Position switch a key in Junior Lake’s rise with Cubs
BY TONI GINNETTI For Sun-Times Media June 22, 2014 8:27PM
Updated: June 22, 2014 10:15PM
So much of the attention on the Cubs surrounds their minor-league prospects, even as another prospect develops in the majors.
Junior Lake didn’t have the pedigree or the hype that surrounds Kris Bryant or Albert Almora or Javy Baez, but a few years ago, he was just as coveted.
Lake is 24 — like his close friend, countryman and teammate Starlin Castro — and he has been a big-leaguer since last July.
But he has shown flashes of being the hitter who had drawn attention from the time he was at Class A Daytona, playing shortstop.
That was where Pittsburgh Pirates coach Dave Jauss first saw Lake while working as a minor-league evaluator for the New York Mets.
Daytona was playing the Mets’ affiliate in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Jauss’ colleagues were talking about some of the Mets’ prospects.
“I see Junior Lake taking infield and outfield practice,’’ Jauss recalled. “I said, ‘Now that’s a big-league player.’
“He had the big body, big-league arm strength, big-league acceleration. Some of the people said they’d seen him with Castro and, at times, he was right there with Castro. But Castro jumped ahead of him results-wise.’’
Two years later, Jauss managed Lake in the Dominican Republic in winter ball. Jauss made the most significant decision in Lake’s career, moving him to the outfield.
“He was one of my young superstars, but what concerned me was that he’d lose games playing shortstop and lose confidence in himself,’’ he said. “Down there, as a shortstop, you have to make every play. There are 16,000 people screaming at you letting you know that [former big-league star] Alfredo Griffin didn’t do that — or any of the other shortstops from San Pedro.’’
Jauss used Lake as a DH for a week, taking advantage of a bat that was among the league leaders, but he was concerned about Lake losing development time in the field.
“I called [Cubs player development director] Jason McLeod and Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein and said, ‘This guy is an exceptional athlete, and I need to try him in the outfield,’ ’’ Jauss recalled. “He takes balls off the bat well shagging flies. I would like to do that so I don’t have to DH him.’’
McLeod immediately agreed, and Lake stayed in the outfield last season at Class AAA Iowa. He played only 40 games there because of an early injury but still was promoted to the majors in July.
“Sure enough, I see him playing against us and beating us,’’ Jauss said with a smile.
Lake has helped the Cubs win some games with his bat. His nine homers are fourth-most and 25 RBI third-most on the team. But he knows how far he still has to go.
“I’m just trying to work hard. You have to work on things everyday to get better,’’ he said. “I want to play every day, but I don’t control that.’’
Managing his playing time is part of managing his development, manager Rick Renteria said.
“Obviously, we’ve seen spurts of really good performance within a five- to seven-day window against any pitcher,’’ he said. “What we’re seeing is a young man who is still developing emotionally and mentally. We obviously know the skill sets he brings, but it’s also the experiences he’s gaining and trying to [have him] stay focused over an extended period of time, because you can see when he starts to falter a bit. That’s the mental part of maintaining focus.
“We’ve seen him make adjustments, which we’re happy with,’’ Renteria said. “We see a lot of upside to Junior and we’re just trying to see if we can find the way to maintain his forward motion.’’