Chase Headley was not born to play the outfield in the Major Leagues. Before the 2008 season, Kevin Goldstein ranked him atop the Padres farm system as a Five-Star Prospect. However, if there was a reservation, it was this: “Headley is not much of an athlete. He’s a below-average runner, and while he makes the plays he gets to, his range falls a bit short.” This, as you can imagine, did not translate well to the spacious left field in PETCO Park. In 196 games in left between 2008 and 2009, Headley cost the Padres 16.7 runs in the outfield. It didn’t work.
The former second-round pick produced 14.5 runs above replacement for the Padres last season, but at the expense of 7.2 fielding runs below average, and a -4.9 run positional adjustment. Major League organizations will always make room for a good bat, so when Headley hit .305/.383/.556 in 65 games to start the 2008 season, it was time to make room. In a perfect world, he would have learned and improved in the outfield, but it was not to be. With Kevin Kouzmanoff due for a raise in his second season of arbitration, we have to give the Padres credit for recognizing the Headley-the-outfielder experiment didn’t take. Given that he produced +0.6 UZR in 225 innings at third base filling in for Kouzmanoff last season, San Diego knew Headley would be significantly more valuable at the hot corner.
In our positional adjustments at FanGraphs, the difference between a left fielder and a third baseman is 10 runs over a full season. Considering that Headley is probably a -10 defender in the outfield, and we’ll call him a conservative -2.5 defender at third base, the difference rises to 17.5 runs. If Headley plays as often as he did last season, and shows no offensive improvement from ages 25 to 26, his WAR will jump to 2.7 in 2010. Which, you’ll notice, is exactly what Kouzmanoff produced in his three years at the hot corner in San Diego. Back to the position where he was drafted, Headley should begin to make good on Goldstein’s two-year-old Five-Star ranking.
Kyle Blanks is, best as I can tell, one of the three heaviest baseball players to ever spend a sixth of a season (27 games) in a Major League outfield. Adam Dunn and Dmitri Young are his peers in the +275-pound club, and they are not good outfielders. In the UZR era, they combine for something like -17.5 UZR/150 in the outfield. Blanks was something better than this in his limited 2009 sample (-10.3 UZR/150), but he’s no great shakes in the outfield. And the strange thing is, he kind of is at first base. Blanks was the 2005 JuCo Defensive Player of the Year, and he managed to garner positive scouting reports throughout his minor league career.
This season, Blanks will begin the season playing outfield everyday in PETCO Park. If he makes good on the Fans Projections and produced 14 batting runs above average, but sticks in the outfield as a -7.5 defender, we’re looking at a 1.8 WAR player. But, he also stands to replace Adrian Gonzalez if the Padres send him east at the trade deadline. If we consider that first base is five runs less in a position adjustment than a corner outfield spot, Blanks will have to be -2.5 or better at first base to offset the downgrade in the defensive spectrum. Considering the scouting reports, this seems like an apt goal, and gives the Padres a nice replacement for their best hitter.
The Padres did what they had to last season to get their four best bats into their four corner spots. But, as a result, Chase Headley and Kyle Blanks contributed less wins above replacement than what they would have at their natural position. While a Major League organization needs to be concerned with the best value added for their team, prospect analysis must be concerned with how potential changes might affect a player’s production. I do not believe we should evaluate prospects in a vacuum, but instead recognize how a player’s situation could alter his WAR output.