No one, probably not even Tommy La Stella himself, knew that the diminutive second baseman would be raking to the tune of 1.6 fWAR by May 16. And who knows — maybe the trade that sent La Stella to the Angels (for basically nothing) gave him the proverbial chip on his shoulder necessary to make some adjustments and really come into his own as the pocket-sized second coming of Ted Williams.
Maybe the Angels or even more direct rays from the California sun were able to bring something out of him that neither the Cubs nor the Braves before them could do. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that, but even though I questioned the trade in the first place, there was little reason to indicate La Stella would put up a slash line of .301/.388/.611 (169 wRC+) when given the chance to essentially play every day.
While he was a nice bench piece and pinch-hitter extraordinaire on a playoff team, La Stella’s own mother wouldn’t have dreamed he would be sandwiched between Nolan Arenado and Kris Bryant on the WAR leaderboard (and with 50 fewer PA than each of those sluggers, no less).
Much of the issue when it comes to La Stella and the Cubs hinged on the fact that he could never find regular playing time among the All-Stars and young studs on the ball club. If Joe Maddon didn’t have so many shiny new toys to play with, perhaps La Stella could have gotten more of a chance. But how do you play a guy who isn’t a very good defender and hadn’t displayed a ton of pop in his career to that point over someone like the versatile veteran Ben Zobrist, the athletic Ian Happ, or the scintillating Javy Báez?
Add to that group David Bote, who took the league by storm for a few weeks last summer upon his arrival, and you see the conundrum the Cubs were in. Even with Bryant injured and Addison Russell nicked up and eventually suspended, the Cubs were still flush with a plethora of possible infielders. Maddon used La Stella almost exclusively in the role of pinch hitter, mostly because he was so good at being able to “condense a whole game’s worth of focus into about two minutes.”
He also seemed to thrive in the “survival mode” of being called upon to face tough relievers after sitting on the bench for hours. He was dubbed 3 AM, a nickname ESPN beat writer Jesse Rogers helped to popularize, after Maddon said La Stella could roll out of bed at 3 am and get a hit. But La Stella was sort of pigeonholed because he was almost too good at his job as a pinch hitter and not good enough as a defender to be considered a regular player for a playoff team.
Given how 2019 has played out so far, maybe someone should have considered that idea a little more seriously. Unless “more seriously” was the end goal, since La Stella’s second most-important role was as the team’s merry prankster. That endeared him enough to merit a tribute video upon his return to Wrigley, but may not have met the production-over-talent standards Theo Epstein set in October.
As Morpheus quips in The Matrix, “fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.” Happ is currently in AAA, Zobrist is on personal leave while dealing with his impending divorce, and Báez is busy being one of the best shortstops in baseball after supplanting the ignominious Russell. And the guy the Cubs ostensibly signed to replace La Stella, Daniel Descalso, is banged up and has cooled substantially following a torrid start.
While La Stella surely won’t continue to produce at a 169 wRC+ for the rest of the season, he’s already hit more home runs (11) this season than he had in his entire career prior (10). Would he have been able to put up the same performance in Chicago if given the chance? Maybe, but the Cubs weren’t going to name him the starting second baseman on the basis of 900 mediocre plate appearances over five seasons, especially not with so many other middle-infield options.
On one hand, it’s nice to see La Stella enjoying this unexpected success in a new environment, especially for a non-threatening team in the American League West. But on the other, it’s a tough pill to swallow whenever a guy leaves the Cubs and does better somewhere else without a significant return for said player.