GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Cubs don’t know what to expect from a full season of The Junior Lake Show. That should be exciting, frustrating, and definitely interesting to watch.
That could mean a leaping catch at the left-field wall to take away a home run, an on-the-run over-the-shoulder catch in center or blowing through the stop sign at third base to score a run. That could also mean getting thrown out or colliding with another outfielder while chasing a flyball. Stay tuned.
There is so much raw athleticism that Alfonso Soriano looked at Lake and saw another converted infielder with 40/40 potential. There are enough questions about Lake’s instincts that you wonder if he will ever put it all together.
As the White Sox remake their image with young, major-league-ready players like Jose Abreu and Avisail Garcia, the Cubs hope Lake will be a reason to watch. Maybe even something more than a bridge player until Albert Almora and Kris Bryant get to Wrigley Field.
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During Friday’s 7-0 win over the White Sox, Lake made sure his helmet didn’t fly away as he pulled into second base after driving a ball off John Danks into left field. In front of the TV cameras and 13,038 fans at Camelback Ranch, Lake added a walk and an RBI single. The combination of power and speed is an X-factor for this team.
“I want to be here a long time,” Lake said. “I want to see (it through), be on that team that wins a championship here. Everybody wants that. I want a ring.”
Lake is already in his eighth season in the organization, but he won’t turn 24 until next week, three days after Starlin Castro’s 24th birthday. They are part of the pipeline in the Dominican Republic, where Lake once signed for a $110,000 bonus that more than doubled what the Cubs gave their future All-Star shortstop.
Lake is thinking bigger after last year’s 64-game audition that saw him hit .284 with six homers, 16 doubles, 16 RBI and 68 strikeouts. That made him a lock for the Opening Day roster and earned him the benefit of the doubt this spring, even as he’s hit .200 with 14 strikeouts in 35 Cactus League at-bats.
“I’m not so much worried about his numbers, quite frankly,” manager Rick Renteria said. “Throughout the whole spring, we just keep talking about approaches. (So) as long as he’s not getting frustrated and he continues to hammer away at his approaches and keeps himself moving along, he’ll be fine.”
When Lake made his big-league debut last July, he joked that he retired from shortstop, the position he once shared with Castro at the lowest levels of the farm system.
“He really does work extremely hard in the outfield during batting practice,” Renteria said. “He tries to chase down every single ball he can. He’s trying to run scenarios over in his head. He’s trying to adjust to the nuances of playing the outfield in situations.”
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Jeff Samardzija thinks Lake will figure it out. While talking about all the hyped prospects, the Opening Day starter went out of his way to bring up Lake during a group interview earlier this month.
“Look what Junior did. What a great example,” Samardzija said. “Junior came up, did his work. He got to the field early, was never late. He played hard. He prepared. I think that’s a good guy for those guys to look at and see how he came in and had immediate success and why.
“He wasn’t expecting to come out and be ‘The Guy’ right from the beginning. He came out and did his job and all of a sudden we were finding spots to put him in the lineup and positions to put him in the field. That’s what you want, to be a versatile player. We don’t miss that. Coaches don’t miss that.”
Lake is hard to miss at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, with a powerful right arm and March Madness wingspan. Whatever happens this season, Cubs fans will be paying attention to the guy wearing Sammy Sosa’s old No. 21.
“I’m feeling good,” Lake said. “Just keep working and get ready for the league.”