The Mariners announced today that they’ve signed infielder Tommy La Stella to a one-year contract.
After five so-so seasons for Atlanta and the Cubs, despite Joe Maddon anointing him with one of the best nicknames ever, La Stella became a great later-career breakout story with the 2019 Angels, earning his first-ever All-Star nod. Unfortunately, because baseball is cruel, La Stella fouled a ball off his shin and broke his leg, cutting short his best-ever season in the majors. He came back in the pandemic-shortened season with a strong campaign, earning a trade from the then-floundering Angels to the then-soaring Athletics (I know! 2020! Doesn’t seem like that long ago!), which in turn earned him his first big contract, which was also Farhan Zaidi’s first big contract handed out as GM of the Giants: three years for $18.75M.
Unfortunately, things went downhill sharply in the Bay for La Stella. A left hamstring strain limited La Stella to under 250 plate appearances in 2021, and problems with both his Achilles tendons, along with neck spasms, kept him off the field for most of 2022, when he recorded under 200 plate appearances. Rather than roster him on a team with several young infield prospects, the Giants opted to DFA him this off-season, meaning they’re still on the hook for most of the $11.5M he’s owed—the Mariners will be paying La Stella league minimum.
Obviously the injuries are concerning for a player who, at 33, is well on the “wrong” side of the aging curve. La Stella’s exit velocities (average and max) took a hit in 2022, which isn’t great news for a player who is limited to DH or 1B defensively, but considering he was playing with what probably felt like a piranha apiece clamped to the back of his ankles, maybe we can cut him some slack. 2021’s SLG of .405 looks marginally better against 2022’s .350 (for context, J.P. Crawford slugged .376 in 2021), but in 2021, La Stella was barrelling the ball up well, with a career-high average exit velocity just scraping 89, which would be above league average (88.4). And again, that was while he was dealing with a nagging hamstring strain that bothered him all season.
If he can return to his 2019-2020 form, the Mariners will have found a 125-ish wRC+ player on the cheap, kind of a lefty-hitting replacement for the value brought by Mitch Haniger, without the defense or homers—although also without the strikeouts, as La Stella is famously one of the league’s toughest hitters to strike out, running a career K% of 11.1%. If he could even just teach some of Seattle’s more free-swingers how to have a fraction of his eye at the plate, that would be well worth the price of the signing in itself.
To make room for La Stella on the 40-man roster, the Mariners designated LHP Justus Sheffield for assignment. That brings the number of lefty relievers on the 40-man down to just two: Gabe Speier and Brennan Bernadino, which feels risky, especially as the non-40 man pool isn’t aswim with lefty options. If you’re left-handed and can throw a baseball, maybe head down to Peoria in February, your chances don’t look half-bad.