Truth be told, Tommy La Stella probably should have made the Atlanta Braves’ opening day roster out of Spring Training.
It had to be clear to the organization at the end of last season that Dan Uggla was done as an every day second baseman. He had the worst year of his career in 2013, and Atlanta responded by not including Uggla on its 25-man playoff roster — a decision that couldn’t have been easy for general manager Frank Wren. After all, how do you explain to your bosses that you must keep your second highest-paid player off the playoff roster, .179 batting average not withstanding?
It was going to take a miracle for Uggla, 34, to find his swing this offseason and the Braves’ brass knew it. They also knew Tyler Pastornicky and Ramiro Pena weren’t the answer. The trio proved it by hitting a collective .165 before Wednesday when La Stella made his debut in Boston. Uggla, Pastornicky and Pena combined to post a majors-worst .250 slugging percentage and just a .253 on-base percentage with 51 strikeouts in 176 at bats through 51 games.
So, why? Why spend almost one-third of the season giving Uggla a shot at redemption before trying to catch more luck with Pastornicky and Pena? It’s the same reason why B.J. Upton plays every day now. Money.
The Braves are not a franchise that can afford to eat $26 million in salary, which is what they would have done if they had released Uggla prior to the start of the season. It’s the same reason why they haven’t released him even after the La Stella call-up. How would you feel about eating $26 million, even if you were a multi-million dollar company?
At the same time, Atlanta didn’t want to bring La Stella up any earlier than necessary to prevent his arbitration clock from starting earlier. That’s why Pastornicky and Pena had a few weeks to see what they could do.
Atlanta entered the weekend tied with San Diego for the fewest runs scored in the majors at 175 through 52 games, an average of 3.3 runs per contest. Its 450 strikeouts are the fourth most in baseball with the Upton brothers leading the majors (63 Ks for B.J. in 183 at bats, 62 Ks for Justin in 185 at bats). The team is 26th in the majors in batting average (.237) and 27th in on base percentage (.300). The Braves have been shut out five times and held to two runs or less 20 times in 52 games.
La Stella will be an improvement in the lineup, but he will not be a game-changer for a lineup in desperate need of one. The lineup has too many holes, too many players who have proven to be inconsistent and too many free swingers.
Will Atlanta swing a big trade for an offensive piece in the next eight weeks? Unlikely. The days of swapping four or more prospects in a Mark Teixeira-type trade are over for the Braves. Besides, who would Atlanta sit? It’s committed through 2015 and longer in some cases to the Uptons, Chris Johnson, Andrelton Simmons, Freddie Freeman, Evan Gattis and Jason Heyward.
This is your Atlanta Braves, for better or worse. It’s going to be this ugly all the way through September. Atlanta has to hope its pitching will hold up and that the offense can have spurts of success.
The good news is that the National League East might be the weakest division in all of baseball this year. In fact, despite all of its flaws, Atlanta entered the weekend 28-25 and in first place in the division. Pitching injuries are likely to catch up with Miami. Who knows what is wrong with Washington, a team with tons of talent but no apparent desire to win. Philadelphia is too old and New York has too many flaws offensively and on its pitching staff.
So, sure, the Braves are going to be in the division race all the way to the end. Just don’t expect the offense to lead the way — with or without Uggla or La Stella.