*hat-tip to anonymous commenter on Andrew Baggarly’s board
[I mean, you didn’t think my featured image was going to be of La Stella in an A’s uniform, did you?!]
In this post I’ll talk about the signing of Tommy La Stella (as the image and title suggest) but also how different this offseason has been compared to Farhan Zaidi’s first two–and how happy I am about this difference. But let’s start with the biggest free agent deal Zaidi has handed out to date and the only player currently under contract with the Giants for 2023.
OK, Tommy La Stella
I vaguely remembered him from his Cubs days, and I knew he’d had a good year with the Angels. (Indeed, he was an All-Star for them in 2019, and lest you think that was a token pick, remember that Mike Trout still plays for the Angels.) So I did a little research and learned a few things:
- Today is his birthday, and he’s 32. The older Lefty Jr turned 32 on Tuesday, so they were born in the same week in 1989. But I digress.
- He’s originally from New Jersey but played his college ball for Coastal Carolina. Yes, he was a Chanticleer. (I learned the Coastal Carolina team name just this fall because their football team for awhile was having a Cinderella-type season, and they played an epic game against BYU. But I digress again.)
- He was drafted by the Braves in the same year (2011) that Joe Panik was drafted by the Giants–but not until the eighth round. This won’t be the last mention of Joe Panik in this column.
- He’s a good hitter. His career batting average is .274 and his career OPS+ is 104.
- He is not a power hitter and only has 31 career home runs in nearly 1500 plate appearances. However, 2 of his 5 homers in 2020 came against the Giants, and one was a game-winner hit off of…oh, never mind. You can click on the video link if you want to. He looks really happy!
- So since he’s not a power hitter unless he’s playing the Giants, his value as a hitter comes from his elite level walk-to-strikeout ratio. For his career, it’s 159 Ks to 143 BBs, which is really good, but his 2020 was ridiculous–he walked more than twice as many times as he struck out.
- He bats left-handed and plays multiple infield positions (everything but shortstop), so he provides the versatility Zaidi was looking for, given that Evan Longoria, Wilmer Flores, Donovan Solano, and Mauricio Dubon (who, it appears, will be the CF and the backup SS) all bat right-handed.
It’s easy to see how La Stella is a good fit. Still, it’s a bit surprising that he was able to get such a good contract (reportedly for three years and $19 mil) in a tough market for his ages 32-34 seasons. It goes to show how much Zaidi and Co. value his particular skill set, not just for this year, but for several years following, when he and Longoria (for 2022) will be the veteran presences bridging (we hope) to a new era of homegrown youngsters.
The Joe Panik comparisons were inevitable, and not just because they (a) are both from the same region of the U.S. (b) were both drafted in 2011 and (c) both hit left-handed. The main similarity is the low-power/elite-strikeout-rate profiles. While Panik did win a Gold Glove at 2B in 2016, his defensive abilities slipped a bit after that, and La Stella appears to be serviceable but not “stellar” in the field. Here’s what Andrew Baggarly said about the Panik/La Stella comparison:
But there’s more to being a productive offensive player than not striking out. If that were the case, then the Giants wouldn’t have released Joe Panik in the middle of the 2019 season. What makes La Stella so intriguing is that he is improving what was already an elite outlier skill while simultaneously doing more damage at the plate.
It’s notable that 21 of La Stella’s 31 career homers were in 2019-20 (16 in his All-Star season), while playing for the Angels and A’s, who don’t especially have great ballparks for left-handed hitters. So, unlike Panik, whose elite strike zone recognition fizzled into a parade of weak grounders, La Stella seems to be improving at driving the ball as he ages–and taking a hitter with good strike zone recognition and getting them to add more power is a Zaidi regime specialty (see Yastrzemski, Mike).
Anyway, welcome, Tommy La Stella. It will be nice when the signing is final and he has a press conference so we can get to know him a little bit–since he appears to be staying awhile.
Year 3 vs. Years 1-2
Farhan Zaidi was hired to lead/remake the Giants after the 2018 season. He had a tough hill to climb. The team was coming off two bad seasons and had its hands tied with big contracts for veterans who were, to put it politely, underperforming (Posey, Belt, Crawford, Samardzija, Cueto, Melancon, Longoria…yikes!). The farm system was ranked near the bottom, even after drafting Joey Bart at #2 in 2018 and signing Marco Luciano that July. There were few realistic ways to quickly make the team better, and Zaidi, well, didn’t. The 2019 Opening Day outfield that included #ForeverGiants Connor Joe and Michael Reed did not endear Zaidi to many Giants fans, including DrLefty, who was in the ballpark in San Diego for that game and did not try to contain her outrage.
