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Are Chase Headley And The Cubs A Match?

Many are surprised by the Cubs being linked to Chase Headley. What exactly is Headley? And does he make any sense in Chicago?

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Thursday, Yahoo's Jeff Passan reported that Chase Headley has a four-year deal in hand that would guarantee him $65 million. Based on the phrasing, I imagine we're talking about something like $62 million over four years with a fifth year option that contains a $3 million buyout; to be clear, that is my own speculation.

Shortly after Passan's report, Spanish-language Red Sox reporter Marino Pepén tweeted a report which I have translated into English below:

"SOURCE: The Cubs have offered 4 years and 65 MM to Chase Headley"

Full disclosure: I had never heard of Pepen before yesterday. So I did some due diligence and found that he is reasonably well respected in the Red Sox world, having broken news of the David Ortiz extension in 2012. A definitely-not-exhaustive review of his reports suggested solid credibility.

Further disclosure: I have advocated for the Cubs to sign Headley at numerous points this offseason (including here and here). Most folks would prefer to spend the money elsewhere; I totally understand that. It's the nature of us all valuing players differently.

With all of this in mind, I'd like to divorce myself from my feelings on Headley for a bit and ask these three questions:

(1) What are Headley's positives?
(2) What are Headley's negatives?
(3) What would Headley's acquisition mean for the Cubs?

What Are Headley's Positives?
It's no secret: Headley's bread-and-butter is his glove. Specifically, his best asset is his glove at third base. Headley was an atrocious outfielder early in his career, but once the Padres shipped Kevin Kouzmanoff out of town and gave Headley the full-time gig at third, he proved to be a monster with the leather. In 2014, Headley's UZR of 20.9 ranked third in all of baseball. Not just among third basemen; among everyone. Among third basemen, only Josh Donaldson (15.5) and Kyle Seager (10.6) also eclipsed the 7.0 threshold. Over the last three years, Headley's UZR of 35.2 also tops third basemen in all of baseball, and it is good for an overall rank of sixth, trailing the likes of Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons, and Dustin Pedroia and coming in ahead of elite glove men like Carlos Gomez and Nolan Arenado. Quite simply, Headley's defense is elite.

Then there's the offense. Headley is effectively two players when it comes to evaluating his offense.

Non-2012 Headley: .261/.341/.390
2012 Headley: .286/.376/.498

Where did that 2012 guy come from? Nobody really knows. It wasn't BABIP: he has a career .331 BABIP and it was .337 in 2012 with a tally of at least .323 in each of the four preceding seasons. It seems primarily that a lot of his doubles left the yard in 2012, causing the explosive season that helped produce 7.2 WAR.

I'm much more interested in the offensive game of non-2012 Headley. I don't think that whoever buys Headley will anticipate buying 2012 Headley, so with 2012 serving as an interesting thought in the back of our mind, what's non-2012 Headley all about?

He has a strong 9.9% BB% with an average 22.6% K%. His .129 ISO is hardly enticing, especially at third base, but it is basically average. He's a solid player with the stick.

What if we remove the Petco effect? Here is Headley's career line for his games played anywhere but Petco Park and excluding his monster 2012 season with the raw totals shown on a per 600 plate appearance basis:

.281/.354/.420, 30 2B, 2 3B, 13 HR, 56 BB, 10 SB

That's a darn good player. When we take Petco out and remove the best season of Headley's career, we find a guy with plus on-base skills and still average power, though notably better than the power he displayed at Petco. (I'd be happy to factor in his 2012 road line for anyone who is interested. Just let me know in the comments.)

As a bonus for lineup construction purposes, Headley is a switch-hitter. He has been better against righties for his career, though he has also been above-average against lefties with basically identical power rates.

Finally, though I've sought to avoid it, 2012 did happen. It wasn't so long ago to think that Headley couldn't find some of that magic again. Teams certainly wouldn't bet on it or pay for it as if it's likely. But there's some amount of added value to his profile knowing that he had a year in the recent past where 31 balls got out of the park.

What Are Headley's Negatives?
Using words like "solid," "average," and "decent" cuts both ways. Those words describe guys who are legitimate major-league ballplayers, a massive compliment. They also describe guys who don't have impactful skillsets.

While many -- myself included -- describe Headley's defensive profile as "monstrous" or "game-changing," the offensive profile is merely average, even with the Petco effect removed as shown above. Average is good; having a player with the 12th-18th best offensive game among players at his position certainly doesn't hurt the club. But average is not impactful and 2012 notwithstanding, Headley just hasn't shown much to suggest that he could possibly provide impact with the bat. We have enough data to reasonably conclude that we're talking about an average offensive third baseman heading into his 30s. Color me less than thrilled.

