Monday December 15th, 2014

When you think of the New York Yankees, you don't typically think of excellent defense. But with third baseman Chase Headley back to New York on a four-year, $52 million deal, the Yankees' team defense projects to be one of their primary strengths in 2015. Headley, originally acquired by the Yankees from the Padres in a trade in July, will join slick-fielding shortstop Didi Gregorius, acquired from the Diamondbacks earlier this month, on the left side of the Yankees' infield. In doing so, he'll lock Martin Prado in at second base and push Alex Rodriguez, who was suspended for all of 2014, into a part-time role that is unlikely to include much time in the field at any position. That all bodes well for the Yankees' fielding corps.

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Indeed, on days that Chris Young is the starter in rightfield, the 2015 Yankees will have an above-average fielder at every position. First baseman Mark Teixeira, a five-time Gold Glover winner, joins Prado, Gregorius and Headley in the infield, along with Brian McCann behind the plate and Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury in the outfield. That defense will be crucial to the Yankees' success — apart from the lefty/righty combination of Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances in the bullpen, the Yankees have no sure things on their pitching staff. They certainly have plenty of upside in Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda and hope for strong returns from CC Sabathia (knee surgery) and Ivan Nova (Tommy John surgery). But with Tanaka suffering a partial tear in his ulnar collateral ligament late last season and Pineda making just 13 major league starts since 2011, all four could just as easily spend most of the season on the disabled list as on the mound.

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It thus makes a great deal of sense for the Yankees to emphasize the run prevention contributions of their everyday players. Headley, who won the National League Gold Glove at third base in 2012, was spectacular in the field after arriving in New York this past season. The advanced statistics rated Headley's fielding performance in 2014, the best of which came in New York, as the finest, or close to it, of his career. That may very well have been a small-sample spike, but the fact that it came after a change of home ballpark suggests that something about his new environment may have contributed to that performance, be it a good visual background, a more comfortable footing, coaching, or a less specific peace of mind and enthusiasm stemming from being traded either to New York or into something resembling a pennant race.

Whatever it was, the Yankees are betting on Headley being able to replicate that performance, as well as a rejuvenation of his bat that also coincided with his arrival in New York. Headley hit a dismal .229/.296/.355 in 77 games for the Padres in 2014, but perked up to .262/.371/.398 with the Yankees, a performance that translated to a 119 OPS+ despite the sub-.400 slugging percentage. I've said before that Headley's All-Star level performance at the plate in 2012 was a fluke, but if you look at the seasons on either side of that one, they combine to form a .266/.358/.400 line that looks a lot like that post-trade performance.

year avg obp slg ops+
2011 .289 .374 .399 120
2013 .250 .347 .400 116
2014 (with NYY) .262 .371 .398 119

If Headley can produce at that modest level, he'll continue to be a three-win player well worth the $13 million a year the Yankees will pay him through his age-34 season. Meanwhile, the Yankees will hold out hope that the switch-hitting Headley, who hit 31 home runs in that fluke 2012 season, can add a bit of power after having escaped Petco Park for the power- and lefty-friendly Yankee Stadium.

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That's another feature of the 2015 Yankees' projected lineup. Given the age of their veteran stars, there's not a truly impressive slugger in their lineup, but with three switch-hitters (Headley, Teixeira and Carlos Beltran), and four lefties (McCann, Ellsbury, Gardner, and Gregorius), ideally, the power in their lineup will play up in their home ballpark. In 2014, Gardner hit a career-high 17 home runs, while Ellsbury, in his first year in New York, hit 16, his second-best single-season total. The Yankees will gamble on Headley, who hit six homers in 58 games with New York, hitting for a bit more power as a Yankee, just as they hope Gregorius can develop his power stroke in the Bronx.

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The Headley signing also gives the Yankees the great relief of not having to expect much from Rodriguez, who will turn 40 in late July and has played all of 44 major league games since 2012. Rodriguez is a full-time DH at best at this point, and he may not even have that role, with the likes of Beltran needing regular DH time as well. The Yankees have properly identified Rodriguez, who has three years and $61 million remaining on his contract. as a sunk cost. That $61 million doesn't include the $6 million bonuses Rodriguez is due for reaching 660, 714, 755, and 763 career home runs, but despite entering 2015 with 654, he now seems unlikely to cash in any but the first of those.

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Signing Headley mutes questions about Rodriguez's potential contribution in 2015, though it does raise two others. The first concerns how Prado will handle playing second base full time; it hasn't been his primary position since 2010 and he has never played 100 games there in a single season. The second, more significant concern is how spending $52 million on Headley on top of having Rodriguez's salary back on the books will impact the Yankees' ability to upgrade their rotation. With few teams reportedly hot on Max Scherzer, the Yankees are one team repeatedly mentioned as a potential destination for the former Tigers ace. Hiroki Kuroda, who has been a constant in the Yankees' rotation for the last three years but will turn 40 in February, remains a free agent as well.

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