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Tommy La Stella is the free agent the A’s should bring back

He’s still exactly what Oakland needs, at the right price

Division Series - Houston Astros v Oakland Athletics - Game One Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s have 10 free agents coming off their roster this winter. That means lots of new holes to plug throughout the lineup and pitching staff, without a clear idea of how much money — or how little — they might have to do it.

Until further notice, any offseason projection I do on Athletics Nation will come with the assumption that Marcus Semien and Liam Hendriks are probably signing elsewhere. Sure, we can all dream up a scenario in which one or both find their way back to Oakland on some kind of market-suppressed contract. But ... c’mon.

We know how this story goes, A’s fans, because we’ve been watching it for decades. The prime star free agent never re-signs here. It just doesn’t happen, pretty much ever, so let’s move on from that concept and start thinking about how to construct the 2021 A’s without them. If this winter’s weird market means Semien or Hendriks comes back after all, then we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

Bumping those two heavyweights off the list leaves eight free agents set to depart Oakland. It’s possible the team could let them all go and start over with the latest round of under-the-radar value plays, and/or some of their many promising Triple-A prospects. But if they do try to re-sign anyone, the top of my list is second baseman Tommy La Stella.

My love of La Stella is not news. I was over the moon when he was acquired in August, and I called him exactly the player the A’s needed at the time. I think he still is.

The case is simple, as it was during the summer. The A’s biggest weakness on offense is their inability to make consistent contact and string together rallies, forcing them to rely on homers and hope that they aren’t all solo. They need someone who can get on base, and who can make contact against top pitching in big moments. La Stella is good at the former, and one of the very best in the business at the latter. And he plays a position that is wide open in the organization.

La Stella isn’t perfect. His defense is only decent at best, and there are other superior options on the open market if the goal is to maximize that side of the ball (especially Fielding Bible winner Kolten Wong). He’s not fast either, so once on base he’s not going to cause trouble out there. But you can’t steal first, and he knows how to get there ahead of Oakland’s sluggers.

Those weaknesses are also part of the case for La Stella. As usual, the A’s can’t afford perfect players, so the question is which flaws you’re willing to live with and which strengths you absolutely need. If they focus on defense at shortstop, in between the golden gloved Matts on the corners, then they can prioritize a bat at second base. Meanwhile, La Stella’s limited skill set, combined with his post-30 age (32 next season) and his limited track record of breakout success, should keep his price tag within range. MLB Trade Rumors pegs him at 2yr/$14m, and in fact they predict him landing back in Oakland at those terms.

We should not be expecting the A’s to have a splashy or expensive winter. Even with all the free agents coming off the books, they still have a lot of arbitration raises to cover, and a couple big contracts to struggling star hitters weighing down the payroll. It would be unwise to predict any major signings, and if there are trades then they’re more likely to be of the cost-cutting variety to afford some other move.

But if there’s one free agent to bring back, at a price they can afford, to provide maximum value and fit amid their remaining roster, then it’s La Stella. They can go cheap on a veteran shortstop until their next prospects are ready in 2022. They have plenty of outfielders. They already have most of a good starting rotation, with a potential young ace who just put his rookie season behind him and seems to get better every day. They’re great at finding cheap breakout relievers. But they need La Stella’s uniquely professional bat, especially in October, and it’s worth what little money they have to keep it.