Annoying as that all was, the Giants did put on a spirited show midseason and had a nice sendoff for retiring manager Bruce Bochy. Rookie Mike Yastrzemski, who didn’t make his debut until late May, was a bright spot, as was midseason waiver claim Alex Dickerson. The Giants had dipped comfortably under the luxury tax threshold, having managed to trade Melancon to the Braves, and I expected a much more active winter leading into 2020.
I had been disappointed by the 2018-19 offseason, but I understood the constraints Zaidi was working with. But as the months of 2019-20 wore on, and it became apparent that Zaidi intended to do pretty much nothing to improve the 2020 team, I became really annoyed. The Giants at that point had had three straight bad seasons. The fans deserved more than just “wait until 2024 or so when Luciano is ready.” I didn’t expect them to sign the superstar free agents and I wasn’t even anticipating a playoff run, but it didn’t seem too much to ask that they at least make an effort to put an entertaining product on the field. Going into spring training around this time last year, I didn’t see that Zaidi had made that good-faith effort. In particular, he did nothing to improve the bullpen, and the strength of the 2019 team became the 2020 team’s Achilles heel.
Well, then everything changed. COVID hit, MLB shut down, and we ended up with a two-month, 60-game regular season. The Giants were better than expected, barely missing a winning season and losing out on a playoff spot only because of a truly lame tiebreaker rule. And all of a sudden Zaidi had a team on the verge of contention.
What happened in the strange 2020 season seems to have finally spurred Zaidi into some modest action this winter. No, there haven’t been any George Springer/Trevor Bauer-type signings (and even though Bauer’s still out there, he’s not coming to SF), and the Giants haven’t traded for Blake Snell or Yu Darvish or Nolan Arenado. But since free agency opened, Zaidi has added three starting pitchers (counting the return of Kevin Gausman), two bullpen arms, a Rule 5 lottery ticket reliever, a solid backup catcher, and now La Stella. (The first signing was a younger, more obscure version of La Stella, Jason Vosler, but it’s a little murky what will happen with Vosler now.)
Grant Brisbee has a new piece about the signing of La Stella and what a great fit he seems to be on paper–and then he went and ruined it by invoking the ghost of Mark DeRosa in 2010. DeRosa also seemed like a great fit when he was signed, but it didn’t turn out to be a good deal at all for the Giants. (Yes, they won the 2010 World Series, but I assure you that had nothing to do with Mark DeRosa unless you want to count him being a great clubhouse guy.) Anyway, we don’t know how La Stella, Curt Casali, Alex Wood, Anthony DeSclafani, and Matt Wisler are going to work out for the Giants, but that’s not the point. The important thing is that Zaidi, true to his mantra, is trying to improve the team by making “one good baseball move at a time.”
The 2021 Giants look better on paper than they did when the 2020 season ended–or started. And as a fan and keen observer, I’m happy about that. I understand that they’re not at the stage yet to sign big-name superstars, but there were (and still are) plenty of solid major leaguers who could make the present better while hopefully building for a bright future. I’m still hoping they’re not quite done. We keep hearing about their desire for a lefty-hitting outfielder, though some of the main possibilities (Joc Pederson and Eddie Rosario) have gone off the board this week. I’m ambivalent about whether they really need another outfielder, though I certainly wouldn’t argue with a signing of Jackie Bradley Jr. if the Giants wanted to gift us with that. (And yes, JayQ, I know about the underwhelming career batting average, but I’m a sucker for elite CF defense. That’s why I hoped so hard for Duggar to make it.) And I know I keep saying this, but I absolutely think they need at least one more legitimate starting pitcher. (Good news about Tyler Beede this week–his rehab is going well and he’s going to start throwing off a mound within days. He’s on track for a late-May return at this point. But the Giants shouldn’t count on that because you never know how quickly a TJ returnee is going to shake the rust off.)
Tomorrow is February, next Sunday is the Super Bowl, and despite noise to the contrary this week, pitchers and catchers are still scheduled to report sometime the week of Feb. 15. So there will continue to be news and activity, even though (sadly) we won’t have a Fanfest to look forward to or the usual buzz that happens around the ballpark in the first week of February.
But we’re getting there. The offseason is almost over, and baseball will be back soon. I can’t wait. Lefty out.