High expectations follow Lake to big leagues
Developing slower than teammate Castro, Dominican's goals remain lofty
CHICAGO -- When Junior Lake plays in the Major League All-Star Game -- and there is every reason to believe it will happen some day -- the Cubs rookie outfielder has to make sure he takes Jose Serra with him.
Serra, now the director of operations in the Dominican Republic for the Cubs, signed Lake when he was 16 years old after a tryout and some tough negotiations, and he once passed on a trip to make sure he got the youth.
Mario Encarnacion, a scout in the Dominican, told Serra about the slender teenager. As soon as Serra saw Lake play, he knew the Cubs had to have him.
"I said, 'Wow, I like this guy, and I've got to bring him to the academy,'" Serra said.
Lake came to the Cubs' facility in Boca Chica for a tryout with four other players. Oneri Fleita, who was the head of player development and scouting with the Cubs at the time, happened to be in the Dominican and watched the prospects. Lake stood out.
"It's hard not to look at the way he can run, the way he can throw and the way he can field and say he'd make it [to the big leagues]," said Fleita, now a consultant with the Reds. "He was an easy guy to profile that he could play any position on the field. You didn't know if he'd get too big to play short. He looked like he might have power, and you thought he could project the power to play the corner positions. And at the very least, you thought you might have a pitcher."
A pitcher? Lake has played shortstop and third base in the Minors, and he is playing outfield for the Cubs. But pitch?
"Well, he's got a great arm," Fleita said. "Position players are so hard to come by; you keep them playing the position."
Fleita left the Dominican and turned the negotiations over to Serra, who had signed another talented 16-year-old middle infielder a few months earlier on Oct. 25, 2006, in Starlin Castro, now the Cubs' starting shortstop. Lake and Castro were born three days apart. Both were middle infielders, but the similarities ended there when they signed.
"Lake had more power than Castro, and tool-wise, Junior was better," Serra said. "But Castro was the hardest-working guy we signed."
Castro had signed for $45,000. Lake's mother and the buscones, or scouts, who handled his negotiations were seeking $200,000. The Cubs were not willing to go that high. In early February, Fleita called Serra to tell him that he had his plane ticket and hotel set for the Caribbean Series, which was being played in Puerto Rico that year. But Serra was not going to leave the Dominican until he finalized the deal with Lake.
Finally, on Feb. 2, 2007, Lake agreed to sign for $110,000. But Serra missed the trip to Puerto Rico, and he has not let Lake forget that.
"I called him last night," Serra said Saturday from the Dominican. "I told him, 'Remember, you have to make it to the All-Star Game, and you have to take me.'"
Lake, 23, should be able to pay Serra back soon. Recalled from Triple-A Iowa on July 19, he went 3-for-4 in his Major League debut as the starting center fielder, hitting a double in his first big league plate appearance and stealing third base on the next pitch.
Cubs manager Dale Sveum did not get much of a look at Lake this spring because Lake fractured a rib. At Triple-A Iowa, Lake batted .295 with 10 doubles, two triples, four home runs, 18 RBIs and 14 stolen bases in 40 games.
Lake has made the big leagues look easy. He is the first Cub since at least 1916 to record two four-hit games in his first 16 big league contests, and he is the first Major Leaguer to do so since St. Louis' Bo Hart in June 2003.
"I just know from Day 1, we probably liked Junior a lot more than Castro," Fleita said of the two, who played together in the Dominican Summer League and in the Rookie League in Mesa, Ariz., after they signed.
In the Rookie League in '08, Castro batted .311, Lake .286.
"They're interesting kids," Fleita said. "We were in Spring Training [in 2009] and didn't know what to do with either one of them, and we put Castro in the Florida State League and we started Junior in the Midwest League because we wanted to keep him at shortstop. They're three days apart in age, and it's interesting at how their careers have gone -- how one went off a little quicker than the other. You never know how guys will develop."
At Class A Advanced Daytona, Castro made the Florida State League All-Star team and was batting .302 when he was promoted to Double-A at the age of 19. Lake struggled at Class A Peoria, batting .248 with 138 strikeouts.
Castro made his big league debut in May 2010, while Lake was at Daytona. Castro made a splash, hitting a three-run homer in his first at-bat and finishing his inaugural game with six RBIs. Lake has taken longer to develop.
"He did have some injuries, and for whatever reason, the game didn't come as easy for him," Fleita said of Lake. "I think he was still trying to grow into a body that now he's finally matured into. They're two different guys. Junior has grown four, five inches. He's so much bigger and stronger. They're different kids."
Serra acknowledged he thought Lake would get to the big leagues before Castro but said the two had different mindsets.
"When Castro signed, he knew what he wanted," Serra said. "Lake enjoyed the moment. It took some time for him to realize what it took [to get to the big leagues]."
Lake now appears to have a good feel for the game. He collected hits in his first seven games with the Cubs, and he was batting .333 with four home runs, three doubles and seven RBIs in 18 games through Sunday. The Cubs are prepared for some growing pains as Lake learns how to play outfield.
"He's got that incredible physical ability, amazing tools, where when he is locked in and seeing the ball well, he can do some things on the baseball field that make you drop your jaw," said Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein.
What may have helped Lake was playing this past winter for Estrellas Orientales. He batted .312 and ranked among the Dominican Winter League leaders in batting average (fourth), OBP (fifth), slugging (fifth), OPS (fourth), home runs (seventh) and steals (second), and he finished third in the running for the Most Valuable Player Award. David Jauss, whom Epstein knows from his days with the Red Sox, was Lake's manager then.
"[Lake] is showing right now he's playing with a ton of confidence and that he really belongs here," Epstein said. "This is the league he feels he's ready for, and he's going out and showing it."
Lake is the third Cubs player since 1921 to have at least 24 hits in his first 16 career games, joining Andy Pafko in 1943-44 (24 hits) and Mandy Brooks in 1925 (25).
"I think there's still some pounds to add to his body," Serra said. "Look out -- he'll be hitting some bombs out of the ballpark then."
Fleita has kept an eye on Lake's progress. His children, who get to know the players from Spring Training and trips to the Dominican, were excitedly running around the house when Lake notched his first two-homer game last Thursday against the Dodgers in a 6-4 loss.
"It's hard not to know how well Junior is doing," Fleita said. "He had quite a start to his professional career."
A career Serra and the Cubs hope includes many All-Star Games.