Braves prospect La Stella trying to maintain focus amid attention
MAY 21, 2014 2:24a ET
LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. -- In the case of Tommy La Stella, career plans rarely hit the fast track.
His was a gradual rise littered with second guesses -- up through the college ranks at two different schools, up the draft boards that ignored him twice before, up through the Atlanta Braves' farm system -- but at 25 years old, one final step, or one phone call, is all that separates him from a big league roster. It can be an excruciating wait, just ask those who have endured it longer than the first-year Triple-A standout. He says he doesn't mind the waiting game, though.
La Stella is trying to distance himself, and his play, from the mounting attention concerning his potential call-up, which is difficult to do in a 24-hour news cycle with the parent club looking for answers at his position just 45 minutes down Interstate 85, and though it seems like an any-day-now type of decision, plans can change.
Somewhere along the way over the past two years, La Stella assumed heir apparent status for the Braves' second base job, a position previously held by high-priced three-year starter Dan Uggla, whose declining play has directly contributed to a loss of playing time and the uproar surrounding any potential call-up. But as Uggla's starts have become more and more infrequent, the organization has fallen back on bench players Tyler Pastornicky and Ramiro Pena to various degrees of success, with Pena separating himself as a viable upgrade at the plate in the early going. That combo of MLB experience could put the brakes on the La Stella plans.
He's been in similar positions before.
"I know how quickly things can turn around in this game," La Stella said after taking batting practice on Tuesday afternoon. "I've been on the other side of it plenty of times. I think it's one of the things that's kept me grounded over the past year or so, with all the attention this has kinda garnered, I think it's good that my background is someone who has been overlooked."
Now, the opposite is true.
If anything, La Stella's every on-field move is scrutinized and compared to his major league counterparts. Every statistical tidbit, every way he could presumably aid the second-lowest scoring offense in baseball, makes its way into the social realm eventually. He is under surveillance. It's a new feeling, too, because La Stella remembers when nobody was looking at all.
* * *
The freshman felt unwanted, and he couldn't stomach moving backward. He moved blindly instead.
Following the 2008 college baseball season, La Stella was called into the baseball coaches' offices at St. John's University. He was coming off an injury-riddled freshman season where he hit .320 in limited playing time and preparing to step into a starting role for the Red Storm. But coach Ed Blankmeyer and his staff held some bad news for the former prep star.
"They made it pretty clear to me in the end-of-the-year meeting that they didn't have any (scholarship) money for me and they didn't really think I was deserving of any money," La Stella said. "And when somebody tells you that, that feeling of not being wanted somewhere, you're not gonna stick around."
He didn't. La Stella looked to transfer immediately, but he wasn't exactly a highly-sought commodity in the vast world of college baseball. MLB teams passed out drafting him out of high school, despite being one of the most decorated players in the state of New Jersey, and he ended up starting just four games at St. John's that first season. A recruiters' line wasn't wrapping around his dorm building. There wasn't a line to begin with. As La Stella put it, "I was in no position to negotiate."
He did have a hitting coach who played college baseball, though, and that hitting coach had a phone. He used it to call his own former coach, Gary Gilmore.
When Gilmore's Coastal Carolina program opened his doors for the St. John's castaway, it came with just one guarantee: a roster spot. La Stella jumped at the opportunity, ignoring audible second-guessing back home, and eventually played in two NCAA Tournaments, including the 2010 Super Regionals, and became the Big South Player of the Year in his redshirt junior season.
Gilmore won't likely be letting too many phone calls from ex-players go to voicemail from here on out.
"Very blind move," La Stella said, looking back on the decision to give Coastal Carolina a chance. "It's one of those things where the plan is -- you come up with a plan, you draw it up in your mind and you just assume it's going to go the way you plan it. And when it doesn't, you roll with the punches. But when it works out, you don't ever really look back and think to yourself, 'Wow, that really could have gone the other way.'
" ... There was no plan. If I'm explaining my plan to somebody -- I'm gonna go to Coastal Carolina, sit out a year (due to NCAA transfer rules) and just hopefully play my draft-eligible redshirt sophomore season -- people were looking at me going, 'You've got a starting spot the following year at St. John's, a good D-I program. You're gonna start for the next two years. You're really gonna leave just because they won't give you money?' My answer was that it's more than just about the money. It's about being in a place that wants me."
* * *
Five months before the Braves selected La Stella in the eighth round of the 2011 draft, the franchise signed Uggla, then an All-Star trade acquisition from the Marlins organization, to a five-year, $68 million contract extension. The two moves appeared unrelated at the time -- La Stella's selection taking a backseat to the likes of first-round pitching prospect Sean Gilmartin out of Florida State; Uggla's lucrative deal securing him the starting role, judging by the deal's length, through the 2015 season -- but absolutely nothing occurs in a vacuum when it comes to baseball player personnel.
Fast forward three years and the two names are practically inseparable.
In many ways, this is primarily a Dan Uggla-related affair.
