The Chicago Cubs traded relief pitcher Arodys Vizcaino to the Atlanta Braves for second baseman Tommy La Stella Sunday. Vizcaino took a very long time to get healthy after Tommy John surgery in 2012, and has yet to establish himself as a Major Leaguer, but he has a closer’s upside. Atlanta will add Vizcaino to its considerable depth in middle relief, a strength from which is has already been rumored that they will try to trade for some starting pitching help.
La Stella is a one-tool player, more or less, but the tool he possesses is the very best one a player can have. He hits. La Stella batted .322 and had a .407 on-base percentage in roughly 1,200 minor-league plate appearances, and he did it by hardly ever striking out. He also draws a large number of walks, but that skill would have far less value if he weren’t so consistently able to put the ball in play.
Of course, there’s a danger in a hit tool-only profile akin to the danger presented by a relief arm with a long injury history La Stella will have to show some ability to punish the ball, and to keep up with good velocity, or pitchers will attack him so aggressively that drawing those walks becomes almost impossible. He’s a left-handed hitter, which helps, but he’ll have to fight to stay ahead in adjustments and in counts, or life will be hard for him in the big leagues. To his credit, La Stella gets high marks for his instincts and his work ethic, and that should help. The question will be how much it helps, and by extension, how high his offensive ceiling can be.
That’s because, while he does play a theoretically valuable position, La Stella isn’t a strong defender. He’s merely adequate. His scouting report from the pre-2014 Baseball Prospectus Braves prospect list says he “lacks first-step quickness or range” and “relies on fundamentals and positioning in the field.”
Ah, that last part seems important, though, and here we begin to enter the discussion about what the Cubs really see in La Stella.
Which 2nd basemen were best at making good plays/avoiding mistakes. Pedroia, Lemahieu impressive. End-of-season list pic.twitter.com/2h7pjpGsvU
— Mark Simon (@msimonespn) October 6, 2014
Re-sharing: Was your MLB team effective with its defensive shifting? Here’s one way to look at it pic.twitter.com/YzFsVKkEbh
— Mark Simon (@msimonespn) October 2, 2014
La Stella really is one of baseball’s more sure-handed second basemen, even if his range isn’t ideal. His limitations in range were exposed, in part, by the fact that the Braves shifted their infield less often than all but five MLB teams. The Cubs were closer to average, though still below-average. Joe Maddon’s Rays shifted more often than every team except the Houston Astros. La Stella’s defensive positioning will be better in 2015, if only because he will have more help from the team. That should add to his value.
La Stella also fits Maddon and the Cubs well in other ways. For one, he’s a contact hitter, and the Cubs’ prolific strikeout hitters contributed to the team’s awful offense in 2014. La Stella draws walks and gets on base—his .328 OBP as a rookie was about the lowest his skill set will bear, as it came with a .283 batting average on balls in play. (He had a .343 BABIP in his minor-league career.) As mentioned before, he bats left-handed, and the Cubs’ plethora of prospects nearly all bat from the right side. These are things that make him a fit for Chicago’s roster, but they also specifically endear him to the team’s new manager. Maddon loves to tinker with his lineup, looking for matchup advantages, and he loves to put the ball in play and apply pressure to the defense. La Stella fell out of favor in Atlanta in 2014, in part because of a few instances of over-aggressive baserunning. Maddon won’t begrudge him those occasional mistakes.
There was considerable talk on Twitter about the possibility that the Cubs have another deal in the works, one that might explain their acquisition of what feels like their eighth or ninth competent infielder. It may be that there is such a deal, but the assumption is shaky. For one thing, La Stella has to hit better than he did as a rookie, or he won’t be able to play regularly in MLB. Second basemen were nearly league-average hitters in 2014. As a group, they hit .256/.313/.373. La Stella hit .251/.328/.317, so he won’t add anything offensively unless and until he improves on those stats. Since he’s just average afield, even given a bit more help in positioning, that’s an unexciting profile.
For another thing, La Stella is so fundamentally different from Javier Baez, Addison Russell and Starlin Castro that it feels more like he complements them than like he could replace any of them. Under Maddon, we should expect Chicago to use more platoons and give regulars more days off, and La Stella makes that more feasible.
Now, for Atlanta, the deal truly feels like a precursor. Earlier, I characterized the deal as Vizcaino for La Stella, but there’s actually more to it. To balance the scales, Chicago also sent several slot allotments for signing international free agents to the Braves.
Let me unpack that for you. Under the Collective Bargaining Agreement signed after 2011, draconian rules govern teams who want to spend money on Latin American teenagers, supplementing their drafts with another major pipeline of young talent. Hard caps are in place, and the penalties for surpassing the total expenditure allowed are harsh. (The right to spend is parceled out according to record, meaning the Cubs got more to spend than all but three teams this cycle, which runs through June 15.)
The Cubs blew by their limits during the cycle that ran from July 2, 2013 through June 15, 2014. For that crime, their sentence is that they will not be allowed to spend more than $250,000 on any one player during this cycle. It’s a stupid, anti-competitive rule set, but those are the breaks. Chicago technically has the right to spend just as much as they would otherwise, but without the ability to chase top-end talent in that market, there’s no good way to spend it all.
Therefore, Chicago sent Atlanta about $800,000—a little more—in what we could call Right to Spend. It’s not actual money, just the right to spend one’s money on international free agents. Atlanta was one of the teams most heavily interested, and most notably present, at the recent workout of Cuban 19-year-old (and hot commodity) Yoan Moncada.
Teams are clamoring for Moncada, who should break the record for total financial commitment to an amateur, though about half will be paid in overage taxes for going over the limit MLB has in place. If Atlanta is going to seriously pursue him, they needed this extra flexibility. Their corporate owners give them an inflexible budget, and don’t make special allowances for special cases like this one. Not only might Vizcaino facilitate a trade from Atlanta’s bullpen corps, but this added cap room might allow them to land a true star. If so, it’s well worth their trouble. If not, the Braves gave up a nice little player for an injury-riddled reliever.Next post: Kvetching Up: Victor Martinez, Anthony Gose, Giancarlo Stanton
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