CHICAGO—While trying to add to the Cubs’ inventory of young players, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer spent 2012 getting to know the minor league players in the system they inherited from Jim Hendry. One player they were immediately intrigued by was Junior Lake, who spent last season as a shortstop with Double-A Tennessee.
Following a strong winter in his native Dominican Republic, the 23-year-old Lake was moved to third base in spring training. He held his own but had the start to his season delayed by a stress fracture in his ribs. Lake didn’t get on the field until June but made the most of his time, not only hitting well but showing he could play the outfield. He made his big-league debut July 19, as a short-term replacement in center field, but after going 15-for-31 in his first seven games found himself with a much bigger opportunity.
Lake’s emergence made Epstein and Hoyer more comfortable with the idea of cutting the cord with Alfonso Soriano. He has taken over as the regular left fielder since the July 26 trade that sent Soriano to the Yankees for 22-year-old righthander Corey Black. Lake was hitting .314/.345/.467 with four home runs in 109 at-bats.
Epstein credited the work of Pirates coach Dave Jauss, who was Lake’s manager at Estrellas de Oriente in the Dominican League.
“In winter ball the switch really flipped for him,” Epstein said. “I talked to him a little bit after winter ball. He was third in the MVP (voting) in the Dominican League, and that’s a legit league down there and a very impressive league, especially for Dominican players.”
With Soriano flanking Lake, the Cubs went 6-4 on the trip to Colorado, Arizona and San Francisco that marked Lake’s arrival. “You definitely sense a lot more energy in the dugout and clubhouse,’’ manager Dale Sveum said.
That success was short-lived as the Cubs suffered through a 1-7 homestand after the Soriano trade but Lake continued producing, including a two-homer game against the Dodgers. It was an effort worthy of Soriano, and some believe Lake is the same kind of player, combining speed and power.
Through 18 games, Lake was hitting .333 with four home runs and seven RBIs. He stole third base in his big-league debut but was only 1 for 4 in stolen-base attempts. He had four home runs and 14 stolen bases in 40 games with Triple-A Iowa this season.
It’s fair to say Lake has enjoyed himself on a team with Starlin Castro, who was a teammate and close friend when they were getting started in professional ball. “What’s not to like?” Lake said.
Lake was given No. 21, Sammy Sosa’s old number, but said that his favorite number is really No. 22. That was worn by Matt Garza before he was traded to Texas.
While the Cubs are loaded with outfield prospects—including Cuban Jorge Soler, 2012 first-round pick Albert Almora and 2013 first-rounder Kris Bryant (if he moves away from third base)—the only other outfield prospect close to Wrigley is Double-A all-star Matt Szczur. Lake will get a long look while those guys continue their development.
“I’m definitely not surprised by any of this,” Lake said of his early success. “I’m not going to get comfortable. I’m going to continue to improve at everything.” I’ve worked hard at every level and have improved in every aspect so I expect to have success.’’
• Black, acquired from the Yankees, is regarded highly enough that Yankees GM Brian Cashman said the trade was made despite his objections. The Cubs are continuing to start Black but some believe he could be an impact reliever.
• Righthander C.J. Edwards, acquired from Texas in the Garza trade, struck out the first seven hitters he faced for high Class A Daytona.