Quality as La Stella's minor league numbers may be -- he's a career .322/.407/.473 hitter with a mature approach at the plate -- he's not considered a can't-miss superstar prospect by any means, and this is not a pertinent conversation if Uggla had not hit a wall, in terms of offensive production. But after a career-worst season in 2013, one in which he was left off the Braves' NLDS roster entirely, things have gone from bad to worse for Atlanta's high-priced second baseman. He's at career lows for batting average, on-base percentage and slugging, and even with decreased playing time, the numbers have continued to drop (Uggla's yearly weighted runs created, OPS+):
2011: 111 wRC+, 107 OPS+
2012: 104 wRC+, 98 OPS+
2013: 91 wRC+, 84 OPS+
2014: 40 wRC+, 38 OPS+
Since the start of the 2013 season, only the Athletics, White Sox and Blue Jays have received less all-around value at the second base position than the Braves, according to FanGraphs' wins above replacement, and almost all of it has come from Pena, who missed the majority of last season due to injury. With that in mind, the writing appears to be on the wall. Uggla has started just five of the team's 18 games in May. That's not getting a lot of mileage from a guy accounting for more than 10 percent of the team's '14 payroll, and how the Braves deal with that issue moving forward is yet to be determined.
But such is the impetus behind the outcry for a former eighth-round selection with zero major league experience in the middle of what's shaping up to be a close division race: at this point, league average production from anybody within the organization would be an upgrade.
There are some mixed opinions on La Stella's upside at the major league level, as he's been almost exclusively a contact hitter who works counts and accumulates singles at the minor league level (with plenty of success), but one that is not providing any sort of power threat, at least early on. He has yet to homer in Triple-A ball and he has just 20 in nearly 1,200 plate appearances at all levels.
"The biggest thing for me: even when I'm not hitting the ball well, I want to make sure I'm working the counts, seeing a lot of pitches," said La Stella, whose lefty bat and track record against right-handed pitching would be welcome in the Braves' mix. "When I start rushing through my at-bats, I kinda get myself in a little more trouble. As I worked my way up, that was something that I developed a little bit. I was more aggressive in college. The approach has kinda taken away from some of the power, but I'm not concerned with that. Talking with everybody, that's something that comes later in your career.
"One of the things I kinda like is to develop your approach first, power second, not the other way around. You don't want to have the power coming and hitting .200 and try to develop your approach after the fact. It's tougher to do."
His strength has always been his bat, but, according to Triple-A Gwinnett manager Brian Snitker, he's made strides defensively after working on his range and mobility with the team's strength and conditioning coach, Jason Curry -- and really, given the fact that Uggla finished last among all major league players in defensive runs saved last season, to what standard would La Stella's glove even be held up against?
"(La Stella has) handled himself pretty well for the first year of Triple-A ball," said Snitker, who also coached Uggla from 2011 to 2013 as the Braves' third-base coach. "You know, and it's like I told him: we all have stuff that we have to work on. And it never stops. The day Chipper (Jones) retired, he was working on stuff. Nobody complete figures this stuff out. It's just the kind of sport it is."
* * *
In case of Tommy La Stella, or any other highly-touted prospect throughout baseball seemingly on the verge of making the coveted minors-to-majors leap, the heightened level of attention is not lost on its subject.
When he was growing up in Closter, N.J., right across the Hudson River from the Bronx and approximately 15 minutes from Yankee Stadium without traffic, La Stella was an unabashed Derek Jeter supporter planted right in the thick of the information meat market that is New York City's coverage of the Yankees. He understands the 24-hour coverage that consumes the sport, especially when the player toting the "Next" designation is presumably nearing his debut. And now, with the added dissemination tool of social media, there's very little shielding to be done.
On Tuesday afternoon, Indianapolis Indians outfielder Gregory Polanco, who some consider the top offensive prospect in baseball and a future star for the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, took batting practice right after La Stella and the Gwinnett Braves, his pre-MLB contract negotiations and financially-motivated call-up date already being discussed in the public sphere. It's getting harder and harder to be "sneaky good" -- if you're a good enough player, someone will find you.
"To think with all the social media and everything out there, to think that they don't see all that and hear all that, you're crazy. They do," Snitker said. "And you know what? That's part of the growing up and that's part of handling this business, too. Not letting it be a distraction."
La Stella doesn't disagree; he hears the chatter and by virtue of granting an interview at this stage in his career, he's aware that there's bound to be a reminder or two of the situation at hand. But he has taken some steps to control the storm. He's completely removed from social media -- "No Twitter, no Instagram, no Facebook, none of that," he said -- for starters, a rare push for some added anonymity.
"One thing that that does is bring me is a little bit of ignorance in terms of everything that's swirling around, which I like. But it's an inevitability. Everybody I know has Twitter and all that other stuff, so you get text messages from people: 'Oh, I read this about you. I heard that. I saw this.' ... We're obviously informed with what's going on."
That information has its limits. The "when" part of the equation remains up in the air.
La Stella will carry the Braves second base position's heir apparent title until changes arrive, either through dramatically improved play on the current 25-man roster or another personnel move, but he's attempting to remain level-headed. The Triple-A stage is, first and foremost, centered around improvement, and if the production falls off due to distractions then where does that leave the organization in terms of future options?
Career routes traditionally have a way of taking sidestreets with La Stella. He's played the waiting game before, and though these rumor-filled days are preferrable to the ones where it felt like nobody was watching at all, he says he's prepared to play it once again if needed.
"It's all about the process for me of getting better every day, because whether I go up tomorrow or go up in two years, I wanna stick when I get up there."