It’s Christmas Eve. Santa has the sleigh prepped and his bag packed. The reindeer are getting restless. Jolly ol’ jelly-belly is practicing his laugh and pinching his cheeks to make sure they are extra rosy.
After the punch-in-the-face that 2020 has been, surely Saint Nicolas knows we need a little extra holiday cheer this Christmas, right? (If you get the reference, let me know.)
Here’s hoping you got your Christmas wish list to the North Pole on time.
There’s an art to the Christmas list. It requires a delicate balance of multiple factors to ensure maximum effectiveness for both the gift-receiver and the gift-giver on Christmas morning.
It starts with understanding the budget. Santa Claus might have unlimited resources at his disposal – with all those slave-labor elves – but your significant other, parents, or kids do not. I learned long ago that I can’t just break out the crayons and scribble “CUSTOM SHOP 1954 FENDER STRAT – SUNBURST ONLY!” and expect my family to come through for me.
That’s a good way to end up with new underwear.
In our family, practicality has to be part of the conversation. My dad was an accountant. My mom was a first-grade teacher. (If you’ve ever wondered how I got this gig writing about baseball analytics at an elementary school reading level, now you know. I’m uniquely qualified to break down sabermetrics with sophomoric verbosity.) My parents love to get me something they know I’ll use frequently.
Like a multi-tool, a 12-volt tire pump with emergency light, or a 4-ton multi-purpose hydraulic jack.
Hmmm… maybe my parents expect me to have frequent car trouble.
Gift-lists also need to consider the “satisfaction quotient”. This runs two ways. The satisfaction level of the gift-giver is nearly as important as the satisfaction level of the gift-receiver. Your loved ones want to see that look of sincere appreciation and excitement when you open your gift, revealing the “gray-water sewer conversion kit for pop-up campers” they know you wanted. (Yes, another gift from my beloved mother and father. Yes, like all of these presents, it was bought directly from my list!)
At Christmas time, everyone needs to get their cookies.
If I was making a Christmas wish list to give to John Mozeliak and the St. Louis Cardinals, it would need to include all those factors.
The team’s budget, which appears to be extremely low this season, has to be priority one. The Cardinals are your grandpa. He claims to be broke, but he drives a Cadillac and has lived mortgage-free in the same house since “the war”. Bill DeWitt has been stuffing franklins into his mattress for decades but that doesn’t mean he’s going to break into his stash for you.
It would also need to consider the practicality of the acquisition. Who is the Farberware 13-in-1 butcher-block set in slate gray of the offseason?
Then there is the satisfaction quotient. It has to be someone that will force us to act surprised while the front office can claim to have “really come through” for us. That eliminates both Wainwright and Molina from the list. They are expecteds. They are “just what I thought I would get!” gifts. Let’s assume those two will be under the tree. We’re looking for that fill-in, even-the-Christmas-spending-out-between-the-siblings gift here!
There’s several players that we could put onto such a list. I’m sure most of you will go looking for an outfielder. There’s plenty to choose from, if you do.
For me, though, when I consider budget, practicality, and bang-for-buck satisfaction quotient, I’m looking at the infield. I’m looking for a player who could push Matt Carpenter out of a starting role and take over at 2b if Tommy Edman has to play shortstop for any significant length of time. I’m asking for a player that can make Edmundo Sosa into the AAA depth player he needs to be for this club.
That’s why the first name on my Christmas wish list to the Cardinals is Tommy La Stella.
Yeah, you read that right. The former Cubs utility player is who I am asking for this Christmas.
La Stella just does a little of everything. Let’s start with offense since that seems to be the focus of many Cardinals fans this offseason. La Stella is a surprisingly good offensive player and he provides a batting profile that is considerably more stable than Brad Miller, who filled the same role in 2020. La Stella has consistently held BB rates between 9-12%. His K rates are virtually non-existent. Last year he K’ed just 5.3% of the time. In 2019, when he had the most PAs of his career, that rate was still just 8.7%.
He’s not a dink and dunk, walk and singles, hitter though. La Stella can also provide some real pop for a utility infielder. His ISO’s have been .184, .065, .192, .168 the last four seasons. His slug% has been over .449 in 3 of the last 4 seasons, with ’18 being an all-around aberration (.331).
That combination of excellent contact ability, infielder’s power, and a great eye, has netted him a wRC+ between 122 and 129 in ’17, ’19, and ’20. That’s a wOBA consistently over .355.
To put that in context, the Cardinals had one player who received more than a handful of PAs in 2020 and still had a wOBA over .350: Paul Goldschmidt.
That leads Steamer to project La Stella for a 2.4 fWAR in 561 plate appearances with 17 homers, a .343 wOBA, and a 112 wRC+. Considering his recent history of wRC+’s over 120, that might be a tad too much age-related regression. Or Steamer doesn’t want to ignore 2018, even though it looks like a complete aberration.
Regardless, it’s a very intriguing projection for a player who could fit at three places in the Cardinals lineup – second base, third base, and designated hitter (if it returns). That .343 wOBA would again sit second on the club in projected performance for 2021, square between Goldschmidt and Paul DeJong.
Defensively, La Stella can handle second, though his skills seem to be declining there. His DRS and UZR there have been negative for two seasons in a row. OAA confirms that. At third base, though, La Stella is still holding his own. He’s a neutral player at 3b by DRS, UZR, and OAA. UZR/150 – which is not a great stat to look at considering the small sample sizes involved – hints that he is more likely to be above-average at that position than below-average if he was given enough innings there.
Some might look at La Stella’s profile and see his lefty-bat is a drawback for the Cards, considering that Matt Carpenter also hits southpaw. To me, though, the fact that La Stella is a lefty is a plus. A right-handed utility infielder is likely to find himself on the short side of a platoon, as the club gives Carpenter time to see if he can regain his old form. I’ve already made it clear that I think Carpenter’s days of above-replacement level production are over. A lefty like La Stella provides direct competition for Carpenter.
The winner of that competition can then start or serve as a platoon option at third with the developing infield righties the Cardinals have at the top of their system. This includes Elehuris Montero, Edmundo Sosa, and even Nolan Gorman. The loser of that competition can slide into the DH role if it returns and split PA’s with the names just mentioned plus John Nogowski, if he manages to claim a roster spot.
La Stella can also provide what I don’t believe Carpenter can at this point – a legitimate option in the middle infield in case of an injury to Tommy Edman or Paul DeJong. Edman showed enough at shortstop last year that I would like him to be the primary fill-in when DeJong needs a day off. If Edman has to play short, La Stella can slide to second and Carpenter can enter a platoon at third. That leaves Sosa as the odd man out of the middle infield rotation and that’s a good thing. In stops where Sosa received more than a handful of PAs, he hasn’t had a wRC+ over 100 since rookie ball.
Lastly, La Stella is not likely to command either a starter’s salary or a guaranteed starting position. Last year, La Stella earned $3.25M in arbitration. Considering the financial state of the game, I’m not convinced he can top that amount this season. A 1/$3M deal would probably get him signed. I wouldn’t mind if the Cards tacked on an option for a second year, too.
No, La Stella is not the exciting gift many of you want under your Cardinals-clad tree. He does have the right combination of practicality, budget-consideration, and “satisfaction quotient” to make him a nice supplementary gift this Christmas, with hopefully bigger acquisitions to come.
Let me know in the comments who you would put on your list!
From my family to yours, I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a happy New Year!