Cubs

Maddon, Cubs getting a 'fresh look' at Junior Lake

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Maddon, Cubs getting a 'fresh look' at Junior Lake

It seems like so long ago that Junior Lake was the "it" prospect to talk about in the Cubs clubhouse.

Since making his debut in July 2013, that "top prospect" label has fallen off Lake's resume and he's been replaced by Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and a host of other young players who are making an impact with the Cubs.

Lake has become a forgotten man, even after drawing comparisons to Alfonso Soriano less than two years ago.

But Lake is back in Chicago and earned a second straight start Friday against the Royals. He got the call in right field in place of Jorge Soler Wednesday, doubling off Max Scherzer - the best pitcher on the planet right now - and subsequently swiping third when the defense stopped paying attention to him on the basepaths.

[MORE: Cubs see Addison Russell taking a big step forward]

When asked why he decided to give Lake another start Friday, Joe Maddon's response was simple: "Have you been watching him?"

"He's been outstanding," Maddon said. "I think he's a good baseball player. What's getting lost here is the fact that he's got a clue out on the field. He does some really smart things out there. That's what I've seen with him."

Maddon also admitted he opted for Lake over the left-handed-hitting Chris Coghlan against Edinson Volquez because the Royals starter is tougher on lefties (Volquez is allowing just a .177 average and .513 OPS to lefties, compared to a .218 average and a .574 OPS to right-handed hitters).

Lake has already been shuttled to and from Triple-A Iowa twice this year and the caveat always is that it's a small sample size (27 at-bats entering play Friday). But it's the approach that has Maddon encouraged right now.

For example, Lake's double Wednesday was only his fifth extra-base hit to the opposite field in his career, spanning more than 570 at-bats. 

He's also not swinging at every pitch thrown within spitting distance of home plate, averaging 4.57 pitches per plate appearance, tops on the team among active players (injured Tommy La Stella saw 5 pitches per plate appearance in his six at-bats earlier this season).

[RELATED: Starlin Castro leaves Cubs with questions to answer at shortstop]

"He's really good," Maddon said. "I got to see him in spring training. I saw him - I think - pinch-hit last year. And then with him in camp and I go to meetings and hear all these different things about Junior.

"A big part of it was he would pretty much swing at the rosin bag. But then this last offseason, he went to winter ball and I guess that stopped. Now, watching the guy run bases, play defense, his at-bats, his power, I don't know what there's not to like. I've not seen anything but good."

Lake is still only 25 and possesses an intriguing power-speed combo skillset. He can play all three outfield spots and came up through the Cubs system as an infielder, representing some versatility for Maddon off the bench.

Lake has shown flashes that he's the same player who hit .284 with a .760 OPS in 2013 and he's working to move past his 2014 struggles (.211 average, 110 strikeouts in 308 at-bats). 

But at the end of the day, he's still not seen as a building block with this Cubs franchise. 

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With Lake, it wasn't so much doubting his skillset, it was more about doubting whether it would all click and he would fulfill that potential.

He's got something of a fresh start now with Maddon in town.

"He's one of those guys, sometimes, I think you get in an organization long enough that people see him a certain way," Maddon said. "I'm coming in with some fresh looks right now and now I think everybody else is seeing the same thing.

"Junior's proven that he's made some adjustments, which is not easy to do at his particular point of development. I give him a lot of credit."

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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KELLY CRULL

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.