Tommy LaStella hits in a game for the Mississippi Braves last season. (Photo: Mississippi Braves)
The Atlanta Braves feel they may have their second baseman in waiting. First, though, Tommy LaStella has to prove that he can stay healthy.
The 25-year-old left-handed hitter has a .327 career minor league average, but he’s never played more than 90 games in a season.
“Keeping him on the field has really been one of the challenges,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said. “But when he plays, offensively, he’s done everything we could hope and more.”
LaStella batted .343 with a .422 on-base percentage in 81 games last year in the Class AA Southern League, setting a Mississippi Braves record with a 23-game hitting streak.
This year he moves up to Class AAA Gwinnett and Atlanta may not be too far in the future.
Even if veteran second baseman Dan Uggla bounces back, his contract runs out after next season. LaStella could be ready to take over by then, if not sooner.
“We’ve always liked his bat,” Wren said of the 2011 eighth-round pick out of Coastal Carolina University. “He got drafted because of his bat. He reported to Rome that year and hit, and he’s hit ever since.”
That included the Arizona Fall League, where LaStella continued to impress last year. He batted .290 with a .436 on-base percentage in 18 games and was named to the top prospect team.
That performance helped the New Jersey native move up to No. 6 on MLB.com’s list of top Braves prospects and No. 9 in the Baseball American rankings.
Then he more then held his own at the plate in Grapefruit League with the Braves this spring, showing that he could handle major league pitching.
LaStella was also able to stay injury free, something he hadn’t been able to do the last two seasons.
“It’s been frustrating,” he said. “You want to play, not sit.”
LaStella hit .328 with 27 extra-base hits in 63 games for Class A Rome after being drafted in 2011 and was looking forward to his first full minor league season the next year.
LaStella was limited to 85 games with Class A Advanced Lynchburg, though, by a pair of injuries. He was beaned early in the season and then sat out six weeks after he suffered a broken leg covering first base on a bunt.
LaStella hit .302 anyway and was hoping for better luck in 2013.
It didn’t happen.
LaStella missed spring traning and the first three weeks of the season because of a sore right elbow. Then after hitting .330 in his first 26 games with Mississippi, he strained a hamstring in early June, going back on the disabled list.
But LaStella was soon as hot at the plate as before, hitting .364 while putting together his streak from July 5 through Aug. 5.
LaStella reached base in 76 of 86 games and he had two at-bats or less in four of the games he didn’t reach.
LaStella had 37 walks to 34 strikeouts, continuing the pattern he has had since signing.
LaStella, though, isn’t just a slap hitter. He had 21 doubles, two triples and four homers, driving in 41 runs.
“I want to be aggressive, but make sure it is a pitch I can handle,” he said.
Although a little bigger, the scrappy La Stella has reminded some of former Atlanta second baseman Mark Lemke and that isn’t a bad thing.
The Braves had a lot of success with Lemke as their second baseman during the early part of their run of National League East Division titles in the 1990s.