The Yankees acquired third baseman Chase Headley from the Padres on Tuesday for infielder Yangervis Solarte and minor league fireballer Rafael De Paula, finally consummating a long-rumored interest in the third baseman on the part of New York. As was the case with Brandon McCarthy, whom the Yankees acquired from the Diamondbacks two weeks ago, the Yankees hope that a change of scenery can prove beneficial for the 30-year-old Headley, who is in the midst of his worst season at the plate.
Headley appeared to make the leap to stardom in 2012 at the age of 28, hitting .286/.376/.498 with 31 home runs and a National League-leading 115 RBI, landing a Gold Glove, a Sliver Slugger and a fifth-place finish in the National League Most Valuable Player voting in the process. But he regressed to his previous form in 2013 and has been just plain lousy thus far this season, hitting .229/.296/.355 for San Diego. The Yankees hope that getting Headley, a switch-hitter who bats left-handed the majority of the time, out of the offense-stifling Petco Park and into the lefty-friendly Yankee Stadium will result in a rejuvenation of Headley’s bat.
One reason for optimism is that Headley has simply hit in bad luck this year, with a batting average on balls in play nearly 50 points below his career mark. A little correction on balls in play plus a positive adjustment for the significant change in home hitting environments could boost Headley’s production significantly. His career .286/.360/.440 line on the road is the one the Yankees are eyeing, and they hope that Headley’s high flyball rates will allow him to add even more power to that performance in his new home park.
As many indicators as there may be in Headley’s batting statistics to back up the Yankees’ optimism, including his high line-drive rate this season, there’s a lot of wishing and hoping going on there. Still, the Yankees have gambled very little on that positive outcome by buying low on a player whose value the Padres allowed to atrophy while trying and failing to negotiate an extension with Headley in the wake of his breakout season.
Solarte was something of a sensation earlier this year, coming out of nowhere to land the Yankees’ third base job and hit .299/.369/.466, numbers the Yankees would be happy to get out of Headley, through the end of May. He has since returned to nowhere, however, living up to his pre-season status as a non-roster invitee on his third organization in four years. Solarte has hit .164/.282/.213 in June and lost not only his starting job, but also, briefly, his roster spot. That said, batting average on balls in play, not to mention sample size, tells us that it was actually the April and May performance that was more legitimate.
The Yankees very well could have expected Solarte to go forward producing something like his career Triple-A performance (.288/.337/.413 in 1,166 plate appearances), but that’s not the kind of output at a corner position that would convince a team to be precious about the team-controlled years remaining on a now-27-year-old player. A switch-hitter capable of playing second base, third, shortstop, and the outfield corners, Solarte is now on his fourth organization in those four years and could prove to be a valuable player for the Padres during their transition, but he won’t be a proper replacement for Headley, nor will he be a part of the next contending Padres team.
De Paula, meanwhile, is a 23-year-old righty with an outstanding, high-90s fastball that is responsible for most of his projection. De Paula actually pitched in the Futures Game in 2013, but wasn’t among the Yankees’ top-10 prospects coming into the season and appears to have stagnated in High-A, where control issues have helped swell his ERA to 4.15. Lacking secondary pitches, he looks like a future reliever.
Though Headley seems sure to leave as a free agent at the end of the season, which is just as well given recent re-occurring calf and back injuries, the Yankees have given up very little for the hope of a meaningful upgrade at third base. Since the start of June, Yankees third basemen, primarily Solarte and Kelly Johnson, have hit a mere .225/.325/.304. That’s a low bar for Headley to clear, and increases the chances of his having a significant impact even before you consider the fact that he’s also a significant upgrade in the field.
Perhaps most notably, the Headley trade signals that the Yankees, who are four games behind the Orioles in the AL East and just 2 1/2 games behind the Mariners for the second wild-card spot, remain undeterred by the injuries that have devastated their starting rotation. New York will continue to push the soft ceiling of their division in the hope of giving their departing captain the postseason sendoff they believe he deserves.