While top prospects have always been exciting, baseball, and baseball fandom in particular, has seen the interest in prospects pick up significantly over the last few years. These days, many fans can rattle off their organization’s top three or four prospects with ease. Diamondbacks fans are no different as everyone’s been asking about Archie Bradley for quite some time and it was Tyler Skaggs and Trevor Bauer before Bradley. This spring, Jake Barrett was getting buzz and the spring before it was Chris Owings and Matt Davidson. You get the idea, as the D-backs have struggled, fans are eager to see what the future looks like, and that largely means giving touted prospects a chance to shine.
Enter Jake Lamb. After Martin Prado’s departure, we wondered aloud in this very space whether or not that paved the way for Lamb to get his feet wet. And, sure enough, it wasn’t long before Andy Marte was DFA’d and Lamb was promoted. He jumped from AA Mobile to AAA Reno for five games before getting the call to The Show. The top hitting prospect in the system, Lamb’s time is now to prove what he can do.
But before diving into his major league appearances, let’s take a minute to recall his status as he’s moved through the minor leagues. He was drafted in 2012, taken in the sixth round out of the University of Washington. Northwest prospects tend to fly under the radar some, due to a couple of things. First and foremost, the weather in the region is suboptimal for playing baseball, often limiting the amount of practice and game time for players. Also, it’s located in a corner of the country that is largely outside of the industry’s spotlight. Washington doesn’t get a fraction of the attention that California, Texas and Florida receive. Because of these two things, players from this region often have more growth potential but are harder to evaluate. They’ve played less competitive baseball than warm weather prospects, so they could really take off when given the chance to play year round, but they haven’t played as much as their peers and it can be hard to get a read on them. Coming up in the Northwest, like the Northeast and Upper Midwest, is tough.
I was lucky to see Lamb during his junior season with the Huskies for a three game series where he was impressive. He made consistently hard contact and had consistently good at-bats while being solid defensively at third. In a collegiate lineup that was hardly fearsome, Lamb was the one guy that the opponent couldn’t get out. Despite a good season, he wasn’t highly regarded, getting popped in the sixth round. He got to work immediately, playing 67 games of rookie ball after being selected, hitting .329/.390/.539 with nine homers and 22 doubles. The pop in the bat was evident and he controlled the zone well, striking out just 16.2% of the time while walking in 7.6% of his plate appearances.
After the season, he was unranked by Baseball Prospectus, but John Sickels of MinorLeagueBall.com snuck him onto his top 20 list and had this to say about Lamb:
Sixth round pick this year from the University of Washington, under the radar to some extent but that should change. Very good athlete, very good glove at third base, has left-handed power, can steal bases. Just needs to keep the zone under control. (C+)
2013 saw Lamb assigned to High-A Visalia where he raked, once again, over 64 games. His .303/.424/.558 line was impressive even for the California League. With 13 home runs under his belt in just half a season, he was due for a promotion to Double-A before he broke his hamate bone (hand) and was shut down, missing most of the rest of the year. He did make up some at-bats in the Arizona Fall League, playing 21 games against the most advanced pitching he’d seen to date. To no surprise, he hit .299/.386/.416 in the limited sample, but his strikeout rate climbed to 28.4% in the AFL after it had already jumped up 24.7% in Visalia. The strikeouts were beginning to look like a potential issue for Lamb, although he was talking at least an average number of walks.
This was enough to grab the attention of Baseball Prospectus, and after the departures of several other top prospects from the previous season’s list, Jason Parks ranked him as the team’s 10th best prospect. BP was notably cool on Lamb, which may or may not be warranted. Without any standout tools, Lamb is pretty unassuming, but these are the kind of guys that can fly under the radar if they put the whole package together. They had this to say about Jake after his 2013 campaign:
What Happened in 2013: In his full-season debut, Lamb jumped to the California League and continued his professional trend of hitting for average and power, despite losing time to a broken bone in his hand.
