In 2012, 28-year-old Chase Headley put up one of the five best seasons in the history of the Padres franchise, a 7.2 WAR year that made him one of the six most valuable hitters in baseball that year. He had two years of team control remaining, he was on the right side of 30 and he was playing a position that is always difficult to fill ably. His value was through the roof; the Padres could have had almost anything they wanted for him. Preferring to try to win, they made a few extension offers that didn’t pan out, and kept him around to go 119-141 since the end of 2012.
Less than two years later, he’s been traded to the Yankees for a 27-year-old infielder who was a minor league free agent last winter (Yangervis Solarte), an inconsistent (though talented) 23-year-old A-ball pitcher who wasn’t on anyone’s top-100 list (Rafael De Paula), the loss of the option to give Headley a qualifying offer if they wanted, and they even had to kick in a million dollars to the Yankees to make it happen. When you talk about holding on to an asset too long, well, this is the prime example right here. Headley is no longer part of the Padres’ future, and he didn’t turn into anything that is very likely to be a big part of that future.
While the return is pretty disappointing, it’s less about thinking the Padres got taken — it’s pretty safe to assume they didn’t currently have offers better than Solarte/De Paula on the table, or else they would have accepted them — and more about showing just how far Headley’s value had dropped. Since the end of that magical 2012, in which he went deep 31 times and had a line of .286/.376/.498, Headley had hit a mere .243/.330/.384 with 20 homers.
He missed the first two weeks of 2013 with a thumb fracture, had left knee surgery that winter — after admitting he’d played through pain all year, just another example of trying to “tough it out” not benefiting anyone — spent two weeks on the DL with a calf strain earlier this year, and missed a few days last month with a sore back.
If seeing his wRC+ drop from 145 to 113 last year was a disappointment, this year has been a disaster. Headley has a .296 OBP and an 88 wRC+, each among the worst marks for regular third basemen in the game, though that’s been somewhat anchored down by an absolutely brutal April (.186/.250/.314). He was never realistically going to repeat that 2012, and you could perhaps assign some blame for the down 2013 to the knee and thumb injuries, but he’s been basically healthy this year.
Like the rest of the Padres other than Seth Smith, the offense has just completely disappeared, and there’s some pretty disturbing peripherals behind it. He’s striking out about the same as he always has, but his walk rate has dropped from 12.3% to 11.2% to 7.2%, and as you can see at the right, that’s partially because he’s swinging at fewer balls in the zone and connecting with more balls outside the zone. If you want to help a pitcher, offering at more “bad” pitches and fewer “good” ones is a fantastic way to do it.
So why, despite how far Headley has fallen, does this make so much sense for the Yankees? It does, of course, even if they have minimal playoff odds, a ton of holes, and probably have no chance whatsoever if Masahiro Tanaka isn’t able to return healthy and quickly. It’s mostly because the risk here is just so minimal. They owe Headley the remainder of his $10.525 million this year, which is just over $4m at this point — nothing for a team like the Yankees, and partially offset by the $1m San Diego sent over — and they give up very little to see if Headley can regain his lost magic.
Solarte is just a guy, someone who needed seven years just to get to Triple-A, then turned a lucky April (143 wRC+, .349 BABIP) into a good May (120 wRC+, .279) and a disaster June/July (38 wRC+, .188 BABIP) as pitchers got a second look at him, even finding himself back in Triple-A earlier this month. De Paula is described by Jim Callis as a “one pitch reliever,” and wasn’t even ranked in the Yankees’ Top 15 last winter at Minor League Ball. In May, former FG contributor Mike Axisa had him as No. 20 in the Yankees system. From a talent and financial perspective, it’s a no-brainer.
It’s also a good fit because the Yankees’ infield has been a well-known issue, outside of the nice rebound from first baseman Mark Teixeira. Their third basemen haven’t been awful, with a No.15 ranking in both WAR and wRC+, but most of that was from Solarte’s unsustainable first six weeks.
That’s obviously not production they were going to get going forward, and Kelly Johnson and Zelous Wheeler aren’t really ideal solutions for a team that still thinks it can win, thanks to being only four games out of the division lead — nor are either close to Headley’s equal on defense. Neither Steamer nor ZiPS have overreacted to Headley’s poor season, both expecting he can contribute around a 110 wRC+ going forward — which is, it should be noted, just about exactly what he’s had since coming back from the back pain last month.
wRC+ is park-adjusted, of course, so a simple move from Petco to Yankee Stadium isn’t going to explode that number by itself, but it also can’t be ignored how big that is for Headley. In the notoriously unfriendly park in San Diego, his career line is .243/.331/.372; on the road, it’s .286/.360/.444, which is a 118 wRC+. As a lefty hitter pulling the ball to right, it’s .368/.367/.599, and he could hardly be moving to a friendlier park for lefty power. No, we can’t simply double a road line and expect that. No, we have no idea how Headley will respond moving from San Diego to the Bronx.
But based on what we do know, it’s absolutely worth it for the Yankees to find out: As with the Vidal Nuno for Brandon McCarthy deal, Brian Cashman managed to get incremental improvements without giving up much of anything at all. It’s probably not enough to get into the playoffs, and again that’s all dependent on Tanaka. It’s clearly still worth doing, particularly when it prevents a rival like Toronto from doing the same thing.
For the Padres, tomorrow is a full month since GM Josh Byrnes was fired. They’ve now traded Headley and Huston Street, and extended Seth Smith, and those are big moves to be made by placeholders Omar Minaya and A.J. Hinch.
They might not have been able to do better than this right now for Headley; they might have dodged a bullet by not giving him a rich extension a year ago; they might not have wanted to see whether Headley would have become the first player to accept a qualifying offer and have him take up $15 million of their 2015 payroll. Taken together, this all adds up for them. It’s just an incredibly disappointing outcome in a relatively short time, for a franchise that has seen more than its share of disappointment.
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