Despite his well-documented struggles and absence from last fall’s playoff roster, Dan Uggla remains the Atlanta Braves’ starting second baseman heading into Opening Day. Barring an injury or unforeseen circumstances, that’s not going to change.
Down the road, however, Uggla’s future is awfully unclear. This is bad news for the nine-year veteran, who hit a paltry .179 last season, but it does bode well for some of the organization’s up-and-coming infielders.
One such prospect is 25-year-old Tommy La Stella.
La Stella’s name has been tossed around a lot as a potential replacement for Uggla, and it’s easy to see why. He hits with pop, has tremendous discipline, runs the bases well and is a serviceable—yet somewhat untested—fielder.
The former eighth-round draft pick has impressed at every stop through the minors, posting a .343 average in 81 games at Double-A Mississippi last year. That success, combined with a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League, earned him his first invite to major league Spring Training in February.
“Tommy is an advanced hitter and has a really good understanding of the strike zone and has a good feel of putting the ball in play,” Braves GM Frank Wren told MLB.com. “He’s hit along the way and when you see a player like that put up those numbers … I think you know you’ve got someone who’s really advanced.
It’s dangerous to put too much stock into Spring Training numbers, but La Stella’s performance thus far is encouraging. In 11 games he’s hit .323 with a .389 on-base percentage and .406 slugging percentage with five runs scored, highlighted by a 3-for-6, three-run showing against Washington on March 1.
Yes, that’s a small sample size, and regression is inevitable, but those figures paint an encouraging picture moving forward.
"I think the first few at-bats I had, I felt like they were good at-bats," La Stella said of his recent efforts. "I really don't concern myself with showing too much. I think that is kind of the wrong mindset for me. It's not about showing, it's about improving every day."
La Stella will never give the Braves the kind of power Uggla brings to the table, but he more than compensates with other qualities—namely his patience at the plate. La Stella struck out just 34 times in 281 at-bats last year (12.1 percent), a stark contrast from Uggla’s 171 strikeouts in 448 at-bats in 2013 (38.1 percent).
Additionally, La Stella racked up 16 walks in 18 AFL games just several months ago. He was far and away the most difficult batter to strike out in that league, posting an AB/K ratio of 19.75. To provide some perspective, the runner-up had a ratio of 10.14.
Perhaps Uggla could learn a thing or two from his competition.
"I'm definitely prepared to step in and do whatever is asked of me," La Stella said. "Whether that is at Triple-A, the big league level or wherever it happens to be, I feel like I am ready.
"It still is an ongoing process. It's one of those things you never really stop learning. So, I made some strides last year and hopefully I can do that again this year."
It’s unlikely the Coastal Carolina alumnus starts the season in Atlanta, chiefly because Wren probably wants him to see as much action as possible. But a mid-season call-up is in the cards.
And, for better or worse, the speed in which La Stella moves through the system could depend heavily on Uggla’s production.
History tells us that a renaissance from Uggla is unlikely: he hasn’t hit above .233 since signing with the Braves, and has gotten steadily worse in those three years. If the oft-maligned second baseman, who is slated to make $13 million in 2014 and 2015, fails to rebound before July’s All-Star break, La Stella could find himself playing at Turner Field sooner rather than later.
“I think [La Stella is] a player we can count on at the big league level,” said Wren. “I don’t know exactly when yet, but I think his skill set would be a welcome edition and compliment the lineup.
The Braves have to be careful, though. Thrusting La Stella into a role he isn’t prepared for can damage his long-term development. Shortstop Tyler Pastornicky, who was named Atlanta’s starting shortstop far too early in his career, should serve as a cautionary tale.
Expediting La Stella’s road to the bigs for the sake of replacing Uggla may not be the right option for the Braves. This all depends, of course, on how La Stella fares in the early portion of the new campaign.
La Stella will almost certainly begin 2014 in Gwinnett, where he should thrive. Having succeeded at every level of pro ball thus far, there’s little reason to expect a decline as he moves up the ranks.
And though his big league impact in 2014 could be anywhere from nonexistent to substantial, it appears to be only a matter of time before he solidifies himself as a bona fide major leaguer.
The tools are there. All he needs now is the right opportunity at the right time.
“We want some professional hitters who put up quality at bats,” Wren added. “[La Stella] would be a perfect fit.”