The A’s Patch Their Lone Offensive Hole With Tommy La Stellaon August 30, 2020 at 8:30 pm

The A’s Patch Their Lone Offensive Hole With Tommy La Stella

An Oakland Athletics offense that was already fourth in baseball in WAR has acquired Tommy La Stella — a man who has hit .265/.361/.461 this year (.287/.350/.480 over the last two), and who has the lowest strikeout among baseball’s qualified hitters at a paltry 5.6% (7.9% combined the last two years, also the lowest in baseball) — to solidify a second base situation that has been molten since Jed Lowrie‘s most recent departure. The A’s traded 24-year-old infielder Franklin Barreto to the Angels in exchange for La Stella.

As his now twice former manager Joe Maddon once said when he was a Cub, La Stella could roll out of bed and hit, a notion he has since further reinforced, as La Stella’s strikeout and barrel rates have each trended in a positive direction since he left the north side. He makes the A’s lineup a top-to-bottom threat for the rest of the year before he hits free agency this winter.

La Stella is a clear upgrade over incumbent keystone Tony Kemp, who emerged from a crowded preseason group mostly made up of disappointing prospects. Kemp is hitting just .250/.377/.281, with the OBP portion of his line driven by an unusually high walk rate and BABIP compared to the five-year big leaguer’s career norms. Kemp, who also has experience in the outfield, is likely to shift to a bench role as a situational lefty bat, and a late-inning replacement for La Stella, who is neither a good defender nor runner.

There will likely also be some instances when La Stella serves as Oakland’s designated hitter in lieu of the struggling Khris Davis (who is hitting .155/.269/.241 this season, and .213/.290/.371 over the last two combined), with either Kemp or Chad Pinder starting at second base. In essence, La Stella bolsters the second base and DH spots simultaneously as he himself is an upgrade, and his addition means Bob Melvin can choose from whichever of Pinder, Kemp or Davis he thinks is more likely to do damage that day. For instance, Pinder could play more often versus lefties, Kemp versus righties, and Davis against pitchers who throw a lot of fastballs. I think this move may put Rule 5 pick Vimael Machin‘s roster spot in jeopardy, especially in light of Marcus Semien’s recent injury, which could leave Oakland without a viable defensive shortstop on their 40-man, perhaps necessitating a deal or Nick Allen‘s addition to the active roster for a brief stretch.

As for Barreto, the infielder is only 24 but has gotten sporadic big league playing time during each of the last four seasons. A career .180/.210/.360 hitter in about 220 plate appearances, he was the centerpiece of Oakland’s prospect return from Toronto in the 2014 Josh Donaldson trade. Barreto graduated from our prospect lists as a 55 FV prospect (a grade befitting an above-average everyday player) ranked 32nd overall. Barreto is the second well-known prospect, along with Padres outfielder Jorge Mateo, who the Athletics have traded away after the club was loath to give either consistent playing time despite Oakland’s clear need for production at second base.

Barreto’s early-career undoing has been his unhinged approach at the plate. He has walked just twice in his last 140 big league plate appearances, and he has struck out in 40% of his career attempts. Though he never walked frequently in the minor leagues, his plate discipline issues were masked by superlative bat-to-ball talent, which enabled him to hit .289/.352/.482 in the minors, a line that includes several years during which Barreto was a college-aged player hitting at Triple-A. Though there was disagreement about Barreto’s defensive ability (I didn’t and still don’t think he has the hands to play the infield and should have been moved to center field already), he was a lauded offensive prospect with a long track record of performance who has simply not panned out thus far because of an issue that required upper-level pitchers’ execution to expose.

For the Angels, Barreto is another in a long line of post-prospect hype types they’ve acquired, either via trade or on the minor league free agent wire, and tried to refurbish. The Halos have brought in Kevin Maitan, Adrian Rondon, Gareth Morgan, and many others with impact physical ability but downward value trajectories.

Barreto is out of options and needs to play everyday so the Angels can see both what they have and what they might coax out of him. If he improves, then they could have an everyday player for the next five years since Barreto has accrued just one year of service time even though he debuted in 2017. An immediate opportunity to play every day would probably require the Angels to trade Andrelton Simmons or shelve Shohei Ohtani for the rest of the summer.

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