Braves Hot Stove Discussion - Second Base - Tommy La Stella

Existing Second Base Options - Braves Hot Stove

The Braves’ second base choice for 2014 has been a topic of hot discussion since since they benched and eventually left off the NLDS roster 13 million dollar man Dan Uggla in favor of light hitting but defensively stronger Elliot Johnson. I started our discussion with a look at the Brandon Phillips rumor and followed that up with a look at players who will be free agents or are likely to be traded. Today we look at players already on the roster who might get a shot at the job.

Updated at 12:24 a.m. EDT :

On Tuesday Reds GM Walt Jocketty  said he’s not actively seeking to trade second baseman Brandon Phillips.  The comment came in an interview wtih MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon   According to Jockettty, Phillips sent a text wanting to know his status.

” I told him that I have not spoken to anybody about that,” Jocketty said. “I’m not talking to any clubs about him.”

Nowhere in the interview did the Reds GM say he was not trading him either. Stay tuned. A soap opera like this is bound to run on until someone gets fed up answering questions and does something. Now on with the show!

Existing Second Base Options

Braves fans know the existing roster pretty well. Aside from EJ whom everyone should understand is at best a bench player there are three who will get a look next spring.

Philip Gosselin: Goose was a fifth round pick in 2010 and the Braves #25 prospect going into 2011 after having a superb 2009 College World Series at second base for Virginia and leading them to a first in the nation ranking the next spring with 22 doubles and 11 homers. He’s a good fielder but his arm isn’t great and his range just average. Although the Braves thought they had “a steal” when drafted Goose projects as a utility man.

Tommy La Stella: If you’ve been following the discussion here you’ll know a lot of us think La Stella will start at second base for Atlanta very soon.

Drafted in the eight round in 2011 out of St John’s, Baseball America’s draft report (subscription required)  didn’t project him as an infielder

. . .(La Stella) swings the bat with authority from the left side. He’s not athletic or strong enough to stay in the infield as a pro and is a bat-only player who figures to play left field…”

He slid in front of Gosselin  as the Braves #28 prospect going into 2012. After that season BA’s evaluation was more detailed.

“ La Stella’s calling card is his bat. . .(his) ability to make consistent hard contact and some surprising pop . . He has above-average bat speed as well as a discerning eye . . .runs the bases well but isn’t blessed with a lot of quickness or athleticism . . .his arm and range are fringy, most scouts believe he’ll be hard pressed to remain in the infield at higher levels. . .”

Baseball Prospectus (subscription required) agreed this spring.

Strengths: Above-average hitability; good bat control; gap hitter with some pop; very mature approach; walks more than he strikeouts; not a platoon hitter; solid hands/actions at second; max-effort player.

Weaknesses: Lacks left-side tools; arm is below average; below average run; has some pop, but isn’t big power threat; hit tool only carrying tool;

His hit tool carried him to AA Pearl after on seven games at Lynchburg this year and will carry him at least to Gwinnett next year. At Pearl he put up a .343/.422/.473/.895 line with 4 homers, 21 doubles and 2 triples mixed in his 97 hits. He walked 37 times and struck out only 34 for a K/walk rate of 0.92, a rare number in this day and age.

Alan’s Arizona league updates have featured La Stella prominently and with good reason as he’s currently leading that league with a .429/.625/.619/1.2444 slash. AFL stats don’t prove much because the sample size is small and the player mix is eclectic. But La Stella continues to hit at every level much like Evan Gattis did but less home run pop. After the AFL game on October 17 where he went 2-2 with 2 doubles, a run  and 3 walks Baseball Prospectus summed him up like this.

. . .Power and plate discipline is a wonder combination in a hitter and can lead to great days at the plate . . .He doesn’t have home run power, but he does a good job of making consistently hard contact and driving the gap. He’s hit at every stop in the minors and draws plenty of walks too, giving him a chance to be a nice hitter at the top of a major-league order.

None of that speaks to his defense at second base of course but production like that has given similar players good careers. Who? In their last AA year:

Obviously Le Stella doesn’t have the home run power of these guys but the Braves have plenty of that the gap to gap extra base power he has looks a pretty good fit.

Ramiro Pena: Pena played really well in a utility role as SS, second base and third base – .278/.330/.443/.773 in 107PA over 50 games – until injury ended his season. The obvious question is, with an infield of deteriorating and aging players why would the Yankees simply let him become a free agent? Baseball Prospectus (subscription required) thinks he just doesn’t hit enough for the AL.

Ramiro Pena is the quintessential good-field/no-hit shortstop and in ye olden days he would have made a fine late-inning defensive replacement . . .(but) bench players with such extremely limited applications have been permanently deselected in the Darwinian sense of the word.