Additionally, as so often happens, Headley's speed appears to be decreasing as he tallied double-digit stolen base totals from 2009-2012 before dropping off to just 15 total over the past two years. He was never a burner, but that tiny bit of added value figures to fade with age.

There's also concern that his overall level of physicality is on the decline. If that saps his range in any significant way, Headley loses lots of his value.

What Would Headley's Acquisition Mean for the Cubs?
This is where it gets juicy. We all know that the Cubs have a lot of infielders. To me, acquiring Headley would signal two notions. First, the front office likely believes that Headley is the best or at least among the best value to be found on the free agent market. Second, the front office likely believes that Kris Bryant is a corner outfielder.

Having watched Bryant play in person roughly 10 times over the past 16 months (Daytona, Spring Training, and Tennessee) in addition to about 30 viewings, I can confidently say that (i) his arm is a true weapon regardless of where he plays, and (ii) he still looks like he could be an average MLB glove at third base with continued development. Bryant's time playing right field at the University of San Diego likely encourages the front office that he could transition back to the outfield with minimal prep time (as an added bonus, it also provides a nice pretextual story for why Bryant will spend the first few weeks of the 2015 season in the minors with his service time being the obvious reason).

If Headley takes over at third with Bryant shifting to left field and Jorge Soler sticking in right, Chris Coghlan and Justin Ruggiano get kicked to the bench. I think that many of us view those two as fringe starters but solid reserves, so their manning the fourth and fifth outfielder jobs is a nice in-house solution for 2015.

Kicking Bryant to left field has some possible consequences in the longer term regarding Kyle Schwarber (eta: early-to-mid 2016) and Billy McKinney (eta: late 2016), but worrying about finding a spot for two prospects from the former Daytona Cubs is more than a bit presumptuous and it misses the goal of competing this year and next.

Back in the infield, we're all hoping that a massive glut is about to be created in the middle with Starlin Castro, Javier Baez, and Addison Russell all in need of 700 plate appearances but with only two spots to get them from. I get the sense that the front office is plenty happy for that scenario to present itself, but they're at least considering planning on one of Russell or Baez struggling. This conservative planning is the way to go with kids, even premier ones. If everyone plays to their ability, the Cubs would find themselves with the choice of (i) flipping Headley a year or so into his deal, or (ii) flipping one of Baez or Russell. I think that the return for one of the kids would be gigantic -- that's cool! -- whereas the return for Headley would likely be far less significant. Still, he helps in 2015 as the club moves toward contention.

Finally, we come to the issue of the money. Frequent BCB commenter The Deputy Mayor of Rush Street and I had a nice, detailed conversation about budgeting through the rest of the financing years (now through 2019). At approximately $16 million per year, Headley would represent a significant payroll addition. Then again, the Cubs are built to fill the vast majority of the big roster spots with in-house, cheap talent for most of the next three years. Further, Headley's deal would expire before the 2019 season where the Cubs figure to be able to spend significantly more in arbitration salaries than they have at any time in their history. As such, weathering the cost of Headley should be plenty doable, even while acquiring additional players.

For example, the Cubs could sign Jon Lester ($26.0M projected average annual value (AAV)), Brandon McCarthy ($14.0M AAV), and David Ross ($2.0M AAV) in addition to Headley and field a 25-man roster for $113.9 million comprised of that quartet and other in-house contracts. Should they find the need to cut costs, they could (i) release Travis Wood before the season, saving $4.4 million of his projected $5.5 million salary, (ii) ship out Edwin Jackson, generating some savings even while eating some significant portion of the salary, and/or (iii) trade Luis Valbuena, a player relegated to a bench role with Headley's acquisition.

Should Headley come on board, the lineup would be something like this:

3B Headley
SS Castro
1B Rizzo
LF Bryant
RF Soler
2B Baez
CF Alcantara
C   Castillo

Acquiring Chase Headley has its benefits and its drawbacks. While it would be significantly more fun to find an elite center fielder or perhaps even a corner outfielder, Headley figures to offer some of the best production relative to cost on the free agent market. As a player who has produced 4.4, 2.3, 7.2, 3.6, and 4.4 WAR from 2010-14, Headley comes with a solid track record. Steamer agrees and sees a 3.9 WAR season from Headley, a figure that would be worth significantly more than his projected salary in a free agent marketplace that compensates players at something between $6 million and $7 million.

Headley isn't a superstar (since it's not 2012). But he is a guy who looks like one of the best bets to provide surplus value in the marketplace.

So what do you think? Would you like to see the Cubs follow through on their rumored pursuit of Headley?