It’s been impossible not to notice what Tommy La Stella has done so far this year with the Angels. It’s hard to miss when a guy is homering every other day, and has – by MID-MAY – more homers than he’s had in the rest of his career combined.
Overall, La Stella is hitting .301/.388/.611 with a 169 wRC+, and is making a comical amount of more hard contact in the air. (His average launch angle increased from 8.1 degrees last year to 15.0 degrees this year. Good lord.) He’s also seeing regular playing time for the first time since his rookie year with the Braves. He might not keep this up, but man, dude is just raking in all the right ways.
La Stella, 30, in some ways is the prototypical guy who breaks out suddenly in the current era. He’s established as a big league player for a long time, and comfortable in those shoes – comfortable enough to tweak his approach. He’s a high-contact guy by nature, so the risk of falling way off by tweaking is reduced. And he’s also a guy who has always had high-end barrel-to-ball ability, even if not a ton of lift power. That profile reminds me a lot of Daniel Murphy and Daniel Descalso, a couple of former/current Cubs who also broke out on the power side around age 30 after a career of kinda just being another guy on the roster.
That is all to say, (1) no, I don’t suspect anything suspicious going on with La Stella, and (2) kudos to La Stella and the Angels for together unlocking some extra ability that was always there, and putting it to great use in an era where guys like him can power up considerably.
And that’s where the terrible hindsight comes in: did the Cubs completely screw up by trading La Stella mostly for minimal salary relief? (They also got a relief prospect in Conor Lillis-White, but the 26-year-old lefty has yet to pitch this year due to injury.) Shouldn’t the Cubs have foreseen that La Stella could be this guy, and, with a job plausibly available at second base, shouldn’t they have given him this shot?
Well, maybe so. I’ll get to why it simply wouldn’t have happened in a moment, but I do think, given the extremity of La Stella’s offensive breakout, it’s fair to suggest that the Cubs didn’t help La Stella get here sooner, and thus squandered his offensive value on periodic pinch-hitting appearances and ultra-rare starts.
That said, is it possible that there is something idiosyncratic to La Stella, to his new home park or his new regular road parks, to the AL, to whatever, that means there was simply no way to untap this explosion without trading La Stella? There’s just no way we can know that one.
The one thing that we can know with reasonable certainty is that even if the Cubs had retained La Stella, he would not be getting the volume of starts he’s getting with the Angels, and thus, may well not have broken out at all. The Cubs pretty much believed they knew what they had in La Stella, and also believed he could not play effective enough defense to justify starting him regularly over the other options (he rates poorly again at second base this year, for what that’s worth). And with such a boatload of other middle infield/third base options around, I just don’t see a situation where La Stella is given the chance to emerge as an everyday starter. (Again, it’s fair enough to ding the Cubs for missing that part, though, and not taking that chance.)
So where does that leave us when looking at this deal – hey, still small sample – in hindsight? Well, it’s all very imaginary to talk about “what the Cubs gave up,” because La Stella would not be doing this with the Cubs. He’d almost certainly just be the same guy he’d been for years – a very useful, but very limited, bench piece. So, in a way, the Cubs really didn’t give up much at all, and what they gave up, they easily replaced with other players.
HOWEVER, that doesn’t absolve them of what appears to have been a very significant scouting and player development miss about what La Stella could be. No, he probably won’t do THIS all year long, but there was some extra stuff in there that the Cubs either didn’t see, or didn’t help tease out.
You can think about those two broad concepts separately: the Cubs didn’t really lose anything by trading him, but also, the Cubs screwed up. Sometimes you shrug your shoulders like that.
In any case, good for La Stella. I always liked him. I hope he hits 40 home runs and makes a boatload of money as he approaches free agency. None of that impacts the Cubs anymore.