PHOENIX--Tommy La Stella may be the best "under the radar" player among the current bevy of Arizona Fall League prospects.
The Scottsdale Scorpions second baseman is batting .364/.523/.636 at the midpoint of the season, ranking second in the league in both on-base average and OPS. Moreover, La Stella has yet to strike out in over 40 plate appearances while drawing 11 walks. His AFL performance comes after a strong year in which he batted a combined .346/.444/.492, mostly at the Double-A level in a season interrupted twice by nagging injuries.
It's not surprising that the lefthanded hitting La Stella, 24, isn't yet a household name. The New Jersey native went undrafted after high school and played sparingly at St. John's as a freshman before transferring to Coastal Carolina for two solid seasons. The Braves then drafted La Stella in the eighth round of the 2011 draft, assigning him to low Class A Rome to start his pro career.
La Stella is attracting attention in the AFL for his gritty play, gamer attitude and excellent approach at the plate. While scouts see his overall tool set as being somewhat limited, he's regarded as having a "high floor" with the chance to be a regular second baseman in the big leagues.
That chance could come as soon as 2014 after his AFL turn, as the Braves search for answers at second after a rough season by Dan Uggla, who posted a .671 OPS in 2013 but is signed through 2015.
"He might be that guy that gets to the major leagues," said one veteran scout covering the AFL, "and everyone says, 'Where did that guy come from?'"
Scorpions hitting coach John Moses, who had La Stella for the early part of the 2013 season with the Braves' high Class A Lynchburg affiliate, feels strongly that the 5-foot-11, 185-pound infielder can be a starter in the big leagues.
"He's not a utility guy for me," Moses said. "He's going to be a second baseman--a starter," he said. Moses went on to add that La Stella could slot into the number two spot in a batting order or, with his knack for getting on base, even bat in the leadoff position.
La Stella stands out for his approach at the plate, drawing more walks than strikeouts in his three-year minor league career. But he doesn't let the extraordinary plate discipline keep him from going after good pitches. It's a lesson he learned at an early age.
"When I was growing up my father was big on two strikes--shorten up, put the ball in play," La Stella said. "That was something that was ingrained in me since the time I was a little kid . . . I'm not necessarily going to take away an aggressive swing if I get a pitch to hit, but at the same time I'm a little more focused. If it's close to the zone I get the bat on it."
Moses agrees that that La Stella's solid approach is something that comes natural to him.
"It's an ability. It takes guys really a long period of time to be able to acquire that, but he just has it," Moses said. "It's built-in. He's very confident at the plate, he's confident with two strikes, he puts the ball in play, and he just does pretty much everything you could ask of a guy."
That self-confidence is what La Stella acknowledges as the most important lesson he's learned from the Braves organization.
"It's huge for any ballplayer to be confident at the plate and in the field," La Stella said, "and the Braves have always been big on that with me, instilling confidence in me so that I can go out and do the job. Believing in myself is the most important thing."
La Stella has also continuously made adjustments as he's progressed through the farm system, seeing better quality pitching at each level.
"One of the biggest things for me was refining my approach," La Stella said, "and coming up with something I'm confident in. Going into every game I can go back to when things weren't going well, and I can always revert back to my approach, something I really honed in on.
"It's still a work in progress. You never really stop learning in this game."
But enough about La Stella's offense. He's been sent to Arizona to also work on his defense, the area of his game needing the most improvement, with scouts grading him as a below-average or fringy defender at the keystone. In addition, he's still building strength in his elbow after some early season inflammation.
While it's obvious that hitting is La Stella's passion, he knows what's needed to improve his glovework.
"My double play turns could be a little crisper," La Stella said. "The ground balls, the range--everything. The arm strength on the double play turns--everything could be a little bit sharper and a little more crisp. It's just something I need to work on while I'm out here and then again obviously in the offseason."
• The annual Fall Stars Game (previously called the Rising Stars Game) will be held this Saturday, Nov. 2, at 5:10 p.m. Mountain Time, and will be broadcast live on MLB Network. Rosters will be announced this week.
• Byron Buxton (Twins) homered on Thursday in his first at-bat after a nine-day absence from the Glendale lineup. The 2013 Minor League Player of the Year was out of action with a strained shoulder.
• Salt River Rafters outfielder Stephen Piscotty (Cardinals) and Glendale Desert Dogs righthander Stephen McCray (White Sox) were named the Player and Pitcher of the Week, respectively, for the season's second week.