This is why I resist hot takes, as tempting and momentarily satisfying as they may be. The world – and the people in it – are vastly more complex than a sound byte could ever contemplate, and as unsatisfying as it is to repeatedly hear a dude say “yes, well, let’s just see where things stand after we get more information”, that’s the lens I choose to wield. I’d rather be slow and boring than unfair and glib.
Nearly two weeks ago, the Chicago Cubs were confronted with a tough roster decision, and we’ve all been trying to figure out the fallout ever since.
Chris Coghlan, who was raking in the minors at the tail end of a rehab assignment, was ready to return to the big league team. Although he struggled mightily in Oakland following a surprise trade in Spring Training this year, he was fantastic for the Cubs in 2014 and 2015, and had showed signs of being that guy again with the Cubs this year before a rib cage injury started bothering him. With no lefty bat to put in left field from time to time, wanting Coghlan back on the roster was easily defensible.
The problem for the Cubs is that there was no obvious corresponding move on the big league roster at that time. Not only was the bench full of players you really wanted on that bench, but the bullpen was also full of pitchers you really wanted in that bullpen. Complicating matters further, several other players were due back soon, and the Cubs figured to make an addition or two at the trade deadline.
So the Cubs made the tough decision: they were optioning a guy hitting .295/.388/.457 to the minors. That guy, Tommy La Stella, is inarguably a big league-caliber player, and might even be more useful on the 25-man roster than Coghlan. But, even if it were a one-to-one decision between La Stella and Coghlan at that time, it was never really as simple as which guy do you want on the roster. Instead, because Coghlan could not be optioned and would likely be lost on waivers if the Cubs did not put him on the 25-man roster, and because La Stella could come back on September 1 when rosters expand to the full 40-man, the decision was this: the Cubs could keep both players, minus four weeks of Tommy La Stella’s big league performance, or the Cubs could keep those four weeks of La Stella, but probably lose Coghlan from the organization entirely.
In that light, the decision seems much less difficult. With a playoff-bound team heading down the stretch, the front office must feverishly guard against any possibility that could derail the team. Injuries are always a risk, and maintaining as much big league-caliber depth as possible is paramount right now.
La Stella was informed of the decision, and Joe Maddon later told the media that he did not take it well. Which was understandable. What happened next, however, has been very difficult to understand.
La Stella simply did not go to AAA Iowa. He went home to New Jersey. The Cubs said that they allowed him more time to report, but then the extra day or two became an extra week, and the questions mounted. People made assumptions. Maddon and La Stella’s teammates did the best they could to explain what was going on without really saying what was going on. It was all very confusing and unclear, sufficiently so that I became convinced that there must be a lot more to this story than we knew.
And, at last, thanks to La Stella himself in an interview with ESPN’s Jesse Rogers, we know what’s going on. Well, we know a lot more than we did. The conversation is simultaneously very illuminating as to the events that happened over the past two weeks, and also partly makes things even more difficult to understand.
If you want to know what there is to know about La Stella and be in a position to maintain whatever strong position you developed over the past week, I strongly encourage you to read.
In it, you get the picture of a 27-year-old baseball player who is processing a lot of things in his life, many of which have nothing to do with baseball. That, to him, is his profession, but it’s not who he is.
As La Stella explains to Rogers, he’d considered retirement before this season, coming back only because he wanted to play with this particular team of players. And, although he understands and respects the Cubs’ decision from a roster standpoint, he simply “didn’t feel right” going somewhere else to play baseball “just to continue playing.” He says he wasn’t trying to leverage anything; it was just a matter of him feeling like, personally, he didn’t want to play baseball anywhere else except with the big league Chicago Cubs.
I know that’ll be hard for many folks to wrap their heads around. It’s a little hard for me, too.
The part I struggle to understand is the fact that it was always going to be, at the longest, a four-ish week move. La Stella was always going to come back to the big league Chicago Cubs, at the very latest, on September 1. Why throw a wrench in that – risk not coming back at all – because you refuse to go to Iowa for a month?
But here’s the thing: when I say I don’t understand it, I don’t mean it in a critical way. That’s not my veiled way of saying, “I don’t understand it because only a selfish a-hole would act this way, and I’m not a selfish a-hole, so I can’t see outside myself.” I mean it as genuinely as possible: I don’t understand it.
And it’s probably not my purview to fully understand the decisions of another human being at such a distance. We love the sport of baseball and this team in Chicago, but we know only of the players what they allow us to know. Let this be the latest reminder of that fact: these ballplayers are more than meat and bones in pajamas. Their humanity – their agency – will not always align with your worldview.
Maybe this all makes La Stella selfish. Maybe even he’s being selfish for terrible reasons. But maybe he’s being selfish for personal, defensible reasons. That’s probably the part we’ll never really, truly have an opportunity to know.
At bottom, here’s where things stand: the Cubs are giving La Stella space to figure things out, and they do still want him as part of the organization, as GM Jed Hoyer explained yesterday (CSN). Before coming back to the big league team, La Stella would almost certainly have to put in some work at Iowa to get at bats and get his in-game timing back. Maybe that’s how this all plays out – La Stella reboots mentally/emotionally, goes to Iowa at the end of August for a few games, and returns to the Cubs on September 1 when rosters expand.
It sounds like he’d be received fine by his teammates in that scenario, and it also sounds like the front office wants to figure out a way to make for a smooth return. Would the fans be as accommodating? We – the nerdy obsessive corner of the Cubs internet – probably overestimate the introspective nature of the fan base as a whole. My guess is a large chunk of fans wouldn’t even be aware of this situation, let alone have it impact their reaction to a La Stella return in September.
I suppose I’d be fine. Hey, it’s not like La Stella – or anyone else – owes me anything. And to the extent I can be convinced that this was all a very sincere, personal thing that goes outside the bounds of what we typically understand player personnel decisions to be about, I can be on board with La Stella being a part of this team (because, after all, he says that’s what he truly wants).
Want a little evidence that this really is a sincerely unique, and highly-personal situation? When this was all unspooling, I said repeatedly that I couldn’t wrap my head around the story simply being La Stella saying he wouldn’t go to Iowa and the Cubs front office saying OK that’s fine. Players don’t just do that, and front offices don’t just allow it if they do. But this player did, and this front office did. That tells me that whatever La Stella is processing about his baseball life, the front office believes it is sincere. And, given that they value his presence in the organization in 2016 and beyond, they’re going to give him the space to do it. That buys a lot of leeway with me.
We’ll see what happens. And dare I say “let’s just see where things stand after we get more information”?