Earlier this year, baseball fans got a glimpse of the human element of the game when Adam LaRoche of the Chicago White Sox decided to retire when the team would not allow his teenage son to join him on the field every day. It was a story that captivated both baseball fans and those who don’t normally follow the sport, eliciting lots of passion from both sides.
Whether you think that the White Sox were being unreasonable or that LaRoche was acting like a spoiled millionaire celebrity, it was a strong reminder that these players we see every day are not superheroes, nor are they a set of statistics. They are human beings who have real feelings and emotions just like all of us. When executives, managers, and coaches make decisions, they can’t just make them strictly from a baseball perspective. They also need to think about how their decisions affect a player’s life.
We can use the recent saga of Tommy La Stella to illustrate this as well. As many Cubs fans already know, the team demoted La Stella to Triple-A Iowa recently in order to make room on the roster for Chris Coghlan, who was coming off the disabled list. La Stella is batting .295 with an .846 on-base plus slugging percentage; Coghlan is batting .200 with a .657 OPS, and he was even worse in Oakland before coming to the Cubs via trade. La Stella is also regarded as a better defender and is four years younger so, presumably, has more upside.
But there’s one factor that overrides all that: La Stella has minor league options and Coghlan does not. Thus, La Stella was the odd man out. By virtually any objective baseball measure, La Stella should have stayed on the team over Coghlan. But we don’t make decisions based purely on baseball standards. Business trumps everything, and Cubs management decided that the best business decision was to demote La Stella so both players could stay in the organization instead of designating Coghlan for assignment and risking another team picking him up.
Management didn’t take La Stella’s personal feelings into account, or if they did, they decided the business factors were more important. If the Cubs had two players with similar stats and credentials, and one had options and the other didn’t, we could be much more forgiving if the Cubs were to demote the player with options instead of DFA’ing the other player. (They had a much stronger case for doing this when they sent reliever Justin Grimm back to the minors recently.) But this move was clearly to keep one player in the organization, and as a result, they may lose the other one – the more valuable one at that.
So, this is what it all comes down to: Was keeping Coghlan in the organization, and giving the team “another option” off the bench, worth upsetting La Stella, to the point that he’s refusing to play at Iowa and has actually considered retiring? I don’t believe it was. The Cubs went through another dilemma like this last year, when they held Kris Bryant in the minors for two weeks in order to keep another year of control over him. Is that extra year (and money saved) worth upsetting Bryant to the point that he remembers this five years from now and decides to walk away as a free agent? Bryant seems like a good guy, and I have no idea whether he’s thinking this, but Cubs management had better hope that doesn’t happen.
All this being said, La Stella isn’t off the hook, either. Just as the Cubs need to take players’ human side into account before making decisions, players need to understand that this is a business and that some decisions will be made with that in mind. Whether La Stella agrees that keeping Coghlan is best for the team or not, he needs to respect his employer’s decision and should be willing to spend a few weeks in the minors if that’s what’s best for the team. (La Stella would presumably come back around September 1, when rosters can expand.) And who knows, maybe Coghlan will get back to his 2014-15 form, or the Cubs may suffer another outfield injury that will require them to have another backup outfield option.
Had he humbly accepted his demotion, La Stella could have earned some good graces with the organization, which may have helped his case in earning a spot on the postseason roster in October. Instead, he’s decided to put his own well-being first, which may cost him his future with the Cubs organization. He’s saying all the right things about how he wants to remain loyal to the Cubs, but even if that’s true it still has some selfish undertones. And the fact that he has yet to play a full season in the majors doesn’t exactly give him a lot of leverage. La Stella is an important player, but he’s not indispensable.
It’s hard to know whose side to take on this issue. There’s plenty of reason for both sides to be upset. Just as I’ve lamented so many times, it’s unfortunate that with a game we all enjoy so much such as baseball, business has to take precedence over everything. It would be nice to see this issue get resolved in a way that satisfies both sides, but it looks like that’s not going to happen.
Brian Johnston is the author of the book The Art of Being a Baseball Fan, his story of following the 2015 Chicago Cubs, available on Amazon. He lives in St. Joseph, Michigan with his wife and two children.