Blue Jays: Meet Junior Lake, the toolsy Hail Mary


Recent Blue Jays waiver claim Junior Lake has struggled to put his loud, clunky tool set together, but his boom potential gives Toronto a tantalizing talent

Turn on your television on the right day, in the right inning of the right game, and Junior Lake is a perennial All Star. In those brief moment when Lake is able to live near the ceiling of his talent, he’s electrifying, but outside of his 2013 debut with the Chicago Cubs, those sights have been rare.

Mike Newman nailed the book on Lake back in early 2012 as part of a prospect profile for FanGraphs, writing “When scouting Junior Lake during the Southern League playoffs, his game was part car wreck, but I simply could not help but be enamored with his tools. Rocket arm. Explosive hand speed. Plus runner. Other than the way he actually played baseball, there was nothing not to like.”

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Lake’s game is a blurred rush of moving parts. When those parts align, he’s at times brilliant, especially at the plate where he still possesses a high power ceiling. The mechanics of his swing need to be quieted drastically, though, because not only do Lake’s hands and arms produce a great deal of wasted movement, that movement isn’t even consistent between at bats.

After signing with the Cubs in 2007, Lake rose through their system before making his debut in 2013. He made a significant first impression, too, posting a 1.5 WAR over just 64 games. Lake would post a slash line of .284 / .322 / .428. He also flashed his plus arm, one of the strongest you’ll see, and his strong base running skills. The warning signs were there even in the beginning, though, with 68 strikeouts and just 13 walks in that short stint.

Lake face-planted in 2014, striking out in over one third of his at-bats and getting tagged with a negative WAR. His offensive numbers dropped off the table, and in a 2015 season split between Chicago and Baltimore, his defense would fully abandon him.

That part of Lake’s game has long been an issue, as he seems to be a man without a natural position. His raw arm power is absolutely outstanding, but the finer points of his defensive game have limited him wherever he lines up defensively.

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He’s been used strictly as an outfielder at the MLB level, but Lake came through the Cubs system as a flawed shortstop. Reaching back to 2010 and 2011 between the Hi-A and AA levels, Lake saw 100+ games at short in each of those seasons. In 2012 with AA Tennessee he played primarily shortstop while experimenting with third base for 29 games, and in 2013 with AAA Iowa, he saw 36 games at third.

His defense is representative of his entire game, really. He does one thing excellently, sometimes two, but he’s held back because he lacks the subtle nuances and ability to look smooth or natural. Because of this, you’ll hear some people who are of the opinion that Lake should be transitioned to the mound eventually. It’s not as bizarre a theory as one might think, especially with his arm, but with his level of raw potential there will always be a team willing to take a flier on his bat.

So where does this leave him in the Blue Jays picture? First and foremost, Lake is out of options. Given the teams that passed on his services ahead of Toronto before this recent waiver claim, perhaps the Jays can sneak him through to AAA Buffalo prior to the season. That’s the dream scenario, albeit an uncertain one, and if that can happen, I’ll have my eye on what this means for Dalton Pompey.

The current roster construction points to an outfield of Jose Bautista, Kevin Pillar and Ben Revere with Michael Saunders as a reserve. This could change, but for now, that’s a perfectly acceptable group. Now, let’s assume an injury hits.

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If one of the four names above suffer an injury early in the season, it’s entirely possible that Toronto prefers to call up someone like Lake or Ezequiel Carrera instead of Pompey to be the fourth outfielder. Not due to talent, as Pompey would earn the nod in that case, but from a longterm development standpoint.

It’s important to remain aware of Ross Atkins’ lengthy background in prospect development, and the value Mark Shapiro places on retaining young, affordable players. If Pompey begins the season in AAA to round out his development, it makes little sense to pull him up for a reserve role. Even if a starter is needed, they’ll need to determine whether or not he’s ready to stick in the majors permanently.

Lake represents somewhat of a buffer, and if an outfielder is moved prior to the season, he gives Toronto MLB-level potential in the fourth spot should they prefer to have Pompey start at AAA. Past that, Lake is young, plays with a cocky edge and is just plain fun to watch. Even if you don’t have a clue what you’re going to get.