2014 Statistics: 58 G, .262/.371/.398, 6 HR, 121 wRC+, 2.8 fWAR (NYY)
135 G, .243/.328/.372, 13 HR, 103 wRC+, 4.4 fWAR (MLB)
2015 Age: 30, turns 31 on May 9th
Position: Third base
When the Yankees opened the 2014 season, their plan for third base without Alex Rodriguez was pretty much what Greg said it would be in January: Plangervis aka whoever they could find. They never really signed anyone who seemed likely to hold the position down, and Opening Day starter Kelly Johnson was a disaster in the field, as he had only 16 games of experience there beforehand. An injury to Mark Teixeira moved Johnson across the diamond, and in came Yangervis Solarte, the fans' unlikely savior from the Eduardo Nunez Experience. It was enough that the young journeyman's spring training convinced the Yankees to finally cut ties with the consistently disappointing Nunez, but then Solarte stunned everyone by hitting like an All-Star for a month and a half: .325/.403/.504 with 14 extra-base hits through May 15th.
Regrettably, all flukes must come to an end, and the regression train hit Solarte hard. From the middle of May through the middle of July (a greater sample size), Solarte struggled to a .186/.271/.264 triple slash with just six extra-base hits in 40 games, even getting demoted at one point. The fun was over, the Yankees needed a new third baseman to stay remotely in the playoff hunt, and as effervescent as he was, Zelous Wheeler was not going to be the answer. Enter: Chase Headley.
The Padres' third baseman had about as good a 2012 campaign as one could ever imagine from a third baseman, missing just one game while hitting .286/.376/.498 and bashing 31 doubles and 31 homers, good for a 145 wRC+ and 7.2 fWAR. He finished fifth in NL MVP voting (thanks in small part to a league-high 115 RBI) and seemed poised to become the position's next new star. That was the peak of Headley trade rumors, a sad history that was excellently chronicled by Grant Brisbee. With an aging A-Rod constantly battling injuries, the Yankees were already rumored to be interested in him. In 2013 however, he fractured his thumb during spring training, and though he put up decent numbers that year (.250/.347/.400, 114 wRC+, 3.6 fWAR), he was just not quite as dominant as he was in 2012.
Headley continued to sink his trade value with a slow start to the 2014 season in San Diego, where he batted a meager .229/.296/.355 triple slash with a 90 wRC+ in his first 77 games. He battled a calf strain and a herniated disk in his back that required a painful epidural shot to play through. The Padres couldn't risk even offering him arbitration at the end of the season, so they decided to finally trade him. He went to the Yankees in a July 22nd deal that sent both Solarte and pitching prospect Rafael De Paula to San Diego. Although Solarte's hot start in San Diego and De Paula's strikeout potential offered the Padres some hope, the trade was generally viewed by the baseball pundits as another Brian Cashman steal. He had solved his third base problem by simply trading away a non-roster invitee with low expectations and a 23-year-old pitcher in A-ball who struggled with control and was only in his second professional season due to visa and identity issues. That's a fine trade.
As suggested by the numbers at the start of this article, Headley performed quite well in the Bronx, instantly fitting in with a walk-off single on his first day as a Yankee and taking off from there. Was it playing half his games in hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium rather than cavernous Petco Park? Was it a change in grip on the bat? Was it just luck? It's not clear what made Headley do so well in pinstripes, but it certainly made him an enticing option for the Yankees' future with him approaching free agency. (Blasting a walk-off homer against the Red Sox didn't hurt either.) Beyond the bat, his defense earned him praise as well, as the Yankees hadn't had a reliable defender at third since A-Rod was in his prime. Gold Gloves can be silly, but it's hard to say that Headley didn't deserve the one he received in 2012 given his terrific work at the hot corner:
So should Headley return to the Yankees? It certainly seems like the Yankees could do a lot worse than bringing him back. He's probably not going to replicate his career year of 2012, and even expecting second-half Headley to show up for a full season might be asking for a bit too much. However, Headley's case becomes a lot more compelling when taking his exceptional defense into consideration. As brilliant Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons (drafted one round after the Yankees took Cito Culver... sigh) has proved, superb defense can make even a player with a below-league average bat a valuable commodity. Headley's defense isn't as otherworldly as Andrelton's, but his bat is certainly better.
Setting Headley's floor at his first-half production for the Padres, a 90 wRC+ in addition to reputable defense still has value, and Headley is likely to hit better than that. Most projection systems aren't out yet, but Steamer suggests that in 2015, Headley will hit .265/.347/.409 with a 114 wRC+. Although that's just one prediction, any Yankees fan should take that in a heartbeat. Unless his agent is making ridiculous demands, his shaky 2014 suggests that Headley's next contract will be affordable, especially for a team that basically prints money like the Yankees. Although he's not perfect, the state of the Yankees without him does not look great.
The only question becomes what the Yankees should then do about the logjam that will be the result on the roster. Without Headley and assuming no other additions, they would likely play Martin Prado at third, one of rookies Rob Refsnyder or Jose Pirela at second, Carlos Beltran in right field, and A-Rod at DH. With Headley tossed into the mix, that shifts Prado into a more fluid position, where he can either play second base or right field while Beltran and A-Rod cover DH duties. A-Rod is absolutely not a third baseman anymore given his twice-surgically repaired hips. Although some fans really want to see Refsnyder at second base as soon as possible, it's not absolutely necessary for him to be on the big league club on Opening Day 2015. He'll have only turned 24 a week prior, so it's not as though the clock is ticking for him. If questions about his and Pirela's defense persist as they do now, then it can't hurt to give them more reps at second in the minors for Triple-A Scranton. It seems like A-Rod and Beltran could be injured at any time, so whenever that happens, Refsnyder could become a starter.
Furthermore, it's possible to envision a scenario wherein the Yankees make Prado the primary second baseman but have him cover right field on the days that Beltran needs to stay away from the outfield for rest. Those days will have to come for a soon-to-be 38-year-old like Beltran, and one of Refsnyder or Pirela could make the Opening Day roster as a bench player to fill in at second on those days. The plan without Headley is just concerning, as it doesn't really offer any backup for when Beltran or A-Rod get hurt. Considering their ages and histories, injuries are almost inevitable for those players, and the 2013 Yankees demonstrated what happens when a lack of depth gets exposed in the lineup. Would we want starting outfielder Chris Young again, or someone of his ilk? That's what would happen since Prado couldn't really move off third--who else would play there then? Hell, Prado could get hurt, too.
Headley simply makes too much sense for the Yankees not to make a legitimate run at him, and the early reports suggest that they seem to agree. Adding Headley improves the offense, the defense, and the depth on the bench. C'mon--we need the Hedley Lamarr GIFs.