Remember when Pablo Sandoval was one of the most coveted free agents this winter? I sure do. And, to be fair, it made sense. Sandoval was a third baseman with three world championships, a 124 OPS+, and by the way--still south of thirty years old. To the surprise of no one, Sandoval was signed to a substantial contract. He is guaranteed $100 million over the next five years (assuming a $5 million buyout). This was by no means an unreasonable contract for the Red Sox, and I think we've all come to expect that $20 million per year is the going rate for solid regulars in free agency.
Well, that hasn't worked out so far. Sandoval has been worth -0.6 or -0.9 WAR/WARP depending on which metric you prefer, or close to replacement level if you're positively regressing his defensive numbers. I don't think he is by any means broken or finished--far from it--but I do think this all says one thing: the signing of Chase Headley has been incredibly successful thus far.
I wrote about it the day he was signed, and I think it too today: for whatever reason, Headley was an incredibly undervalued free agent, and he has proven his worth so far. In an old episode of Effectively Wild, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller named Headley the generic brand to Sandoval's "brand name," and it's still a fitting description. Headley is owed $52 million over his four year contract, nearly half of what Sandoval is making.
That doesn't mean he hasn't had his struggles, though. Before the All-Star break, Headley was hitting .255/.310/.373 (88 wRC+) with solid but unspectacular defense--he made some great plays, but he also fudged somewhat routine plays, evidenced by his career-low 95.6% accuracy on routine plays. However, he has improved. Since the All-Star break he has been hitting .320/.396/.433 (134 wRC+), and his fWAR--if you're into that--is up to 1.7. That would give him a 2.6 win advantage over Sandoval. This is obviously predicated on certain notions regarding defensive value, but it doesn't take a brain surgeon to understand that Headley has offered a multi-year solution for third base, and for a price that does not break the bank.
When considering the third basemen the Yankees have had in the past 25 years, Headley is one of the better ones on a rate basis. For those with more than 500 plate appearances, only Alex Rodriguez, Wade Boggs, and Robin Ventura had a higher wRC+ than Headley has had, and only those three along with Randy Velarde and Scott Brosius have accrued more fWAR.
Of course, there are risks in all of this. Chase Headley is still a couple of years older than Sandoval, and who knows if one day the light turns off as well (not to say Sandoval is completely done, but you get what I mean). But, the cost is so much less that I doubt the front office wouldn't try to find another solution should that event arise. Heck, they even signed Headley to replace Alex Rodriguez without knowing what he'd offer.
This is a different era of free agency, and the Yankees don't have the advantage they had in the steroid era. Production for players in their late 30's has declined sharply, and the front office will have to pick their signings extremely carefully. As the Yankees turn over from the era of Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and CC Sabathia, a younger core along with smartly priced free agents will be a key part of that new era that many think has already begun. And 116 games in, Headley has fit that mold.