Where Do La Stella and Cubs Go From Here?
This isn’t my first Tommy La Stella article and I doubt it’ll be my last. After all, very few at-bats last only one pitch and most guys — unless, like La Stella, they’re used frequently as pinch hitters — get more than one AB in a game. To that end, I wanted to quickly tie up my thoughts on the situation before moving on to what options the Cubs have moving forward.
When I first wrote about La Stella, I suspected that he had left the team in anger and called his actions “douchey.” However, after reading the thought process behind his decision to head home rather than report to Iowa, I gained a greater measure of sympathy for him. While I am not condoning the dereliction of ones duties or me-first prima donna (or pre-Madonna, as in young Jose Canseco or late-career Dennis Rodman) histrionics in general, I do understand how anxiety and depression — and I must stress that I don’t know whether La Stella struggles with either — can lead people to make decisions that others will question.
I have witnessed firsthand the seemingly irrational behavior of people who are gripped by fear and it can be both heartbreaking and frustrating. Neither my wife nor my daughter deal well with bad weather and there’s really nothing I can do make them comfortable with thunderstorms and tornado warnings. Though there are other sources of anxiety, many of which are much more significant, that’s perhaps the most frequent. I don’t share — and at times have flat-out questioned the veracity of — their fears, but I’ve tried over the years to better understand them.
What I’m trying to say here is that thinking Tommy La Stella is making a very poor decision in terms of his baseball career and sympathizing with or understanding the complexity of the rationale behind his choice are not mutually exclusive. You can believe it’s incredibly obtuse to essentially walk out on your team and think anxiety is a mother. The guy can be both a me-first quitter and someone who’s chosen his psychological well-being over his livelihood.
But whether you believe La Stella and others are unfairly beholden to a collective bargaining agreement put in place by a union they were not a part of or that guys making half a million dollars need to suck it up and play, the Cubs now find themselves in a precarious situation.
They want to be sensitive their player, as Joe Maddon said when he called this “a matter of what’s right and what’s good for Tommy right now.” On the other hand, they’ve got to move on with the business of baseball, which could include seeking out another left-handed bat for the stretch run and maybe the playoffs. First, they need to determine whether this retirement talk is a flight of bombast or a legitimate threat.
With that in mind, I wanted to explore the various paths open to the Cubs when it comes to dealing with their truant player.
The Prodigal Son
After making an early call on his half of his inheritance from his father, a young man leaves his home on the farm and engages in all manner of debauchery, blowing through his cash and ending up broke in the gutter. He returns home in shame and is welcomed back by his elated father, who kills the fatted calf and throws a huge party. Pretty much a win-win for the son, right?[beautifulquote align=”left”]One thing that often can’t be glossed over is a loss of trust.[/beautifulquote]
Well, maybe not so much. You see, older brother was there the whole time working the farm and taking good care of his own birthright. Jason Heyward might be willing to welcome “Everybody that walks through those doors,” and Matt Szczur said “We support him in whatever he wants to do,” but I’m not so sure all of La Stella’s other teammates feel the same way.
You think John Lackey and those in the “game is getting really soft” crowd would be okay with an unconditional return?
As a general rule, the collective of the professional locker room is going to be willing to overlook more than a few warts on a player if it means he can help the team win. And the individual players will generally be supportive in public, or at least won’t openly speak out against a move. One thing that often can’t be glossed over, though, is a loss of trust. It doesn’t sound like La Stella’s breached that sacred bond, but there are some opinions we’ll never be privy to.
In the end, it’s Joe Maddon and team management who are sharing the role of Prodigal Dad, and they’ve made it clear that they’re unwilling to welcome their son back without some contrition in the form of a minor-league assignment (more on that below). So I’d say this option is pretty much out the window.
There’s been a lot of online chatter about this path, which I think the Cubs were more than willing to pursue prior to Tuesday’s revelations. In fact, I think that’s at least part of the reason they had remained largely silent on the whole matter until now. You know, to avoid poisoning the waters of a possible move. Whether La Stella is a malcontent or whether he’s simply so comfortable with the Cubs that playing elsewhere really would push him to retire, his value to another team is nil at this point. So we can scratch this off the list.
From where things stand right now, this is looking more and more like the most likely possibility. If La Stella is serious and he’s ready to stick to his convictions about not playing for anyone but the major-league version of the Cubs, it’s probably going to be a bridge too far. It’s cool that he’s working out with trainers and whatnot, but there’s no way to simulate playing baseball outside of, you know, playing baseball.
Even if they want him back and feel they need his not-insignificant services as a solid lefty bench bat, the Cubs can’t afford to allow insubordination to go unchecked. Justin Grimm was pitching in Iowa a couple days after his assignment. Albert Almora reported right after he got married. That speaks to who those players are and I can’t imagine them leveraging such a situation, but letting La Stella skip out on his demotion would be a setting a dangerous precedent.
In holing up out East, La Stella has drawn a line in the sand. If he’s unwilling to erase it and take the first step back, the Cubs have no choice but to cut ties with him. Or he could retire, I guess.
Kiss and make up
Unlike the first scenario, this one is not free from conditions. La Stella can’t just shuffle back to Chicago with his tail between his legs and be reinstated for the stretch run and playoffs. On more than one occasion, my son has stomped to his room and pouted because he’s unhappy about my unfair requirement that he clean it. Once he’s cooled off, he’ll usually come down with a note of apology featuring a drawing of a sad face (often with tears).
Penitent though he may be, however, he still has to clean his room. I wish I could tell you that that explanation always goes well. From the sounds of it, La Stella and the Cubs have maintained a dialogue this whole time and I’m sure each side understands the other’s position. Given the Cubs’ unwillingness and inability to allow La Stella back right away (sorry, kid, the picture’s not cute enough to get you off the hook), that means getting some at-bats at AAA. There’s your impasse.[beautifulquote align=”left”]Even a softening of La Stella’s stance probably wouldn’t result in him reporting for duty for at least another 10 days.[/beautifulquote]
So what’s the timeframe we’re dealing with here? In order to be eligible for the playoff roster, La Stella would need to be active and on the 40-man by midnight on 8/31. The rules governing playoff eligibility are really pretty broad, so there’s not much danger of him missing the boat as long as he’s willing to accept the assignment and get some at-bats prior to the roster expansion on 9/1.
All things being equal, even a softening of La Stella’s stance probably wouldn’t result in him reporting for duty for at least another 10 days. The I-Cubs finish a homestand on Wednesday afternoon and then will have an off day before heading to Fresno and Sacramento for a pair of four-game sets. They kick off an eight-game stretch back in Des Moines on 8/20 and then finish the month in Nashville.
Is it realistic to think we’d see the Cubs allowing another week and a half of leave or that La Stella would be cool with playing 11 AAA games (I know, the horror)? Barring a change of heart or an injury that opens up a roster spot prior to September, this option is not really on the table. Or, rather, it’s on the table but is being pushed around like that last spoonful of peas you just don’t want to eat. I’d put this ahead of the Prodigal Son and trade scenarios, though I think it’s behind being cut/retiring.
The only thing that’s certain here is that this is a very fluid and complicated situation, both from a personal and a baseball standpoint. For the sake of the Cubs and La Stella, I hope it’s resolved soon one way or the other.
So what do you think, dear reader? Which of these options is most likely, or is there a scenario I missed completely? Would you welcome back a teammate, co-worker, or family member who acted as La Stella has?[poll id=”4″]