After Dan Uggla‘s
recent continued struggles at the plate, many fans have taken to the FaceTweeterBlog-osphere calling for him to replaced in the lineup–by anyone. In and of itself, this probably does not seem like a bad idea. Since his arrival in Atlanta in 2011, Uggla has a batting average of .211. Combine that with an average of 20 HR and 56 RBI per season since he’s been here, and Uggla looks more like Rob Deer every day. The fans have grabbed their pitchforks and are calling for Uggla’s head, demanding he be replaced by this nebulous ‘anyone’. But is that really feasible?
The problem is two-fold. First, Uggla has actually been right at an average to slightly above average offensive producer since he has been here, when you factor in the position he plays. Since 2011, Dan Uggla has a .714 OPS in Atlanta, slashing .211 / .318 / .396. He also has a wRC+ of 99. Uggla has been a strikeout machine, though, with a K Rate of 27.0%. By comparison, the average second baseman in the NL over that same time frame has has a .623 OPS (.255 / .315 / .308), with a wRC+ of 90 and a K Rate of 17.6%. Among all second basemen who have accumulated at least 7f0 plate appearances since 2011, Dan Uggla ranks 8th among 23 NL second basemen with a WAR of 5.7. While Dan Uggla has been less than expected–maybe even bad–he hasn’t been awful, considering the alternatives.
And what are those alternatives? That’s the second part of the “play anyone but Uggla dilemma”. The Braves have Ramiro Pena and Tyler Pastornicky on the bench. Both Pena and Pastornicky are career backups, and a look at their numbers may indicate why. Pena can play 2B/SS/3B equally well, and is capable of playing 1B or a corner OF spot if pressed. In many ways, he’s very similar to Martin Prado and Omar Infante, two super-utility types whom the Braves previously had and seem to covet. Pena has trouble with LHP, with a career OPS of .359 (.144 / .184 / .175) against lefties, versus a .681 OPS (.267 / .306 / .375) against righties. In games he has started, Pena has an OPS of .588 (.227 / . 267 / .321), versus an OPS of .718 (.298 / .337 / .381) as a sub. Pena is a good bunter, a smart base-runner, and has good baseball ‘awareness’. His ability to play multiple positions effectively and lay down a good bunt make him a valuable bench piece late in the game. Fredi Gonzalez has hinted that Pena is more valuable to him as a bench player than he is as a starter because of all the options and flexibility a player with Pena’s skills provides him when making moves.
Tyler Pastornicky doesn’t have such disparate platoon splits (.625 OPS v RHP, .607 OPS v LHP), but his defense is far from ideal. Pastornicky can play 2B/SS, and he has played some CF for experience, but he is a poor defender at each. He does have good speed, and he can get a bunt down. Pastornicky ideally would be used as a PR/Sac Bunt specialist, with the odd start against LHP. He has played regularly before and proved incapable of getting the job done, and it was ultimately his inability to perform as an every day MLB shortstop that opened the door for Andrelton Simmons.
Another option, and the one many fans are waiting on, is the call up of prospect Tommy La Stella from Gwinnett. La Stella has been successful with the bat at just about every level of pro baseball. He had a good spring in the Atlanta camp, although he tailed off at the end (notably, when more teams are playing their likely MLB talent more often). La Stella is hitting .297 / .379 / .322 at Gwinnett. However, facing the better AAA pitchers has sapped his power, as he only has 3 extra-base hits in 140 PAs. Normally, La Stella is gap doubles hitter who sprays the ball all over the field. He has a good eye and will draw walks without striking out too much. There has been a lot of question about La Stella’s defense, with various reviews calling it anywhere from terrible to simply below average.
When compared to his peers using a real metric (i.e. not batting average), he has actually been a serviceable, middle of the pack second baseman. The issue with that, however, is that the Braves didn’t obtain him, and then give him a hefty extension, to be a middle of the pack producer. Uggla’s superior power and run production were the impetus behind the trade and subsequent extension and raise. But the alternatives–the as yet unnamed ‘anyone’–aren’t viable options for a team expecting to contend for a World Series. A team doesn’t improve by getting rid of a bad option and giving more playing time to a worse option. There is a small chance Uggla could regain some form of what he was, but even if he doesn’t, he has still been a better option with the bat than the available alternatives.
That, however, was the Uggla of 2011-2013. The 2014 version is not walking or hitting for power when he does hit, and he is still striking out at incredible rates. The Braves will likely move to replace Uggla on the field with some form of a three-way platoon involving Pena, Pastornicky, and Uggla. This will allow all three players to get semi-regular playing time, and it will allow Fredi Gonzalez to make gameday match-up decisions. Eventually, someone will be moved from the roster to make room for La Stella, and I expect La Stella to be the Braves’ starting second baseman for most of the second half of the season. Will he hit? Can he play defense? That is yet to be determined, but there is no reason for the Braves to hold off in finding out.
One could argue that Uggla should be replaced in the lineup. But saying ‘anyone’ would be better hasn’t been shown to be the case.