Strengths: Well-rounded player; good athlete with present strength; shows the ability to drive the baseball to all fields; works at-bats and puts himself in favorable hitting conditions; shows above-average power potential; good hands in the field; solid-average glove; strong arm; can make plays.
Weaknesses: Swing features some swing and miss in the zone; struggles to cover the outer third; footwork at third can get casual; lacks big range; questions about game power against better pitching.
The Year Ahead: Lamb is a prospect that seems to get more love from the statistical community than the scouts, as the 23-year-old has put up impressive offensive numbers at every stop—including a very high on-base percentage in High-A—but his swing might not have the characteristics to make him a big threat against better pitching; with some swing and miss on offerings in the zone, and reports about exploitable holes in the swing [itself], more advanced arms could expose Lamb at the plate. He does show some bat speed and barreling ability, especially against weaker stuff, but several sources called him a bad ball hitter that is likely to struggle against quality velocity and secondary arsenals, and despite projecting to the major-league level, the bat might not play enough to make him a regular. Double-A will be a big test for the bat.
Clearly, Parks was skeptical and it sounds like his scouting sources agreed. At present, Lamb had some growing to do offensively, notably controlling the strike zone and proving he could hit quality pitching. Over at MinorLeagueBall.com, John Sickels disagreed, calling Lamb “An overlooked prospect who needs more attention.” Clearly, people were divided on Lamb as there’s really nothing sexy about his profile, although he had shown some aptitude to be effective. However, if I had a nickel for all of the guys who fit that profile and never made it, well, I’d have a lot more money than I have right now. There have been a lot of “Jake Lambs” over the years and most of them, like most all prospects, have never panned out.
As 2014 began, Lamb went to AA Mobile and all eyes were on him as the most advanced bat in the organization. He didn’t disappoint, hitting .318/.399/.551 in 103 games with 14 homers and 35 doubles. The strikeout rate dipped some and the walk rate spiked, both encouraging signs to go along with his hot hitting. While we were collectively wondering how Lamb would perform against higher level pitching, he surely didn’t disappoint. He was promoted to AAA Reno for a very brief stint, then to the majors where he notched his first hit last Thursday.
So just what is Jake Lamb? At the plate, he has a relatively quiet swing that should produce plenty of contact, but like Parks noted, I’m skeptical about the raw power. As a full time regular, I’d expect him more as a 15-18 home run guy than as a 25 homer threat who carries a solid average in the .270-.285 range with a slightly higher than average strikeout rate. Why the projected drop in numbers? He’s benefited from some pretty unbelievable BABIP’s throughout his minor league career, suggesting that the numbers aren’t the truest reflection of his talent. This is obviously where the scouts and fans start to diverge on Lamb, although the truth should be evident in relatively short order.
While the description above is not an All-Star profile, it is still a very valuable one, especially while under team control and playing at the league minimum. It wouldn’t be a shock to see Lamb exceed these modest expectations, however, since he’s risen so well to every challenge he’s faced so far. If anything, he’s proven to be a quick study who can make adjustments and if that’s the case, well, he may just blow the expectations out of the water. But for the time being, expect him to struggle a bit with the jump to the majors. He’s 3 for 14, in a tiny sample, without a walk and four strikeouts. The defense hasn’t been stellar, but the speed of the game will be something Jake has to adjust to.
And that’s just the thing: if he struggles what do the D-backs do? Hopefully they’ll be patient and let him continue to use the exposure to grow while playing him almost every day. Now is the time for Lamb to seize his opportunity, but it’s also the time for the Diamondbacks to find out what they have in him as they prepare for the future. I’ve never been a fan of calling up a prospect only to play him part-time or off the bench, so hopefully the Arizona will use this chance to give him regular starts, even if the first batch of results prove that he’s overmatched. With literally no better options, both parties stand to benefit substantially from Lamb’s regular inclusion in the starting lineup. Let’s hope they see it that way.
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