DENVER – Should the Cubs have seen the Tommy La Stella AWOL drama coming?
Maybe that’s easy to say in hindsight. Because La Stella did something similar with the Braves as a rookie in 2014 just before he was traded to the Cubs, according to multiple sources.
The story from Atlanta is that a sudden health issue involving a girlfriend prompted La Stella to leave the ballpark during batting practice without permission or telling his manager or coaches, who only found out when they noticed he was gone around game time.
It predictably infuriated his manager and that, combined with other small quirks, made him eminently available the next time the Cubs asked for him in trade talks after that season.
His professional history also includes other incidents of unexplained tardiness and “where’s-Tommy” moments, according to sources.
Cubs officials would not comment on their backup infielder who has received more of the wrong kind of attention in the last month than any 25th man is entitled – certainly more than many teams would tolerate.
But during a season of extreme expectations, the unnecessary distraction for a team with few apparent blemishes – on or off the field – does underscore the broader challenge of knowing who you’re putting in your clubhouse as much as what you’re putting in your lineup when you add a player.
The Cubs coveted La Stella since scouting his exceptional hitting in the minors. And they knew from background work that he could at times march to his own drummer.
As manager Joe Maddon put it: “Tommy hears his own beat. And I love him for it. He’s a very interesting young man.”
Whether they would have made the trade if they’d known more specifics on the self-centered behavior and AWOL history isn’t certain. But challenges associated with that side of the scouting equation – with all its hits and inevitable misses – are not unique to the Cubs.
“With every trade, you try to dig as much as possible on a player’s background,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We’re trying to create a great clubhouse, and within that it’s really important to find out a player’s makeup.”
For instance, the Nationals learned the hard way last year they were getting a poor fit for their clubhouse when they traded for All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon (who subsequently choked their superstar slugger, Bryce Harper, on TV).
The Cubs’ previous regime swung and missed badly on free agent Milton Bradley, who didn’t last even a full season of his three-year deal after poor performance and repeated distractions helped derail a team with playoff hopes.
And even during the early stages of this regime’s rebuilding process, it missed on the personal evaluation and attitude history when it traded with the Rockies for toolsy, first-round power hitter Ian Stewart.
Stewart – whose attitude at times was so relaxed that a Rockies coach once asked him if he even cared about baseball – failed in two tries with the Cubs, eventually negotiating a contract buyout after a series of late-night, anti-Cub tweets while in the minors.
“I think that’s the tricky part of being [in the] front office or a scout: You probably don’t know what guys are made of until you see them on a day-to-day basis,” said DJ LeMahieu, the prospect thrown into the Stewart trade — who went on to become an All-Star, a Gold Glove second baseman, and who entered Saturday hitting .343, second in the National League by a point.
“There’s a lot of guys that grow up real quick, and there’s a lot of guys that as long as they’re producing people can put up with that stuff,” said LeMahieu, who turned out to be the other side of that human-being part the scouting coin.
“At that point in my career, I don’t think people really knew what to think of me,” said the lanky, 6-foot-4 infielder. “I was tall, I was playing the middle infield, I didn’t hit for a lot of power. I think at that point it was very hard to get a read on me.
“But I think I have a drive to get better, to get better every year, and I expect a lot out of myself. It’s kind of hard to see that as someone on another team or someone in another organization.”