In the winter of 2010, the Braves made a (presumably) conscious decision to not commit to Martin Prado as the team’s starting second baseman and tied their future to Dan Uggla. It would be two more years before Prado became an ex-Brave — he went to Arizona in the Justin Upton trade — but the Uggla acquisition signaled when general manager Frank Wren deemed Prado, one of the team’s important players, expendable.
I’m not sure they’ve been the same since.
The lineup hasn’t been the same. The clubhouse hasn’t been the same. Prado was a leader, a spark, one of the few players on the roster whose energy, personality and infectious style of play rubbed off on others. The departures of Prado and other veterans have left the clubhouse relative dead zone. The lineup is short on scrappy players and long on home run hitters who more often whiff than hit home runs.
Which brings me to Tommy La Stella.
He was 2-for-4 with two walks in the Braves 11-6, 13-inning loss to the Los Angeles Angels on Saturday night. He was the only Brave in the starting lineup to not strike out (the team whiffed 14 times). He is hitting .377 (best on the team) with a .441 on-base percentage (best on the team) after 15 games with only five strikeouts in 53 at-bats.
He’s not Prado. It would be silly to make that declaration after two weeks. But La Stella has been filling an offensive void created by Prado’s departure. He has given the team a smart hitter, a contact hitter, and the Braves probably would’ve settled for just one of the two.
“He can be that (Prado-type) guy because he puts the ball in play,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said.
“He has real professional at-bats,” hitting coach Greg Walker said. “He’s hitting like a veteran. We value how you fight through at-bats. Not pre-determining swings. Not swinging at the first pitch every time you’re up. Playing the scoreboard. Understanding the game. He seems to get that for a young player.”
The Braves scored 178 runs in 52 games (3.42 average) without La Stella. They’ve scored but 65 in 15 (4.33 average) with him. Is that just a coincidence. The uptick also came with the rookie batting mostly seventh or eighth. So maybe it’s time to move him up to second.
Gonzalez has balked at that because he doesn’t want three straight left-handed hitters at the top of the order, but isn’t La Stella the kind of consistent hitter the top of the order needs?
Confidence isn’t a problem for the rookie. Actually, it’s flows so freely it’s a source of amusement.
Billy Best, the scout who first saw La Stella at an open tryout in 2009 and signed La Stella two years later, said, “When I first signed him, I took him out to dinner, and before the salad hit the table at Bonefish Grill he was talking about being able to hit in the big leagues. I said, ‘Maybe you should just worry about hitting in Rome right now.’”
He did, but not immediately.
According to Best, La Stella struggled to such a degree in his first two weeks at Single-A Rome that, “He was as depressed as anybody we had been around. He told his parents not to come. He stayed in the room with the blinds shut. He took it harder than most kids.”
The slump and depression was short-lived. He hit .328 at Rome in 2011. He tore through every level in the minors before the Braves called him up. He’s here to do what Dan Uggla couldn’t.
Call it the Braves’ second-base circle of life.
La Stella’s route here had more than a few detours. As he summarized, “It’s a pretty ridiculous story. Sometimes I tell it and I think, ‘I don’t even understand what’s coming out of my own mouth right now.’”
He didn’t play baseball the summer before his senior year in high school in New Jersey. Major college scouts soured on him.
“I shot myself in the foot a little bit,” he said.
He wound up at St. John’s as a walk-on, after being led to believe he could earn a scholarship if he impressed the coach in his freshman season. But he didn’t.
“They basically said they didn’t have any money for me,” La Stella said. “They didn’t care to keep me, so I wasn’t about to stick around and be a walk-on on a team that didn’t want me.”
So he left. He attended, ironically, a Braves’ tryout camp in Myrtle Beach that summer, where Coastal Carolina coaches said they would evaluate him. (Best was at the camp.) La Stella impressed the college enough to let him walk on in 2010, after sitting out an NCAA transfer year. La Stella hit .378 with a .622 slugging percentage his first season. That was enough for the Braves, who drafted him in the eighth round and 266th overall in 2011.
La Stella expected to be drafted earlier — find me the athlete who doesn’t — but said, “You can look back and say everything happens for a reason, but while you’re going through it that’s definitely not what you’re thinking.”
Baseball America listed La Stella as the Braves’ 28th best prospect entering 2012. Two years later, he was listed as only the No. 9 prospect. He’s not one of those imposing figures who scares you getting off the bus. Yet here he is.
“It’s been like that throughout my career, being overlooked,” he said. “It’s not necessarily that I want to prove other people wrong but I want to prove myself right.”
He would be correct either way.
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