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Why Zaidi, Giants believe best is yet to come from La Stella


Farhan Zaidi has already found his new Max Muncy, having fleeced the Baltimore Orioles for Mike Yastrzemski in his first spring with the Giants.

So as he discussed his latest free agent addition, the only one to get a three-year contract since Zaidi took over, the Giants president of baseball operations brought up another player emblematic of the success the Dodgers have had over the last half-decade. 

Tommy La Stella will not be Justin Turner, but in their new infielder, the Giants see some of the traits that allowed Turner to go from being a reserve infielder to an MVP candidate. In particular, Zaidi noted that the plate discipline both possess is something that allows for great leaps at the plate later in careers. 

"In my experience, guys who have taken a big step forward offensively, that's a great foundation to build on," Zaidi said last week. "Looking at Justin Turner's career path, there are a lot of parallels there. J.T. went to a swing coach, made an adjustment and kind of opened up his power game and took his game to another level. With Tommy it seems like a more subtle adjustment, but it's equally impactful in terms of bringing more power into his game.

"I think Max Muncy is another example of that, a guy who always had raw power and really good plate discipline and was able to make adjustments to reach into more power."

La Stella had just 10 homers in his first five big league seasons before breaking through in 2019. He hit 16 in 80 games for the Angels and made the All-Star team before fracturing his tibia when he fouled a ball off his right shin. La Stella had just five homers in the shortened 2020 season but did slug .449 and put up a career-high 127 OPS+. Zaidi expects more of the same in 2021, and said La Stella should easily set a career-high in plate appearances. 

"That could just take his numbers to a different level," he said. "When you project out what he did in 2019 and 2020 over a full season, it's really elite level production."

La Stella is 32 already, but the Giants were comfortable giving him a three-year deal in part because these late-career breakouts have become more common. Turner never recorded 500 plate appearances in a season until he was 31, but once given a chance to play every day, he quickly became a cornerstone for the Dodgers. 

Turner has strictly been a third baseman since breaking through, but the Giants plan to use La Stella all over the infield, with second and third looming as his primary spots but first base also a good option, particularly if Brandon Belt's heel issue lingers. Zaidi has always been drawn to versatile players, and he thinks that trait might be another reason why La Stella hasn't put up huge numbers over a full season yet. 

"He had a bit of the misfortune of playing for a very loaded Chicago Cubs team, where maybe on other teams he would have gotten the chance to be an everyday player," Zaidi said. "He's also, I think, in some ways a victim of his own versatility. He's such a great pinch-hitter and such a valuable player to have off the bench. I know Joe Maddon made comments about how much they value him in that role. I think all of those things sort of combined to create the career path that you see."

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La Stella won a title by playing that role, but he sounds like he's ready to shake off the previous label. He said pinch-hitting helped him simplify his approach because he was often facing the best relievers an opposing team had to offer. He now should get his first big league opportunity to try and carry that production over 500-plus plate appearances. 

"I like to think I'm still improving as a player just because I hadn't gotten those everyday reps," he said. "Getting to go out there and get four or five at-bats a night allows me to approach it a little bit different."

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