Four years ago when I first heard the Braves had signed Dan Uggla to a five-year, $61 million dollar contract, I was very excited, to say the least. At the time, the Braves were not sold on Martin Prado, who regularly had to fill in for the often injured Chipper Jones at third base, and desperately needed a power bat from the right side of the plate.
Fast forward four years later, and Uggla can hardly get on the field, being replaced by two mediocre utility players in Ramiro Pena and Tyler Pastornicky. This season Uggla has played in 33 of the Braves’ 49 games so far in 2014. Currently Dan isn’t hitting his weight, batting a “blistering” .177 with 2 homers, and 10 RBI. He has an OBP (On Base Percentage) of .248, which is usually the type of numbers you would see from a starting pitcher, example Mike Minor is hitting .167, only 10 percentage points behind the former All-Star.
So what exactly happened to Uggla since he left Miami (then they were the Florida Marlins)? Could it be the contract he signed, feeling the pressure to perform? Or, could he just be in one of the biggest funks in the history of baseball. Rick Ankiel comes to mind. He was once a “can’t miss” pitching prospect for the Cardinals, and even had some success in the majors. All of a sudden, he can’t throw a strike and is hitting two or three batters an inning. Fortunately, Ankiel was a good enough athlete to re-tune his game in the minor leagues, and make a come back and have a respectable career as a serviceable outfielder with a little bit of power.
With that said, look at what Uggla did while with the Marlins, and it’s hard to blame the Braves for jumping all over him. He is the all-time leader in homers for the Marlins franchise. He was picked up in the Rule 5 draft from Arizona, which means the Diamondbacks saw something which brought up some type of concern. After being left off the 40-man roster, the Marlins took a chance on Uggla, and for five years they looked like geniuses. In his five years with the Marlins, Uggla was a perennial All-Star, tallying 154 homers in five years, including his best overall season in 2010 when he hit .287, 33 HR, and 105 RBI, but even then he struck out 149 times that season.
Now, it looks like the Braves are now getting the guy which the Diamondbacks left off their 40-man roster back in 2005. Since he has joined the Braves, Uggla has struck out 530 times, averaging one strikeout in every three at bats. In 2013 Uggla struck out 171 times, which was a whiff in every 2.6 at bats, hardly worth the $13 million dollars he made that season. Uggla is owed $13 million this season, and another $13 million in 2015 before he becomes a free agent.
An ideal situation would be for the Braves to find a team willing to take a chance on the “pull happy” second baseman, even if the Braves have to pay a huge chunk of his contract, but Uggla hasn’t shown any signs of coming out of this four-year funk, so finding a desperate team to take him is probably not in the cards. While Uggla has had a few silver linings in the clouds, a 33-game hitting streak and blasting 36 homers in 2010 with the Braves, he has still been less than stellar with runners in scoring position, and his defense isn’t anything to write home about. In just 33 games this season, Uggla has already made seven errors in the field.
Chipper Jones, without a doubt the best Braves player of my generation, has offered his advice to Uggla about hitting the outside pitch to the opposite field, but his swing will not allow that to happen. It seems he is trying pull every pitch and deposit them in the left field seats. Sometimes he does, but many times it’s a weak roller to the left side of the field or even more often he makes no contact at all. Andruw Jones also had this problem, but his great glove in the outfield made it a little more acceptable, because Jones was able to contribute to the team because of his defense.
Trust me, I want Uggla to do well. I want to see him trotting out to second base for the Braves. He seems like a great guy in the clubhouse, and all the players seem to like him. He also has been reported to have a great work ethic, and always says the right things in the media. However, being a “good guy” doesn’t put victories in the win column and makes it hard to see the Braves forking out $26 million dollars still owed over the next two years.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not think that Pena or Pastornicky are the answer to the Braves second base struggles either. So who is? His name, Tommy La Stella. In 286 games in the minor leagues, La Stella has a career batting average of .322, while belting 20 homers, and driving in 165 runs.. Even better, LaStella is a contact hitter, only striking out once ever 10 at bats compared to Uggla’s one strikeout every two or three at bats.
La Stella was drafted in the eighth round of the 2011 draft out of Coastal Carolina University. La Stella was invited to spring training this year with the Braves, but Uggla actually had a decent spring, so La Stella was placed in AAA Gwinnett. Don’t be surprised if La Stella is called up before the All-Star Break, and if so, that could mean the end of Uggla’s tenure with the Braves. After all, Uggla is 34 years old with a career batting average of .244 with 1,290 strikeouts in 1,260 games. That’s more strikeouts than games played. OUCH!