It has been 8 games worth of surprises for the Atlanta Braves. After losing Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm to free agency over the offseason, Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to Tommy John surgery in consecutive spring starts, and being forced to choose between Aaron Harang and Freddy frickin Garcia for the fourth, let alone the fifth, spot in their Opening Day rotation, the club currently leads the majors in starter’s ERA – their mark of 1.37 more than half a run better than the second-place Detroit Tigers. On the other side of the coin however, their offense – aside from the newly minted Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons – has so far been abysmal; The Upton brothers have cumulatively struck out 24 times in 62 plate appearances. Jason Heyward is batting .188. The team ranks 27th in slugging percentage (.331), 28th in OBP (.264), and last in runs (19). Things haven’t exactly been helped by Fredi Gonzalez‘s questionable lineup construction, but it’s clear something needs to change – in a much more competitive NL East than the walkover the division was last year, the rotation simply won’t be able to keep such a flailing offense afloat for much longer.
Speaking of flailing, Atlanta’s much-maligned second baseman Dan Uggla might well be the first to be sacrificed should the #Barves’ offensive woes continue. Signed to a 5-year, $62.5 million deal back in December 2010 after being acquired from the then-Florida Marlins in exchange for Omar Infante and Mike Dunn, the burly keystoner’s numbers have worsened in every year in ATL. After launching 27 home runs or better in each of his four years in Florida, notching a cumulative wRC+ of 118, and accruing 15.6 WAR (all while being paid just $14,286,000 total), Uggla has since hit only .213/.321/.401 as a Brave, and thus become one of the fans’ two whipping boys (along with B.J. Upton), the pair emblematic of Atlanta’s endemic failure to make consistent contact on offense, and frequent miscues in the field – both of which have doomed in the playoffs the past two seasons.
It is at this point I should point out that Uggla’s 2013 was so particularly disastrous, even with his $13 million salary, he didn’t actually make the postseason roster; during the regular season, he had been an abject disaster at the plate, striking out 31.8% of the time on his way to hitting just .179 – the second lowest average for any Brave in Atlanta’s near 50-year history (Jody Davis, a catcher, notched the lowest mark – .169 in 1989), all whilst similar struggling in the field – not even his vaguely playable 2013 OBP of .309 could save Uggla from getting bench splinters when you factored in his -5.9 UZR. By the end of the year the 34-year-old had acquired -1.3 WAR in just 136 games.
Perhap to be expected of someone seemingly sliding down the aging curve so precipitously, not much has improved in 2014 thus far – Uggla is hitting just .194 early on, with a truly horrid .188 OBP and 15 wRC+. Even his trademark power has disappeared, his isolated slugging mark of .065 a disaster when considering how the slugger has also yet to take a walk in his 32 plate appearances. Small sample size be dashed, it’s truly apparent that Uggla is toast, in need of replacing – and pronto – if Atlanta are ever going to kickstart their potentially above-average offense into gear. Fortunately, should they eventually recognize that the $26 million they still owe Uggla over this year and next is a sunk cost, they already have just the man for the second base job.
Down in the minors at Triple-A Gwinnett, Tommy La Stella is drawing rave reviews from scouts – per Baseball Prospectus‘ ‘What Scouts Are Saying: April 10th, 2014‘ one talent evaluator noted of the 25-year-old:
One of the best pure hitters in the minor leagues and yet you don’t hear many people talk about him. I get that he’s older and not going to win a Gold Glove at 2B, but what stops him from becoming the next Matt Carpenter? Look at the numbers, recognize the approach, and watch the swing, and it’s clear he is something special.
That’s a pretty ringing endorsement considering how Carpenter finished fourth in NL MVP voting last year in his first season as a full-time regular. But it’s true; the pair profile extremely similarly through their minor league careers, La Stella’s four-year average line of .328/.412/.495 actually comparing favorably to Carpenter’s .299/.408/.450 triple slash over the same span. Judged by Fangraphs to have “fringe-average” defensive skills, the 25-year-old would be a considerable upgrade over Uggla in the field, and with “a strong left-handed swing with good bat speed and excellent hand-eye coordination… a good eye and a patient approach,” a welcome contact-conscious addition to the whiff-happy Braves*.
It’s somewhat incredible already that he wasn’t called up to replace Uggla last year given his production, nor made the 25-man roster out of Spring Training, but after 8 games it should be clear; this shouldn’t even be a matter of whether the Atlanta offense needs a boost (which it most certainly does) – At this point, Uggla needs to find himself a seat, it’s Tommy La Stella’s time to surprise.
*Awesome geeky stat of the day: in La Stella’s four minor league seasons, he has accrued 1012 plate appearances, and walked 113 times compared to just 89(!) strikeouts. Uggla had his 90th strikeout by June 19th last year – in his 67th game of the season no less.