cubs have set Junior Lake back one season in his development. Now a Cubs’ brass that has pushed almost all the right buttons since 2012 must do the same with Lake to see if his career with the Cubs or as a trade chip can be salvaged.