Hot Stove season is here, and NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at free agents who could fit the Cubs’ needs — and budget. Next up is A’s infielder Tommy La Stella.
When looking up and down the Cubs lineup, you’ll find a group with good offensive traits, one with patient approaches and a willingness to take a walk, in addition to a ton of power.
One thing the Cubs offense needs more of is contact, and they could find it in free agency via a familiar face in A’s free agent infielder Tommy La Stella — who is on their radar, according to WSCR's Bruce Levine.
In 2020, the Cubs made contact at a 72.8 percent clip, 26th in baseball. (For context, the Astros finished first at 79.9 percent.) Rookie infielder Nico Hoerner led the team with an 82.9 percent rate, with Anthony Rizzo (82.5) a close second.
An offense’s success doesn’t hinge completely on contact. Hoerner, for example, hit .222 with a .312 on-base percentage in 2020, and Rizzo hit .222 with a .342 OBP (both his career lows as a Cub). When the Cubs made contact, it was via ground balls nearly half the time (46.1 percent ground ball rate. fourth-highest in MLB).
So while the Cubs offense struggled in 2020, admittedly an atypical season, it can’t be solely attributed to their contact rate. Their strength is their slugging ability, and they didn’t do that enough (17th in home runs, 24th in slugging percentage).
However, putting the ball in play is immensely important, especially come October. Hitting the ball over the fence with men on base is great but moving a runner over or driving them in with a ground ball or single also does the trick.
“Contact’s an important part of the foundation and I think you attack that by trying to bring in guys from outside who have a strong foundation of contact and can bring that to the table, and also continuing to make adjustments,” former team president Theo Epstein said in October.
Former Cubs manager Joe Maddon famously said La Stella is someone who could wake up at 3 a.m and hit anyone. He holds a career 86.7 contact rate with an excellent 10.6 strikeout rate and expanded his game after the Cubs traded him to the Angels two years ago.
La Stella made his first All-Star team with the Angels in 2019, hitting .295/.346/.486 with a career-high 16 home runs that season — only playing 80 games after fracturing his right tibia. He picked up where he left off, hitting .281/.370/.449 in 2020 with the Angels and A’s.
La Stella may not be the power hitter he was in 2019, but he excels at making contact and controlling the strike zone. He isn’t a plus defender but can play second and third base, versatility that fits the Cubs’ mold.
Of those currently on the roster, the Cubs have Hoerner, Bryant, David Bote and Ildemaro Vargas capable of playing those positions. Hoerner was a 2020 Gold Glove Award finalist at second, and Bryant obviously is a former MVP and three-time All-Star — though he’s entering his final year of club control and could be a trade candidate.
It’s difficult right now to project how the Cubs lineup will look come spring training. La Stella offers a desired skill set and likely can be signed for a reasonable deal. Both of those factors are important as the Cubs retool this winter with an eye on competing in 2021 — under difficult financial circumstances.
Will the clock strike 3 a.m. on the North Side again?