Heading into 2014 Spring Training, the biggest question mark for the Atlanta Braves is who will emerge as the starting second baseman. The embattled Dan Uggla will enter the spring with every opportunity to reclaim the starting role he lost at the end of 2013, but veteran Ramiro Pena and rookie Tommy La Stella are waiting in the wings if Uggla falters.
Uggla enters his fourth season in an Atlanta uniform as a player facing harsh scrutiny with what is likely his last chance to show the Braves that he belongs as an everyday player. Uggla’s Atlanta tenure has been marked by a steady decline culminating in the second half of 2013 when Uggla posted a ghastly .133/.298/.231 line that resulted in Uggla being benched and left off the postseason roster. Uggla is entering the fourth year of his five year contract with the Braves and will turn 34 in March. His OPS has steadily declined each year in a Braves uniform dropping from .764 to .732 to the disastrous .671 that got him benched last year.
Uggla is a player whose primary value has always been his offense as he is widely viewed as one of the worst defensive second basemen in baseball and a merely adequate baserunner. If Uggla isn’t getting on base and not hitting for power, then he is not helping the team. Uggla is also entering the latter portion of his contract where giving up on Uggla becomes more financially palatable if he does not show any signs of delaying his decline by at least one more year. The Braves will give Uggla every chance to show he can still be an everyday major league second baseman, but unlike BJ Upton the leash will be short if it is clear Uggla just doesn’t have it anymore.
The primary competition for Uggla’s backup and possible replacement will be between Ramiro Pena and Tommy La Stella. As a steady veteran, Pena has the inside position for making the roster out of Spring Training and La Stella will likely begin 2014 in the minors barring an utter Uggla collapse or a monstrous La Stella surge. Pena is a known commodity who provides good value without much in the way of upside. Pena is a strong defensive player who can play any infield position at a high level but is unlikely to give the team much in the way of offensive production. Pena was a very pleasant surprise in 2013 posting a .278/.330/.443 line and delivering several clutch hits including a memorable extra innings game winning homer against the Nationals.
Since 2013 was Pena’s first year with the Braves and his season was ended prematurely by injury, some Braves fans may have the mistaken impression Pena provides real offense off the bench in addition to his strong glove work. The numbers are misleading though as they were the product of a very small sample size and the injury Pena suffered prevented the normal correction that would have occurred over the course of a full season. For his career Pena has been significantly below average as an offensive player and let there be no mistake he is the classic all defense, light hitting utility infielder. Such players are very useful if used appropriately but the Braves do not want Pena playing every day. There is the possibility that if Uggla’s offense collapses completely that Pena’s defense would make him the better option but the Braves would be in pretty major trouble if it comes to that.
If Uggla shows that he is done as a productive major league player, the Braves are most likely to turn to rookie Tommy La Stella to fill the void. La Stella is an intriguing Braves prospect who has been productive on the field in the minors without really flashing the kind of physical tools that make scouts drool over a player’s potential. La Stella was an 8th round pick for the Braves who has been described as adequate defensively at second base. La Stella has never shown much in the way of power in the minors, doesn’t have standout speed, and isn’t considered a gold glove candidate at second base.
What La Stella does have is a legitimate “hit” tool and a strong plate approach that has seen him consistently get on base at a stellar rate in the minors. La Stella has been a player who walks at a high rate and doesn’t strikeout very often which has led to career .412 on-base percentage in the minors. Scouting a minor league stat line is always dicey but prospect watchers like Keith Law have called La Stella a likely major league player without the physical tools that suggest a high ceiling. Law placed La Stella right at the end of his top 100 prospects which suggests a player who should make a major league impact but is unlikely to be a star. If La Stella’s hit tool plays at the major league level and he is able to walk at a high rate despite a lack of power he will be a very valuable major league second baseman.
La Stella will need to light the world on fire in Spring Training to win the job for opening day though. The most likely scenario is Uggla begins the season as the starter with Pena as his backup and La Stella playing in Gwinnett. How long Fredi Gonzalez gives Uggla before yanking him for good if Uggla struggles is uncertain but there is a very good possibility La Stella will get his chance at some point in 2014 and certainly 2015 at the latest. There is no question though that second base is the most unsettled position on the roster and that it is the position battle to watch in the spring.