Please Don’t Trade For Chase Headley

We don’t disagree with each other much here at Crashburn Alley. It’s nice most of the time, because we get along much better and agreeing with each other makes us feel smart. I bring this up because, for the first time in ages, I don’t agree with something Bill said.

Earlier today, our master and commander argued that, now that Cole Hamels has been re-signed, the Phillies should turn their attention to third base. Placido Polanco ticks four boxes–old, injury-prone, a free-agent-to-be and of declining effectiveness–that don’t make him an enticing prospect going forward. The Phillies don’t have an in-house option coming up through the minors or currently on the major league roster (Ty Wigginton can hit some but is scarcely better in the field than you or I, and Mike Fontenot, while a capable fifth infielder, isn’t really good enough at anything to warrant 600 plate appearances).

So with no incumbent and no credible heir in the organization, the Phillies will almost certainly have to look outside the organization for a solution  at third, and, friends, it does not look good.

I think Bill is completely right about all that. I just don’t want that external solution to be Chase Headley.

We’re in something of a dead period for offensive production among infielders, and third base was hit particularly hard. In the past five years, some of the best young third basemen (Ryan Braun and Alex Gordon) couldn’t hack it defensively and moved to the outfield. Others (Pedro Alvarez and Brett Lawrie) are undergoing growing pains. Alex Rodriguez is getting older (and odder), and the top tier (Ryan Zimmerman, David Wright and Evan Longoria) have alternately had trouble staying on the field.

Which makes someone like Headley immensely valuable. He’s a switch hitter who posted a .374 OBP last year and a .361 mark so far this season, which would have been second on the Phillies this season. He’s solid defensively, posting an 8.4 UZR/150 for his career at third base, and he’s on the right side of 30 with two more years of arbitration left.

So why wouldn’t the Phillies want him? He’d be a massive upgrade over Polanco and a valuable contributor to a lineup that could surely use his bat. In a vacuum, I’d just as soon the Phillies have Headley as anyone. But we don’t live in a vacuum, and to trade for Headley would represent the same kind of mistake the Phillies made in trading for Hunter Pence a year ago, and in re-signing Ryan Howard in 2010: paying a superstar’s price for a good player.

Headley, as Bill said, is about a 3-WAR player. That’s a solid starter. But that number is based in part on massive swings in his UZR, from 16.5 in 2009 to -2.9 last year. I’m confident that Headley can hack it at third, but not that he’s an excellent or even a good defender. This UZR fluctuation has had the same effect on Headley’s career fWAR that BABIP has had on Hunter Pence’s offensive production: when it’s up it’s up, and when it’s down it’s down. But let’s stipulate that when it’s only halfway up, it’s neither up nor down. Headley is a 3-WAR player.

If that’s the case, what would the Phillies pay for Headley? A lot. The Padres can wait to trade Headley, and because the third base offerings are so bad leaguewide, the Phillies are one of perhaps a dozen teams with designs on a playoff spot in the next 18 months and a dire need for a third baseman. It’s a seller’s market, and even if it were wise to part with multiple top prospects (most likely two or more of Larry Greene, Trevor May, Jesse Biddle or more) for Headley, the Phillies would be hard-pressed to match the offers of teams with deeper farm systems. I like Headley’s game, but is it really worth it for the Phillies to gut a weak farm system for, essentially, a good regular? I’ve seen this movie. It doesn’t end well. Someone will pay an insane price for Headley, and I would just as soon it not be the Phillies.

But let’s say they traded for Headley anyway. He’s 28 years old, and in line for two sizable arbitration paydays. That’s only young and cheap when compared to the rest of the Phillies. Headley is entering what is likely the last couple years of his prime and could cost in excess of $15 million for those last two years. Any Headley trade would best be paired with an immediate contract extension to buy out those remaining arbitration years and maybe a year or two of free agency, or else he, like Pence, will soon become very expensive and leave.

So my objection to Headley is not so much an objection with his play, but with how much it would cost in prospects to acquire him and how much it would cost in cash to keep him.

Finally, if the Phillies trade for Headley, say, tomorrow, and hang on to Pence and Shane Victorino, they’ll have the frattiest lineup of all time. They could, on days where Carlos Ruiz rests, field a starting nine of Shane, Chase, Chase, Ryan, Hunter, Jimmy, Laynce, Erik and Cole. That’s not a baseball team. That’s next fall’s rush class at the Wake Forest chapter of Sig Ep. They’d have to change everyone’s walk-up music to “Crazy Game of Poker” by O.A.R. and change the uniform to a pink polo shirt, khaki shorts and boat shoes. They’d have to outlaw any beer other than Natty Light at the CBP concessions stands. But the tailgating would probably be a little better-organized and we’d get t-shirts with big pictures and pithy slogans on the back for every game. So maybe fielding a team of frat boys wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

Probably not important from a baseball perspective, but worth noting nonetheless.

Anyway, Bill’s right–the Phillies need a third baseman going forward. It just shouldn’t be Chase Headley.

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