For the first time in a long time, Alfonso Soriano won't open a baseball season as the Cubs' starting left fielder.
How long? Be careful. If you said 2007, you'd be wrong.
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After signing his eight-year, $136 million contract with the Cubs in November 2006, Soriano opened the 2007 season as the team's starting center fielder.
(Trivia question: Who was the Cubs' starting left fielder on Opening Day 2007? Answer at the end of this column.)
The Soriano-in-center experiment lasted mere hours, and Soriano settled, sometimes comfortably, in left field, where he stayed until the Cubs traded him to the Yankees in July.
The Cubs certainly missed Soriano's production -- he wound up with 181 home runs, 898 hits and 526 RBI during his tenure in Chicago -- but the new era in left field began more or less with Junior Lake taking over.
"Junior's going to play a lot," general manager Jed Hoyer told reporters in Mesa, Ariz., when spring training opened. "We're really excited about what he did last year. Very impressive debut season."
Lake, who is three days younger than Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro, made his big-league debut last year in the first game after the all-star break. Playing at Colorado's Coors Field, Lake went 3-for-4 with a double.
In 64 games with the big club, playing center field and left, Lake put up a hitting line of .284/.332/.428 with 6 home runs, 16 doubles and 16 RBI.
"It was a good opportunity to learn from a bunch of veteran players," Lake said through a translator last month at the Cubs' rookie development program at Northwestern University. "It was a very positive experience."
The Cubs signed Lake as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2007, and he spent much of his minor-league time as a shortstop, with some games at third base and second base. He made the switch to outfield last year at Class AAA Iowa before coming up in July.
"I like center, but I'll play any position," he said.
At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, Lake possesses good size and a lot of raw athletic ability, much of it yet to be refined. He has shown flashes of power, but he may settle in as a 15-homer-a-year player. However, he also has great speed, as he stole 38 bases in 2011 between Class A Daytona and Class AA Tennessee.
A right-handed batter, Lake enjoyed significantly better success against left-handed pitchers, going .377/.415/.541 against lefties compared with .251/.303/.389 against righties.
The Cubs can do some mixing and matching in the outfield if they feel Lake needs a day off against a tough right-handed pitcher. Ryan Sweeney, who will platoon in center field with Justin Ruggiano, can shift over to left field for a game, if needed. The Cubs have left-handed batters Chris Coghlan and Ryan Kalish in spring-training camp as nonroster invitees.
Stats bible Baseball Prospectus has weighed in on Lake, and the authors show they've not forgotten about the legacy of Alfonso Soriano.
"In the Cubs' fully stacked deck of hitting prospects, Lake is clearly the wild card," the book states. "He's blessed with speed, raw power, a cannon arm and a penchant for errors and mental mistakes, and few players can look quite as good or quite as bad as Lake.
"(Lake) can turn around fastballs with the best of them but struggles with breaking stuff, leading to plenty of strikeouts and a walk rate that will likely never support a high on-base percentage. His game needs polish both at the plate and in the field, and as pitchers learn to take advantage of his aggressive approach, Lake will need to adjust.
"If everything breaks right, he could become a lunch-menu version of Alfonso Soriano; if not, his contact issues will make him a constant tease."
•(Trivia answer: Matt Murton)