What To Do With Chase Headley?

Chase Headley is a great big question mark.

Last year, he took his game to a whole new level when he hit 31 home runs, led the league with 115 RBI, and won his first Gold Glove award. Which explains why from July 2012-March 2013, Headley was considered a very hot property, and the source of much speculation: would the Padres make him a franchise player–the successor to Tony Gwynn and Trevor Hoffman–by inking a hefty long-term deal? 

Or, would they trade him, move rookie Jedd Gyorko to third base, and try to get a lot of prospects for him? 

Or, just keep him, since they control him through 2014 anyway, and so don’t have to decide something rightthisminute?

The Padres, wisely as it turns out, went with the last option. Sure, they could have gotten prospects for him, but the fans never would have forgiven the front office, especially after the brand-new ownership promised that they wanted to keep home-grown talent in San Diego. It would have been 1993 (i.e., the “Great Fire Sale”) all over again.

Fast-forward to today: Headley has had an incredibly disappointing 2013, with a .240/.331/.368 line and a paltry 36 RBI. 

 So it should be some consolation to the fans and front office that they didn’t go overboard by signing him to a five-year, $80 million-plus contract. 

 That said, what should they do with him? 

He was quoted recently in the Los Angeles Times:

“My first choice would be to stay here. I love our coaching staff. I love a lot of the guys here. That said, you have to at least understand where you are positioned in the market. It doesn’t benefit myself or the other players to go out and sign a deal just to sign a deal, without it being a good deal.

“I’m not actively trying to get to free agency, but trying to get what you are worth is important. It would be foolish not to at least pay attention. I’m not going to sell myself short.”

That’s a fair assessment of his position. But having said that, what is Chase Headley worth? 

As of right now, he has proven that he is not the 2012 version (at least, the second half of 2012 version, when he was really smoking). If anything, he is a solid fielder and a decent, though not exceptional hitter who’s willing to take a walk and might hit an occasional long ball. 

Probably the most comparable player would be Bill Mueller, formerly of the Giants, Cubs, Red Sox, and Dodgers (see his career stats here). 

There are obvious differences, of course: Mueller hit for a higher career average (.291 to .268) and a higher OBP (.373 to .348), but he never came close to Headley’s 31 dingers in one season. 

An average Bill Mueller season looked like this: .291/.373/.425 with 35 doubles, eleven home runs, and 66 RBI. 

Now, here’s what an average Chase Headley season looks like (so far): .268/.348/.410 with 34 doubles, 15 home runs, and 71 RBI. 

Lest we forget, his previous highs prior to 2012 were 12 homers and 64 RBI (both in 2009), and a .289 batting average (2011). 

To clarify, I’m not saying that Chase Headley and Bill Mueller are necessarily the same type of player. Nor am I saying that like Mueller, Headley’s career is inevitably going to be shortened by injuries. All I am saying is that as of right now, Chase Headley is very comparable to the winner of the 2003 batting crown.

Which is to say, Chase Headley is a decent, but certainly not an elite, third baseman. That’s how he currently projects. 

So then, what to do? 

2012 appears at this point to be Headley’s high-water mark. 

Therefore, it seems like it’s in the Padres’ best interests to sign him long-term, but not at David Wright-type numbers, or trade him. The signing option makes sense; perhaps a four-year deal would be best. Why? Because third basemen are hard to come by–as the LA Times notes, at least seven teams will be in the hunt to upgrade at the hot corner–and they’ve got one. 

Plus, it would send a signal to the fans that they’re serious about keeping home-grown players.

Lastly, Headley is not as bad as he has been this year. Surely, he’s also not as good as he was in 2012. Most likely, he’ll hit 18-20 home runs a year and play solid ‘D,’ and the Padres should pay him accordingly. 

Or, they could trade him. In return, they could get a young second baseman (Corey Spandenburg, their 2011 first-round draft pick, is likely two years from being ready), and possibly some short-term help at catcher (Nick Hundley is not the everyday answer, Yasmani Grandal is out until mid-season 2014, and their hot prospect, Austin Hedges, probably won’t be ready until 2015 at the earliest). Then, they could slide Gyorko over to third base, and spend the money they would have given to Headley to shore up other holes.

Personally, I would prefer them to sign Headley long-term now. I like him, and I think he’s good for the team. My only point in bringing up the trade option is that the Padres won’t have that option at the end of next season. Every day they keep him into the 2014 season without changing his contractual status benefits Headley–and that’s assuming his performance improves, which it likely will. Sure, they could trade him at the deadline next July, but if that doesn’t work,

All of this is why at the conclusion of the World Series (Tigers over the Dodgers in seven is my pick, for what it’s worth), the Padres should get busy in signing him up to a nice four year extension. In this case Headley wins, the fans win, and–hopefully–the Padres will win, too.

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