The Atlanta Braves promoted second baseman Tommy La Stella to the major leagues yesterday and he went 2-for-4 in his first game. Here's the scoop on the latest Brave, who has stood out as a sleeper prospect for the last couple of years.
La Stella played college baseball at Coastal Carolina. He put up monster numbers there, hitting .378/.451/.622 as a sophomore in 2010 and .398/.476/.680 as a junior in 2011. Questions about his defense, so-so physical tools, and how his power would play at higher levels pushed him down to the eighth round despite his performance. He continued to rip the ball in Low-A, hitting .328/.401/.543 in 63 games for Low-A Rome after signing. I wrote this in my 2012 Baseball Prospect Book:
Tommy La Stella had two outstanding seasons at Coastal Carolina, but fell to the eighth round of the 2011 draft due to concerns about his defensive position and a likelihood that he would have to move to the outfield. The Braves let him play second base in the Sally League. He doesn’t have a lot of range and makes a few too many errors, but if he can develop at least average reliability, the Braves will be extremely happy: the dude can hit. Even if he does move to the outfield, this bat is still worth paying attention to. La Stella has a clean swing that generates plenty of bat speed, and had no problem hitting for power with the wooden bat last summer. Although he’s one to draw lots of walks, he has a keen eye and makes contact. Note his excellent BB/K/AB ratios in college, and the fact that he kept his strikeouts under control in pro ball. We’ll have to see where he ends up defensively, but this bat is quite promising. Grade B-.
Injuries limited him to 85 games for High-A Lynchburg in '12 but he continued to hit, with a .302/.386/.460 line, 13 steals, and a 36/24 BB/K. His defense was better than expected, too. I wrote this for 2013:
I really like this guy. La Stella was an eighth round pick in 2011 from Coastal Carolina. He ripped up Low-A after signing, and he continued to rip up High-A in 2012. Unfortunately his season was limited to 90 games by a broken leg suffered in a serious collision, but he returned with a flourish and hit .531 in 10 games to finish out the season. La Stella has an unconventional setup at the plate, but his pure hitting skills have been extremely impressive so far. Note his outstanding BB/K/AB ratio. He has good pop for his size and should show at least doubles power as he moves up. Although his running speed is just average, he’s an adept baserunner. His fielding his similar: scouts don’t rate his defensive tools as more than average, but he’s been reliable thus far. Some scouts think he’ll wind up in the outfield, but I don’t think that is inevitable at all. I think his bat will translate well to higher levels. Keep a really close eye on him. Grade B-.
He had injury problems again in 2013, limiting him to 81 games for Double-A Mississippi, but he hit extremely well with a .343/.422/.473 line followed by a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League. The comment for 2014:
Look, this guy is just good. This time he did it in Double-A. He also showed spectacularly good plate discipline in the Arizona Fall League (16 walks, four strikeouts in 62 at-bats) and scouting reports are increasingly positive about both his hitting and fielding. In other words, his reputation is catching up with his performance. Injuries are the main problem for La Stella thus far, including a broken leg in ‘12 and an elbow problem in ’13, but you can’t knock what he’s done when healthy. He hits for average, gets on base, shows decent pop, can swipe a base, doesn’t botch his position, and works hard. That’s a player. Grade B
Through 47 games for Triple-A Gwinnett, La Stella as hitting .293/.384/.359 with 25 walks and just 14 strikeouts in 167 at-bats. Note the decline in isolated power against Triple-A pitching, though he's retained his batting average, high OBP, and very low strikeout rates.
La Stella is listed at 5-11, 185, a left-handed hitter, born January 31, 1989. Despite a lack of explosive physical tools, he has developed into a reliable defender at second base, with a low error rate and (in my opinion) underrated range. Offensively, he's maintained excellent contact rates at all levels and controls the strike zone well. He's not going to be a big home run hitter, but I will be surprised if he does not continue showing good batting averages and OBPs. I think the main caution flag is injury: he hasn't played more than 90 games in a year.
Overall, La Stella has been one of my favorite unheralded prospects since he was drafted. He has the instincts and skills to have a longer and more successful career than many guys who have better physical tools but less feel for the game.