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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Tommy La Stella

The formerly light-hitting infielder retooled in 2019 and now has respectable power in addition to being extremely strikeout-averse.

Division Series - Oakland Athletics v Houston Astros - Game Four Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The lack of news on the DJ LeMahieu front is concerning, yet understandable since the whole free agent market seems to be moving at a very slow pace. However, given that general manager Brian Cashman has indicated that the Bombers’ moves will likely depend on what LeMahieu decides, a quick resolution may be best for all parties.

As long as that isn’t the case, though, there is room for speculation, and the Yankees would be wise to look at Tommy La Stella as an infield option if they can’t re-sign LeMahieu. Even if they bring back their man, La Stella warrants a look.

Ideally, La Stella could fill a super-utility role backing up all infield options except for shortstop. He has ample experience at second and third, and he played some first base last season with the Los Angeles Angels.

La Stella is what you would call a swing-changer. In reality, what he changed the most was his approach and stance, and it worked wonders for him. You can read more about his transformation here. Basically, he watched hours of video and decided to stand “taller, knees hardly bent at all, with his bat at about a 45-degree angle on his shoulder,” per the OC Register.

In five seasons between 2014 and 2018, he hit 10 home runs in total. Then, after re-working his swing with the Angels in 2019, he hit 16 balls out of the park for a new career-high. No, he isn’t a 35-home run hitter now, but he has decent power, as he drives the ball more often.

If the last two seasons are any indication, La Stella might now be a 120+ wRC+ player. He finished with a 122 mark in 2019 and a 129 in 2020. Of course, the somewhat limited sample size must also be acknowledged, as he was limited to 80 games in 2019 after breaking his tibia on a foul ball in July, and COVID shortened his split 2020 with the Angels and A’s to 55 contests.

Offensively, he can do it all despite not having the most eye-popping Statcast profile (36th percentile in average exit velocity, 9th percentile in hard-hit rate in 2020, although he did rank in the 70th percentile in xwOBA.) Over the last two years, since implementing the aforementioned changes, the 31-year-old has a .289/.356/.471 overall batting line with 21 home runs and 69 RBI in 135 games. He can take a walk (11.8 percent walk rate in 2020) and is very hard to strike out (a meager 5.3 percent strikeout rate this year, the best in the league.)

However, his defense at the keystone is suspect, at best. He recorded -3 Outs Above Average (OAA) at second in both 2019 and 2020 according to Statcast, but fared better at third (0) and first (2) during the pandemic-shortened campaign.

Since he played mostly second this season, he ranked in the 36th percentile in OAA and had a poor -7 DRS there. La Stella, as you can see, isn’t a particularly good fielder, but can hold his own in the corners and play second in a pinch.

I like La Stella as a cheap option to back up several positions and earn semi-regular at-bats, but not as a direct LeMahieu replacement since he offers a shaky glove at second base. In that case, his playing time could come, mostly, at the expense of guys like Tyler Wade and Thairo Estrada. And, as we could see this season, injuries could open up some more plate appearances for him.