La Stella offers Braves an in-house option at second
Atlanta prospect impresses in AFL; must improve against left-handed pitching
PHOENIX -- As the Hot Stove heats up over the next few weeks leading to the Winter Meetings in December, many of the headlines focusing on the Atlanta Braves will center on the club's situation at second base.
Coming off a vastly underwhelming season in which he hit just .179 and was left off the National League Division Series roster, veteran Dan Uggla is owed $26 million over the final two years of his contract.
But as trade speculation swirls around Uggla and who the club might acquire as a potential replacement, an internal solution for the position is waiting in the wings for an opportunity after making noise in the prestigious Arizona Fall League. Ranked No. 14 on the Braves' Top 20 Prospects list, Tommy La Stella is a line-drive, contact-hitting second baseman who has developed a reputation as a gamer over his three years in the Minors. He will likely receive an invitation to big league Spring Training come February.
Although the 24-year-old knows the Braves may be looking to make a change at second this offseason, La Stella shies away from the notion his Fall League performance could be seen as an audition of sorts. Instead, he insists if he plays the way he knows he can, everything else will take care of itself.
"I look at it the same way I do any time I play: as an opportunity to get better," La Stella said. "You never really stop learning the game, and that's why I'm here."
Selected in the eighth round in 2011 out of Coastal Carolina, La Stella made the jump to Double-A Mississippi early this year after hitting .550 in his first seven games at Class A Advanced Lynchburg. La Stella ended up hitting an eye-popping .343 with Mississippi, collecting 27 extra-base hits and driving in 41 runs.
Perhaps most impressive about La Stella's season, however, was his patience at the plate. He struck out 34 times in 283 at-bats (as opposed to Uggla's 171 punchouts in 448 at-bats).
"Hitting is tough as it is, so if you give those guys an extra two or three inches, they are going to chew you up," La Stella said. "So going in, I wanted to make sure I limited my swings outside of the strike zone. What helped me out was I was able to make a lot of adjustments and refine my approach. I had a pretty limited Spring Training, but I think I translated well."
That abbreviated prep time was due to a strained elbow early in camp that kept him out until the end of April. He suffered another injury later in the year as well, this time a hamstring strain, which cost him a few more weeks.
So after appearing in just 88 regular-season games, La Stella was more than happy to make up for lost time when he received the invite to the AFL.
"You get the invite to come to Arizona, and you immediately jump on board because it means that people think highly of you," La Stella said. "The injuries were definitely frustrating, but they're behind me and it led me here."
Against the top-tier talent in the AFL, La Stella fared well, compiling a .290 average and a .436 on-base percentage, courtesy of 16 walks in 18 games. A left-handed hitter, La Stella struggled against southpaws, batting just .118 off lefties compared with his .359 average vs. them in the regular season with Mississippi. He was the toughest hitter in the league to strike out by a wide margin, posting a ratio of only one punchout every 19.75 at-bats. The runner-up had a 10.14 ratio.
As for his defense, La Stella has come a long way at second base. Although none of his traits in the field stand out as true pluses, he makes all the plays he has to, something he takes real pride in.
"Definitely my confidence has made a difference lately," La Stella said. "That has been huge for me, just knowing the organization feels that I can get the job done is half the battle for me. Know that gives me the confidence to go actually do it."
Braves pitchers in the Fall League
Aaron Northcraft made the jump to Double-A Mississippi this season, compiling an 8-8 record with a 3.42 ERA and 121 strikeouts over 137 innings and 26 starts. A Tucson, Ariz., native, Northcraft is ranked No. 10 on the Braves' prospects list. The right-hander with a three-quarters delivery struggled in seven AFL starts, allowing 19 runs (16 earned) on 23 hits over just 18 innings. Command was a big issue for Northcraft; he issued 15 walks in the desert.
Juan Jaime is already with his third organization thanks to a host of injuries and inconsistencies on the mound. But despite his shortcomings, the 26-year-old's upside has kept him on the radar in the Minors. Ranked No. 16 in the Braves' farm system, Jaime has a fastball in the upper 90s that translates into a ton of strikeouts. The right-hander worked 42 innings for Mississippi this year, punching out 70 batters. Already on the Braves' 40-man roster, Jaime tossed 10 1/3 AFL innings, surrendering eight runs (seven earned) and striking out 15 batters.
John Cornely came out of Wofford in 2011 and finished his second full professional season by posting a 3.38 ERA with 11 saves and 70 strikeouts in 42 relief appearances for Class A Advanced Lynchburg. The right-hander has battled control issues, and in 11 2/3 innings in the AFL, he walked 13 batters while giving up seven runs (six earned) with 16 strikeouts.
Shae Simmons is a 22nd-round pick who has thrived in two professional seasons in the Braves' system. The right-hander compiled a 1.49 ERA with 24 saves in 39 appearances for Class A Rome in 2013 before being promoted to Lynchburg toward the end of the year. There, Simmons continued his success, tossing 11 innings and allowing just three runs. In 53 1/3 combined innings, the 23-year-old struck out 82 batters. Simmons thrived in the AFL, working 10 innings, surrendering just one run and punching out 13 opponents.
Braves hitters in the Fall League
Kyle Kubitza put together a much-improved 2013 campaign after a sluggish first full professional season in 2012. In 132 games for Lynchburg, the third baseman boasted a .380 on-base percentage along with 46 extra-base hits and 75 runs scored. He did, however, strike out 132 times. Ranked No. 12 in the Braves' system, Kubitza hit .305 in the AFL, with 13 walks and five extra-base hits.
Elmer Reyes jumped to Lynchburg in 2013 and hit .285 with 30 doubles and 60 RBIs. The shortstop from Nicaragua compiled a .256 average in 13 AFL games.
Robby Hefflinger split time between Lynchburg and Mississippi this year, playing 127 combined games and finishing with a .239 average and 135 strikeouts. A former seventh-round pick, Hefflinger did, however, display tremendous power in his swing as he swatted 27 homers in 2013. The outfielder hit .189 with seven RBIs in the AFL.
Tyler Emerick is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.