There are two things I believe I am well known for in baseball circles, loving the Chicago Cubs and pushing hard for others to pay attention to unaffiliated pro leagues. There are times when those two areas co-exist, and I get quite giddy when that happens for a good reason. Right now my love of the Cubs and unaffiliated ball are intersecting for a very good reason. There are three former Cubs players tearing it up in Liga Mexicana de Béisbol, and watching them succeed is bringing a smile to my face.
Before I dig into them, yes, I know that technically LMB is an affiliated league. However, that is a technicality and in reality, they are affiliated in name only. No LMB team is affiliated with a Major League Baseball team, and there exists a separate transaction process for LMB players wishing to leave for the MLB just as this is with other unaffiliated leagues. The only way in which LMB is affiliated is that they are classified as a Triple-A level Minor League Baseball team. However, they are basically ignored by MiLB and left to their own devices. That’s why for our purposes they are being viewed as an unaffiliated league.
Back to the matter at hand, first on the docket is a former Cubs outfielder, Junior Lake. A native of the Dominican Republic, Lake last played with the Cubs in 2015 and was last seen on an MLB roster in 2016. Cubs fans will most remember him as the guy who was called up to the 2013 roster mid-season and played pretty darn good while providing a spark for an otherwise dead team that no one cared to watch. Lake gave the Cubs 1.1 of rWAR in 2013, then fell off a cliff in 2014 as his tendency to swing at everything and below average defense led to an rWAR of -1.4.
Fast forward to 2019 and Lake is one of the top players in the LMB. Minding the outfield for the Toros de Tijuana Lake is slashing .344/.442/.573 with 11 home runs and 15 stolen bases. Most notably in 216 plate appearances, he has only struck out 41 times while taking 36 free passes. That is an incredible amount of plate discipline for a guy who once struck out 110 times and only walked 14 times in 326 plate appearances. Lake has been just as good defensively for the Toros. His RF/9 of 2.11 in centerfield is excellent.
Another member of the Toros having a great 2019 is former Cubs reliever, James Russell. His best season with the Cubs was in 2012 where he sported an ERA of 3.25, an ERA+ of 126, and an rWAR of 0.9. Russell was great out of the pen for the Cubs for a few years and then his arm appeared to die out on him and he was out of MLB following the 2016 season. Russell converted back to a starter and went on to post quality seasons for teams in the Atlantic League, Liga Mexicana del Pacífico, and with the LMB’s Sultanes de Monterrey.
In 2019 the lefty starter has been lights out for the Toros. In 9 games he has an ERA of 1.94, a WHIP of 1.152, and an HR/9 of 0.2. I’ve seen two of Russell’s starts and he looks like a different pitcher compared to the end of his MLB career. His velocity is just a tick below his prime year numbers and he’s gotten much better at handling right-handed batters. Russell used to nibble quite a bit, but now he attacks the zone and sequences to keep hitters off balance.
Last, but certainly not least, is former top Cubs prospect Félix Pié. The lanky centerfielder had his way with pitchers in his stays in every MiLB level before finally seeing action with the big league squad in 2007. The raw tools were easy to see, but Pié struggled mightily in his time in the bigs. He had issues making contact, the power he had shown in the minors disappeared, and his mirage of a speed game was further exposed by big league catchers. Subsequent years spent in a variety of unaffiliated leagues were up and down, but with more down than up.
In his second season (the 2018 season in the LMB featured a weird two season format so technically this would be his third season) with Bravos de León Pié has found his place. In 2018 Pié was really good for the Bravos, but in 2019 he has been downright otherworldly. He’s slashing .461/.545/.808 with 17 home runs. What should cause any Cubs fan to take a second look is that in 231 plate appearances he has walked 37 times while only striking out 32 times. Pié has been known as a strikeout machine who won’t take pitches during most of his professional career, but in the past few years, he has turned himself into a hitter with incredible plate discipline.
More than likely none of Lake, Russell, or Pié will ever sniff an MLB or legitimate affiliated MiLB roster ever again. Russell and Pié are too old (33 and 34 respectively), while Lake has the mark of a failed non-prospect. I don’t particularly care if they never step foot on an affiliated diamond again. They are playing great unaffiliated ball and I have enjoyed every at-bat or turn on the mound I have been able to see from all three this year. Baseball doesn’t begin and end with affiliated ball, this trio of former Cubs are further proof of that fact.
Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – Enfoque Noticias