It’s rare that the biggest “off the field” type story for a given professional sports team’s season is about a bench player, but so it was with the Cubs last year. That’ll happen when the team is blowing every other team away and winds up winning its first championship in 108 years.
That story, of course, was the attempted late-season demotion of Tommy La Stella, who instead of heading to AAA Iowa, went home to New Jersey.
The whole episode was strange, and the resolution unsatisfying, but with the Cubs streaking toward the playoffs by the time rosters expanded and La Stella returned to the big league team, it didn’t make sense to harp on the story.
Even today, as Spring Training is in the swing, and La Stella is fighting for a job on the Cubs once again, there’s not going to be a whole lot to say about the substance of situation. But we can at least update where available, and dissect the baseball implications, since there is always the potential for roster fallout come April.
Recall, the Cubs were in a roster crunch around the Trade Deadline last year, and were confronted with a reality where Tommy La Stella was obviously a big-league-caliber player, but he had minor league options left, and the only way the Cubs could keep all of their other parts was to send La Stella down. La Stella did not report, explaining only that he wouldn’t feel right playing somewhere other than with the big league Cubs just so that he could keep playing. The front office, the players, and the manager all expressed support for La Stella’s decision, and fans were left only to conclude some variation of, “well, I guess it’s a personal situation that we’re not going to ever know much about, but the front office was OK with it, so let’s move on.”
What wasn’t clear was what would happen with La Stella after the season, and into 2017. Was he going to retire? Stick with the Cubs? Be willing to play elsewhere? I know it’s a callous way to think about it, but the Cubs did give up a very nice piece in Arodys Vizcaino to acquire La Stella, and it would be good to know that he won’t again simply leave if he doesn’t make the big league team.
To that end, La Stella is at Spring Training with the big league team, and he did speak with Cubs.com, though it is probably not as illuminating as you hope.
La Stella wants to win a job on the Cubs, and he is glad the Cubs allowed him to go through what he needed to go through last year (even if many folks still don’t understand – even some of La Stella’s family and friends didn’t understand what was going on, he said). He’s at peace with whatever happened, and he doesn’t expect everyone to understand.
You can read the Cubs.com piece for more from La Stella to try to absorb the whole context.
From a baseball perspective, here’s where things stand: the Cubs intend to carry eight relievers out of the gate, which means there will be just four bench spots available on the big league roster on Opening Day. One of those will go to Miguel Montero or another back-up catcher if there’s an injury. One of those will go to the non-“starter” of Jon Jay/Albert Almora. And one of those will go to Javy Baez (not really a “bench” guy, but you understand), assuming he’s healthy. That means there is just one spot available for La Stella and Matt Szczur, who is out of options (together with a few other guys who could plausibly be in the mix for a bench job, depending on injuries).
In a way, it could be like last year all over again: do the Cubs elect to keep everyone they can in the organization, and hold Szczur on the big league roster while optioning La Stella? If so, does La Stella go to Iowa?
It remains the case that you’d love to have La Stella’s high-contact lefty bat available on the bench this year. On many teams around baseball, I think he’s probably a starter. On a team like the Cubs, he’s among the better bench players available. But a four-man bench is necessarily restrictive, and typically, players with minor league options left are the first ones squeezed out at the start of the year, even if only for a little while until the first injury inevitably pops up. Will the Cubs be able to proceed as normal when constructing the 25-man roster, or will La Stella’s unique situation dictate more careful consideration?
We can’t answer these questions, and, as is always the case in February, it’s entirely possible the questions will be mooted by the time the season actually rolls around.
It’s also important to remember: we know so very little of what is actually going on behind the scenes. It’s entirely possible that this is one of those situations where, if we did know everything, it would be perfectly clear why things have played out as they have.
(Frankly, I hate having to even touch on the unknowable personal stuff in this situation, but the potential roster implications demand it. So I wade through as best I can.)