While some teams are still determining whether they will buy or sell at the deadline, for a few teams the answer is painfully obvious. The San Diego Padres are 14.5 games back in the NL West and 15 games back of the Wild Card, placing them firmly in the sellers column. They’re fielding plenty of phone calls now, mostly regarding their highly regarded relievers, Heath Bell and Mike Adams. But the Padres have some other chips that could potentially help a contender. Outfielder Ryan Ludwick is one of them, but they might be able to get a bit more if they were to shop around their third baseman, Chase Headley.
At age 27, Headly is in the midst of his finest season to date. In the past three seasons he established himself as a more or less average hitter, producing a 103 wRC+ in 1,654 PA from 2008 through 2010. This year he has surged, with his wRC+ rising all the way to 130. That mark ranks fourth among MLB third basemen, and second among his NL peers (though by a mere one point). While his defense — a career 7.9 UZR/150 at third base, accumulated almost all last season — is likely average, his overall value remains high. That’s both a commentary on Headley’s 2011 season and the state of third base around the league.
Headley’s 2011 improvement comes from two primary areas: BABIP and walk rate. From 2008 through 2010 he walked in 8.9% of his PA, but this year he has seen that jump to 12.6%. He noticed a jump in 2009, too, to 10.1%, but he immediately dipped back down to around 8% in 2010. It’s hard to tell if this improvement is for real. Normally it would look like a fluke, just like any other that can crop up in 357 PA. But Headley is entering the prime of his career, and the improvement might be for real. He did sport a minor league walk rate of near 13%.
His inflated BABIP is more of a concern, since we know how quickly high BABIPs can tumble. This year he’s at .381, which leads the league, while his career mark is .328. While we’ve seen plenty of players ride out a season without seeing significant BABIP regression — Austin Jackson finished 2010 with a .396 BABIP — it’s certainly a risk to bank on anyone continuing at such a high level. If, removing only singles, we assumed a .328 BABIP for Headley, his numbers would look far worse right now: .254/.351/.355. Any team acquiring him would have to be concerned about possible regression effects.
Another area of concern is Headley’s power, which has clearly declined as he’s aged. In 2008 he produced a .151 ISO, but that fell to .131 in 2009, .111 in 2010, and is currently at .101. He still displays gap power, averaging 30 doubles in 2009 and 2010. This year he has already hit 25, four fewer than last year despite having approximately half the plate appearances. There are certainly teams that could use a third baseman who can line balls into the gap, but the lack of power does hurt his overall value.
One mitigating factor, as is the case with many Padres, lies in Headley’s home/road splits. His .381 BABIP might seem high overall, but he has produced a .376 career BABIP outside of Petco in 1,085 career PA. He also hits for a bit more power outside of Petco, with a career .135 ISO on the road compared to .107 at home. His .117 ISO on the road this year isn’t necessarily impressive, but it looks far better than his overall ISO, which includes a .081 mark at home. Overall he has produced a .354 wOBA on the road and just .299 at home, signaling that, again like many of his peers, he would fare better at a more hitter-friendly park.
There are a few contenders that could use an upgrade at third base. The Angels, as mentioned yesterday, could use another bat. Unfortunately, they need some more power, and Headley probably won’t provide that. He would massively upgrade the Tigers at third base, both on defense and offense. The only downside is that Comerica Park plays better for righties, and Headley hits better from the left side (.336 career wOBA as a lefty vs. .303 as a righty). The Brewers, who have gotten -0.3 WAR from their third basemen, could also upgrade significantly. What’s more, Miller Park plays to Headley’s strengths better than either of the other two parks.
One big perk of trading for Headley is that he’s under team control through 2014. He could get expensive, as he was a Super Two before this season and so has three raises due over his $2.325 million 2011 salary. But if he continues to hit into his prime, he could be worth the price. Best of all, any acquiring team will have him through his age-30 season, giving them the bulk of his prime years. That should net San Diego a decent return.
This raises the question of why the Padres would deal Headley in the first place. Why sign a guy under team control for so long? First, as stated above, they could receive a decent bounty for him. They’d be selling high, as this is his best season in the bigs. The team control further increases his value. Yet they’d still be set at third, as they have three fast-moving prospects at the position. Earlier this month they promoted all three — James Darnell, Jedd Gyorko, and Jake Blackwood — and they could be on the fast track to the majors. Darnell, the closest to the majors, has excelled this year, producing a .443 wOBA at AA before his promotion to AAA. There he has gone 9 for his first 35, with a double and four homers. At age 24, he might even step in immediately upon a Headley trade as a two-month tryout.
As Jack noted earlier this month, the state of third base in the NL is pretty poor right now. In fact, the state of third base across the league is in the dumpster: the .688 OPS produced by MLB third basemen this year is lower than any other position. A player like Headley, then, should be all the more valuable. He does have some concerns, such as an inflated BABIP and declining power numbers, but those concerns would lessen greatly once he’s out of Petco for good. There are a number of contenders with holes at first base, and while Headley would cost a decent bounty in prospects, he’s the best option out there. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see the Padres cash in that chip before July 31st.
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