Essentially he doesn’t project to hit enough to play everyday.  Minor league numbers aren’t directly applicable to the majors But there is a minor league equivalency calculator that’s pretty accurate and it supports that projection. Based on his numbers at AAA in 2009 ihere are the numbers it projected for him with the Yankees in 2010 and his actual numbers that year.

2010 Projection Actual `+ / -
AB 160 154 -6.0
R 14 18 4.0
H 32 33 1.0
2b 8 6 -2.0
3b 0 1 1.0
HR 2 0 -2.0
RBI 7 18 11.0
BB 14 6 -8.0
K 30 27 -3.0
SB 4 7 3.0
CS 1 1 0.0
BA .199 .227 .028
OBP  .264 .258 -.006
SL .276 .247 -.029
OPS .540 .505 -.035

Pena’s sample size line with the Braves was slightly better than the MLB second base average in 2013 but the calculator projects that, based on his 2012 AAA numbers, he would have ended with a line near .218/.277/.273.

The only early forecast I could find to date projects a better line of .249/.299/.343 for 2014. That isn’t anything to write home about and not what we want playing ever day if we have a better option. And we do.

Tyler Pastornicky: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Rev here. Most Braves fans love Rev but he’s not been able to hold a job once it was given to him. His arm isn’t strong enough to start at shortstop and he is cited as having “happy feet” when playing second base. As a result he’s become a bench player/utility man and while he might get some playing time he won’t get the job.

Conclusions

Internally there’s little reason not to give La Stella a shot at the second base job. All of the other candidates are utility mean who don’t project as everyday players because of their bat. La Stella has hit at every level and good hitters will hit. I ran his numbers through the calculator and it projected  a slash of .279/.344/.376, 3 homers, 17 doubles, a triple, 27 walks and 37 in 293 AB. He’s never had over 400 plate appearances so it’s hard to say what effect the long grind at the major league level would have on that line. He’d have his ups and downs but he’d also be surrounded by guys like Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Chris Johnson and Andrelton Simmons who’ve gone through such things recently and can provide assurance and help when needed.

That’s A Wrap

There are many Braves fans who say that trading Uggla for Phillips would be the best deal we could make. I’m not sure why anyone assumes the Reds would want Uggla no matter how badly the Reds want to move BP. Uggla is older, slower, a defensive black hole at second base and showed no signs of coming out of his steady decline this season. The folks at MLB Trade Rumors summed it up pretty well.

The Uggla rumor might be an unlikely one — he wouldn’t save the Reds money, at least not through 2015, so swapping him for Phillips would be an unambiguous step backwards for the Reds that wouldn’t give them much chance of making up for it in the short term.

On the subject of other free agents and trades there’s a lot of sentiment out there for the return of Omar Infante to Atlanta. Infante played well at second base for Atlanta prior to his trade for Uggla and has put up good numbers with Detroit while playing second base there. He will get a multiyear contract somewhere at a bump from his existing $4M a year. No other free agents are real options unless you simply want a backup plan for La Stella.  The best trade option is Howie Kendrick.

Kendrick is a perennial 3 rWAR player at second base with post season chops and raised by an organization that teaches players the right way to do things. He’s require a major league ready prospect or current pitcher as the main piece and the Braves could move Kris Medlen plus a Sean Gilmartin or other lower tier guy for Kendrick. Meds is a 3 rWar guy himself and I suspect not in the Braves future plans very heavily. Kendrick brings the Angels their biggest return this off season because he has 2 years of control remaining. That two years would allow La Stella to mature a year at AAA if he forced his way up and into the lineup Kendrick is very tradable.  I don’t see money as an issue. The Braves have 20M or so coming off the books and the new TV money  – about 26.6M – will be available so Even extending Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman while providing raises to the arbitration eligibles would leave money for Kendrick and enough  David Price. For me the decision isn’t affected by Uggla’s contract either; that’s a sunken cost. If we can move him as part of a trade it would be great but if no one will take him, I’d certainly consider DFA. In any event I don’t believe he’ll play for  Frank Wren again.

The decision comes down to whether a mutually agreeable trade for Kendrick is possible. I love the idea of a young La Stella coming in and filling the gap while holding down payroll so we can go Ace hunting. But I also see Brian McCann leaving making B.J. Upton (in theory), Justin Upton and Heyward the senior everyday players. Kendrick’s experience and leadership would be of immense value even if there’s no stat for it. For that reason I’d would try first to make a deal with the Halos for Kendrick. Failing that I’d happily bring up La Stella up and move ahead.

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