EDIT (5/28): The Braves purchased the contract of La Stella on Wednesday, marking the beginning of a new direction at second base in Atlanta. The observations from this post still stand, so this can serve as a primer for the second baseman.
Tommy La Stella has been a popular name in the Atlanta Braves community since his emergence as a legitimate prospect last season, and the continued decline of Dan Uggla's bat. With recent reports indicating La Stella could soon get called up to challenge for Uggla's second base spot in Atlanta, the buzz around La Stella has only grown louder.
If the Braves are looking for a change from Uggla's ways, adding La Stella would be a complete opposite from the current production at second base.
La Stella's game is built around his plus hit tool. It's currently a 6 by my eyes, and I've heard from others who say the same. He has a knack for squaring the ball up at an absurdly high rate. He seemingly gets good wood on anything he swings at, and he's rarely fooled by off-speed or spin. He takes pitches to where they're thrown and is good at spraying the ball around the field despite being a left-handed hitter. He's a prototypical contact-oriented hitter with a quick bat that hits down on the ball, slashes it around the field and tries to find holes.
That previous sentence is also what holds him back in another aspect of hitting: power. La Stella has below-average pop in-game, because he strives to put good wood on the ball and spray it around the field. His swing is quick from a load that has shortened over the years, and he covers all parts of the plate, but it sacrifices over-the-fence ability. La Stella will find gaps here and there when he lifts it over the infielder's heads, but there is almost zero lift in his swing.
I remember watching La Stella in spring camp the year after getting drafted, and his swing had more lift and was longer. He showed above-average raw power, and it coincided with nine home runs at Rome in 2011. However, because his swing has shortened, he has never hit more than six home runs in a season since. He has sacrificed average power potential in the name of contact.
La Stella does show a plan at the plate and will walk. He has an eye for the outside corner, and he doesn't strike out often because he's able to fight off off-speed and spin. I think his short swing and approach will work in his favor in the majors, because there will be times when he gets fooled by better pitching, and he needs that swing to overcome potential whiffs.
Despite having below-average in-game power, La Stella's bat shouldn't get knocked out of his hands in the majors. He has shown raw power in the past, and it doesn't leave a player just because he changes to a more contact-oriented approach. He needs a little BABIP help to maintain a strong batting average, but because he hits line drives often, I think it's realistic to guess his BABIP will be higher than average.
Everything about La Stella's speed and defense spell average. His speed might actually be a touch below average based on my eye, but he didn't bust it down the line for me to time him. He shows baserunning ability by wheeling his head, tracking fly balls and picking up coaches at the appropriate times.
His defensive profile is average. He shows an average glove. He didn't seem to have complete confidence in it while starting a double play in this game, and he was a little rigid on a ground ball in an important spot late in the game. But nothing about the glove should hinder his profile. He didn't have to fire a ball anywhere on the field, so I didn't get a look at his arm, but I've heard it's average. The arm action works for the position. La Stella doesn't possess quick lateral movements, which is another indication he isn't blessed with quick-twitch athleticism, so his range appears average. He got to the second base hole at a fairly good time on a ground ball up the middle. Overall, La Stella's defense shouldn't hurt or help the Braves, which might be an upgrade at this point.
La Stella has a calm demeanor on the field. He does everything with a quiet confidence and shows no unnecessary emotions or actions. He goes about his business in a professional manner like he's been around for years. I'll take that every day of the week.
The fact that La Stella has one tool limits his overall potential. He's able to utilize that tool on a near-nightly basis, however, which helps his overall potential. It's not like Uggla's power, which is his only tool and shows up once every two or three weeks at this point. La Stella is probably an average regular in his prime. He's not going to knock your socks off, but he has the ability to be a steady contributor with a .280-.310 average and average defense.
I don't know what the Braves have planned for second base. A move must be made, because a contending team can't continue to field a hitter who fails to hit .200 on a regular basis, regardless of the power potential. It's even more obvious by the fact that Uggla was left off the 2013 playoff roster. But whether the change will be starting La Stella, Ramiro Pena, Tyler Pastornicky, or someone else, is unknown. Over the course of this season, I don't think the difference between those three would be too terribly noticeable. But La Stella represents the best option for getting on base now and in the future, and that's something the Braves desperately need.