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Mariners 2021 Free Agent Target: Tommy La Stella

He may not be the most flashy signing, but he makes a ton of sense for a team on the upswing.

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MLB: Game Two-Oakland Athletics at Texas Rangers Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

As we enter the winter, there are few positions where the Mariners truly feel uneasy about their options. Most positions are locked down by youngsters already playing there in the big leagues, or have a top prospect or two coming up the pipe in the next couple of years. When you’re rebuilding, it’s great to have a breadth of talented players. But when you’re on the upward stage of that rebuild, it’s a good idea to assess the system and find places where your process has been less successful, then address those holes outside the organization.

One of those areas of weakness for Seattle is second base. At present, the Mariners have a handful of options there. Shed Long came over as a well-regarded prospect and has shown flashes of promise, but hasn’t put it all together yet in two years in Seattle. Dylan Moore, emerged as a surprise breakout in 2020, but the 28-year-old needs to demonstrate that he can do it for more than just 38 games. Ty France is also an option at the keystone, and I imagine we’ll see him there some in 2021, but he’s not really built for the spot defensively.

Any of the three of them could emerge as the answer at second base. I think the M’s would be foolish to count on that happening, though. That’s why I think the M’s should target Tommy La Stella this winter.

The 31-year-old has made a home in the AL West these last two years, playing for the Angels in 2019 and 2020 before being dealt to the A’s at this year’s trade deadline. In his first year in Los Angeles, La Stella enjoyed a late-career breakout, hitting .295/.346/.486 (122 wRC+) over 80 games before fracturing his ankle on a foul ball in early July. Prior to the injury, La Stella’s start had earned him a spot on the American League All-Star roster, his first career appearance.

So what led to his late breakout? Why, the swing-change revolution, of course! From Fabian Ardaya at The Athletic back in April of 2019:

The utility infielder has worked to adjust his bat path with hitting coaches Jeremy Reed, Shawn Wooten and Paul Sorrento, becoming more efficient in getting the barrel to the ball while also adjusting his hands. In a small sample, La Stella has increased his average launch angle from 8.1 degrees to 13.9 degrees, which is more typical of a power hitter.

Instead of gripping the bat tight and “muscling” the baseball, La Stella worked to become more relaxed, using his good eye, solid approach and natural strength to swing at damageable pitches and trust his natural power instead of forcing it.

While 2019 wasn’t the first season he had a wRC+ of over 120 (he posted a 126 wRC+ with the Cubs in 73 games in 2017) it was the first time he cleared five homers in a season. La Stella swatted 16 homers in those 80 games in 2019.

La Stella’s power was comparatively sapped in 2020, when he hit five bombs across 55 games with his two teams. Regardless, he stayed offensively productive with a 129 wRC+ and 1.2 WAR for the shortened season (150-game pace of 3.3 WAR).

One thing that La Stella has always done well is make contact. For his career, the infielder runs a 9.6% walk rate against a 10.6% strikeout rate. In fact, since the start of the 2019 season he’s actually walked more times (47) than he’s struck out (40). It’s not hard to see how elevating the quality of that contact could have an outsized impact on his production.

La Stella makes sense for the Mariners for a few reasons. For starters, he should be relatively cheap. Last season La Stella made just $3.25M on a one-year contract with Los Angeles. As a career bench player with a late-stage breakout that was cut short to injury, he wasn’t able to demand a large sum of money. I don’t imagine that increases by a whole lot this winter. Even if the M’s have to pay $5M or $6M annually, that’s a pretty good deal for a guy who shores up second base for the near-term. He’s also not going to come with the draft pick compensation tag that someone like DJ LeMahieu is likely to carry.

The M’s would be getting a guy who has shown the ability to be an impact bat. If he reverts back to 2019 form, the M’s will have gotten a middle-of-the-lineup hitter at a bargain. If he’s more like the 2020 version of himself, they’d still have themselves a pretty good player. And much like the Angels did in 2020, the M’s can flip him at the deadline if they find themselves not competing in 2021.

While La Stella has played third base in his career as well, you probably don’t want him there for any extended period of time. The infielder broke his leg in July of the 2019 campaign, missing all but the last three games of the season. Those kind of injuries can be pretty serious. The Angels clearly thought so, as he never saw another game at the hot corner for the Halos in either 2019 or 2020. The A’s used him there six times after acquiring him, but still primarily played him at second. More likely is that La Stella could DH occasionally, especially if someone from the young group emerges at second.

The Mariners would essentially be handing the keys to second base to La Stella by signing him. That would obviously hamstring opportunities for guys like Long, Moore, and France. However, I think it’s smart to approach these things with an abundance of caution. Rather than expecting one of those three to produce, the M’s should view them as a surplus and re-arrange players as they show what they’re capable of. All three of the young players mentioned have other positions they can play. That flexibility can prove valuable to a team that’s trying to find out who is in this thing for the long haul.