Early into the 2016 season, there's no Yankee hitter exactly lighting the world on fire, but one player who seems to be struggling more than most is Chase Headley. Through Sunday, he's hitting just .149 without a single extra-base hit.
The Yankees acquired Headley in July 2014 for Yangervis Solarte and Rafael De Paula. Headley had a solid debut in pinstripes, slashing .262/.371/.398 with six homers and a 119 OPS+. Due to that promise he showed down the stretch, his past as a 31-home run hitter in 2012, and his glove a third, the Yankees signed Headley to a four-year, $52 million deal from 2015-2018. Some thought the contract was a bit much, but getting a 30-year-old who had averaged 4.4 fWAR over the past five seasons at a scarce position for just $13 million a year was overall a solid deal.
However, after a subpar 2015 and a terrible start to 2016, the Headley contract is in danger of becoming a quite bad one. Headley has been unproductive at the plate, his glove has been inconsistent, and there aren't many signs to suggest he'll turn it around. This is a big season for the switch-hitter. If he has another unproductive campaign, there's little reason to believe he'll turn it around for the second half of his contract past his 33rd birthday.
Last year was one of the worst seasons of Headley's career. He had a very good July and August, but overall it was a poor season at the plate for him. He hit .259/.324/.369, and posted a below average 91 wRC+ and .307 wOBA. The power he flashed during the 2012 season was nowhere to be found, even in the hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium; he hit just 11 home runs. The peripherals were not any better. His .38 BB/K ratio was the worst of his career for a full season, and his 27.8 Hard% and 17.4 Soft% were the worst marks since his 2011 campaign. For the vast majority of the season, Headley was simply one of the weakest spots in an otherwise solid lineup.
In the past, even when Headley wasn't great at the plate, he made up for it with his glove. From 2012-2014, FanGraphs rated him as the third best defensive third baseman in baseball; in fact, by their Defensive Runs Above Average (Def) statistic, he was the best defender at any position in baseball in 2014, posting a 22.8 mark.
The 2015 season was an entirely different story, though. His Def mark was -0.8, which ranked 15th among third baseman and categorized him as a below average fielder. He also committed 23 errors, the fourth most in baseball and the most of anyone at the hot corner. I'm sure fans remember the numerous head-scratching throwing errors he committed; every ball hit to Headley became an adventure. Headley did finish the season playing better at third, but overall it was ugly defensive season for him.
The calendar has turned to 2016, but things haven't gotten much better for Headley. His defense has bounced back, but his bat has been ice-cold. He's slashing just .149/.293/.149. All seven of his hits have been singles; his wOBA is a paltry .225, and he has an abysmal 37 wRC+. Usually a line drive hitter, his LD% was just 17.6 entering play on Sunday and he's making hard contact a mere 23.5% of the time. The only sign of encouragement is his plate discipline. Through Saturday, he only swung at approximately 16.4% of pitches outside the strike zone, and his BB/K ratio is a very solid 0.82. On the whole though, Headley has been bad.
Looking back, it's easy to say that the Yankees shouldn't have made the trade for Headley since Solarte has actually been better since the swap. He hit 14 home runs last season with a .748 OPS and 109 wRC+ in 152 games, and he's off to a hot start this year. However, at the time, it was a solid trade for the Yankees. They were trading a career minor leaguer who was cooling off after a hot couple of months for a proven All Star-caliber player; it's hard to blame them for making that trade at the time.
The bigger question is becoming just how bad his contract will be. Four years for $13 million per season isn't a big contract by today's standards and there hasn't been too much available on the third base market (hello Pablo Sandoval), but it's still not exactly chump change. Headley's fWAR was just 1.5 last season, which is not enough for a player making $13 million. Based on how he's started this season, he'll be lucky to sniff that.
This is an important season for Headley. Fans saw Carlos Beltran have a bad first year of his deal in 2014 before turning it around last year even after a rough April. Headley is not talentless, so perhaps he can have a similar recovery. If not though, there's no reason to believe he's going to magically turn it around next year or in 2018.
If that's the case, the Yankees don't have many options available at third. Maybe they can scour the trade market, but there's no solid third baseman entering free agency after this season, and they don't have any top prospects at third. Perhaps if the team prefers to keep Didi Gregorius at shortstop, phenom Jorge Mateo could eventually transition to the hot corner, rendering Headley an expensive utility man by the end of his deal.
If not, the Yankees are stuck with Headley at third through 2018, so hopefully he figures it out. But hey, Manny Machado is a free agent after 2018, and the Yankees will need someone to protect Bryce Harper in the lineup, so it's not all bad.