Junior Lake is an enigma for Cubs’ fans. Some of us think he’s a waste of a roster spot, merely holding a place for the big four prospects to come up and displace him in short order. Some of us saw him produce last season in the second half and dream on all of the potential he has. The rest of us just want to know what the guy is going to be.
How about Carlos Gomez? Or something like Carlos Gomez?
To be clear, I would absolutely never project any player to consistently be the 2013 edition of Carlos Gomez. He earned his Gold Glove with a 4.6 dWAR and 38 runs saved. His .284/.338/.506 were the highest marks of his career, along with the uptick of home runs to 24 and RBIs to 73. Adding it all up comes to a 8.9 bWAR. Which is pretty good. All told, Carlos Gomez was one of the best all-around players in the National League last season. It would be unfair to hold him to the same standard, much less to impose such a burden on a different player.
Pre-2013 Carlos Gomez, though, is a totally different story. He was a career .247/.294/.379 hitter before last season. His career bWAR was 8.2 before he doubled it with a very nice year. He only had an OPS+ over 100 one time (101 in 2012) in his career. In a lot of respects, his speed is what caused such things. Yesterday, in an interview on ESPN Milwaukee, Brewers’ GM Doug Melvin explained that Gomez had been instructed to keep the ball on the ground and utilize his speed. It wasn’t until he started to be himself that we saw the increase in slugging.
In many respects, Junior Lake is a similar player to Carlos Gomez. Their sizes are virtually identical, and both are gifted athletes for players of their size. Both have very good speed, although Gomez is probably a bit faster. Junior Lake has a better arm than Gomez. Both have an aggressive approach at the plate and swing hard in the event that they make contact. That philosophy has allowed both to display some power. Neither is going to draw a ton of walks. The big difference at this point is experience. Carlos Gomez is in his eighth major league season, while Junior Lake is just now in his first full season.
In Gomez’s age 24 season, which is where Lake is now, he was entering his fourth ML season and finished with a .247/.298/.357 with 5 HR in 318 plate appearances. Lake will likely exceed the power numbers and plate appearances, but the batting average and on-base percentage don’t look too far away from what we should reasonably expect from Lake this season. Physically speaking, Carlos Gomez is now in his prime. It’s no surprise that his experience and his physical maturity are allowing him to maximize his performance. Junior Lake just isn’t to that point, yet. A person’s athletic prime is about age 27. In that respect, when the Cubs are expecting to be serious threats is when Lake should be the best he is ever going to be physically.
There is no question at all that Junior Lake has the talent and ability to match the production of Gomez’s first seven years…and then some. That makes it entirely possible that he carves out a nice role as a fourth outfielder, much like Carlos Gomez was before last season. The 2011 version of Carlos Gomez couldn’t overtake Nyjer Morgan as an everyday player, but was still a productive piece of a team who took the Cardinals to game six of the NLCS. Gomez spent much of his career toiling as a platoon outfielder, hitting between .230 and .260 with a little power and some stolen base potential. It would actually be tremendously disappointing if Junior Lake can’t meet and exceed those marks.
With Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, and Kris Bryant all potentially manning the outfield for the Cubs within the next two years, it would take Bryant sticking at third base or one of these players busting for Lake to have a legitimate chance to play everyday. Should neither of those things happen, Lake would necessarily be forced to carve out a role as a utility outfielder. In that respect, he could be a big asset. His speed and arm should allow him to play all three outfield positions, and his bat is dynamic enough for him to hit for some power in a sub role.
In the end, it boils down to development. Without trying to beat the dead horse, the current front office believes in development and has aggressively sought the right environment for it at the big league level with the hiring of Rick Renteria. It remains to be seen if Junior Lake will harness all of his athletic gifts and turn those tools into the production that Gomez is showing. To be honest, I would be surprised if Junior Lake ever gets close to matching what Carlos Gomez did last season. He can, however, become a version of Carlos Gomez we’d seen in years past. A tremendous athlete who can be a dynamic player in a platoon or fourth outfielder role. While that may come as a disappointment to some, players who can do those things off the bench in the major leagues are uncommon, and in every respect, a valuable commodity when teams have them.