Position: Second Base, Third Base
2016 Stats: 74 GP, 169 PA, .270/.357/.405, .287 TAV, 0.4 WARP
Year in Review:
The 2016 season was a roller coaster for Tommy La Stella, but it wasn’t what transpired on the field that created the most compelling storylines. In early August, the return of Chris Coghlan from the disabled list caused a roster crunch without an easy answer. Coghlan and Matt Szczur were both out of minor-league options, and injuries to the bullpen hampered management’s ability to shuffle the deck. The easiest answer—but clearly not the most deserving from a baseball standpoint—was to use one of La Stella’s minor-league options, sending him to Iowa and thus avoiding putting another player on waivers. La Stella did not take the news lightly; he decided to head home to New Jersey, rather than join his new teammates in Des Moines:
“There wasn’t much more that went into it than ‘this is where I want to be.’ It was as simple as that. It didn’t feel right to me to go be somewhere else just to continue playing. That’s not what my thoughts center around, being a ballplayer and making it happen anyway possible. We all have a right to dictate what we do to some extent.”
– Tommy La Stella to Jesse Rogers of ESPN.com
What transpired was a media frenzy that few, if any, could have imagined La Stella capable of creating. A seemingly quiet, unassuming man, he was widely considered a good teammate and an asset to the team. As his absence dragged on, it became increasingly likely that he’d never rejoin the major-league squad.
Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon consistently stated that he was absent for personal reasons and the ball was in La Stella’s court, and that he’d be welcomed back to the team after a stint in Triple-A, but these statements were received with skepticism by the media. So much so that when I stated during an appearance on 670 AM with Boers and Bernstein as all of this was going on that I thought he would be back with the Cubs shortly, I was met with incredulity.
The situation seemed completely unique in nature. A player was directly refusing an outright assignment, and the Cubs’ upper management appeared to be enabling his actions. However, the fact remained that the Cubs needed La Stella’s left-handed bat off the bench. With Jason Heyward in a season-long funk, Miguel Montero’s back ailing and Coghlan just coming off the DL, La Stella was the teams’ only dependable pinch-hit option from the left side. His season-ending 106 wRC+ was quietly the sixth best mark on the team (minimum 150 AB’s), part of a solid campaign that netted him a .357 OBP and a .287 TAv.
This was undoubtedly a highly complex situation, with moving parts aplenty. Epstein and Maddon showed great patience with La Stella, as they willingly brought him back to the team when the roster shook loose in September. La Stella, for his part, apologized to his teammates for his unexcused absence and by all reports was welcomed back into the clubhouse.
But months later, it still seems that there was much more to this story than meets the eye—as if there were additional circumstances that Epstein knew about, but did not release to the public. There were also reports that La Stella would not be a part of the team long term, but it seems as if those have died down.
So, what was this? We may never fully understand what happened during the weeks of his absence, but in some ways I can relate to what La Stella may have been feeling. I suffer from depression, a severe and debilitating illness that runs deeply in my family. It strikes without warning, sometimes lasting weeks or months. I’ll go from feeling on top of the world one day, to barely being able to get out of bed the next. Sometimes these episodes are triggered by certain events, while other times by seemingly nothing at all. The only thing that gets me up and moving is my faith and an abhorrence of feeling lazy. In no way am I insinuating that this is what was going on with La Stella, but I can empathize with him that his actions felt very familiar to how I often feel. The great understanding with which Epstein and Maddon handled the situation leads me to believe that something similar to this may have been at play.
The 2016 story ended happily for La Stella, as despite getting just one at bat in the postseason, he earned a World Series ring and the seat he deserved in the dugout with his teammates.
It’s nearly impossible to forecast what La Stella’s future holds. He is obviously a player the front office holds in high regard and with good reason, considering the quality of his left-handed bat. They gave up a good player to get him in trade (Atlanta Braves closer Arodys Vizcaino), so I’d be surprised if he is summarily dumped for little or nothing. However, it’s possible that his absence last season created more tension than the front office is letting on, and it is reasonable to think they could move him in a trade if the right offer came along.
My best guess, La Stella is on the opening day roster as the first left-handed bat off Maddon’s bench. He’ll continue to make strides at the plate, offering plenty of value as a reserve who regularly gets on base. Assuming Ben Zobrist is given more regular rest this season, I can also see him grabbing more starts at second base than we might realize. In case of injury to any of the regulars, we could see a healthy dose of La Stella in the starting lineup. It also wouldn’t shock me if Maddon decides he likes La Stella’s approach and on-base skills at the top of lineup, and pencils him in occasionally as the leadoff hitter on days he starts.
Off the field, we can only hope that La Stella’s 2017 is less tumultuous than his 2016. It’s important to keep in mind that there was likely more going on here than we’ll ever know.
Lead photo courtesy of Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports