Thursday, March 10, 2016

The argument for Junior Lake, who is terrible

Heading into the offseason, the Jays had something of a logjam in the outfield. Barring injury, Jose Bautista and Kevin Pillar were guaranteed the right and center field spots, setting the stage for a competition between Ben Revere, Michael Saunders, and Dalton Pompey. Rather than letting things play out, the Jays jettisoned Revere to Washington, reallocating his increasing salary to an area of greater need.

By trading Revere, the organization now has a clear top four in the outfield; Bautista, Pillar, Saunders, and Pompey.

Questions about Saunders’s health will likely never go away, but as long as he’s healthy (knock on wood)(knock on wood again)(maybe one more time just in case) he has the best track record of success among the contenders for the left field job. Pompey, with his defense, speed, and switch-hitting ability, would be a perfect fourth outfielder, as he can act as a bat and pinch-runner off the bench, and he’s a good enough all-around player to spell each of the starters once in a while.

But it may not be as simple as plugging those players into the appropriate holes. It’s reasonable to think that a) Pompey could still use more time in the minors, and b) the lack of a full-time role could be detrimental to his development. In fact, it appears as though the Jays are leaning in that direction.

So, at least for now, Pompey isn’t the answer. But there are other options around, as the new management team’s search for depth has brought about another logjam of sorts in the form of a glut of AAA-outfielders: beyond Pompey, there’s Ezequiel Carrera, Domonic Brown, Darrell Ceciliani, and Junior Lake. It’s not the most exciting group, but... well... ok, there’s no but. It’s not the most exciting group.

With Pompey seemingly out of the equation for now, I’ll gladly throw my support behind Lake and his miserable -1.6 fWAR the last two years.

The problem with Lake, of course, is that he’s been all kinds of terrible since his impressive 2013 debut with the Cubs. He’s an average baserunner, he has terrible defensive numbers, and he somehow manages to walk less and strikeout more than JP Arencibia. Except, you know... without the power and positional adjustment.

Just to recap, Junior Lake is JP Arencibia except a bit worse at the things Arencibia is terrible at and without the things Arencibia is good at.

Yes, this is my argument for Junior Lake. Are you sold yet?

Now that we’ve established that Lake is terrible, it’s time to look at a few areas where maybe he kind of almost isn’t. Luckily, these are key areas, given the role the fourth outfielder is expected to fill.

For starters, Junior Lake bats right-handed. The other candidates for the role all bat left and wouldn’t set up an effective platoon with Saunders.

Not only does he bat right-handed, but he’s had a lot of success against lefties in his brief major league career.  In an admittedly small sample of 200 plate appearances against southpaws over his three major league seasons, Lake has a .280/.325/.446 line for a 114 wRC+. Over the same period, Saunders has a 113 wRC+ against righties. While platoons can never be deployed perfectly, a 113 wRC+ would have ranked just outside the top ten left fielders last year (right behind our old friend Colby Rasmus, who earned himself a $15.8 million qualifying offer on the back of that offensive performance).

There’s a positive to take from Lake’s terrible defense, as well: it only seems to show up when he’s in center field. The samples are all far too small to draw any definitive conclusions from, but his -13.3 UZR in center and +9.3 in left suggest that he may be just fine as a left fielder. That’s the same problem Saunders has had, though, and not having a second center fielder on the roster is far from ideal. But either of them could fake it once in a while if necessary, and none of this precludes Pompey being called up if a longer-term need arises.

As far as his average baserunning is concerned, it may not be Pompey-calibre, but he would still be a solid option as a runner off the bench to replace the likes of Smoak, Colabello, Encarnacion and Martin in late-game situations.

It’s possible that all of this is moot and Saunders doesn’t even need to be platooned, as his numbers against lefties have been good enough the last couple of years to give him a shot. But Lake’s numbers in the split have been much better than simply “good enough,” and it’s likely that Saunders will get at least semi-regular time off regardless of who’s backing him up.

Lake has a lot of holes, but if you squint just enough, you can see the makings of a solid platoon outfielder who can be a positive contributor to the Jays if he’s used in the appropriate situations.

That is, of course, assuming John Gibbons can keep him out of center field and away from righties.