As the pre-deadline trade market has taken shape over the last few days, it’s become clear that the Indians’ top target if they decide to buy is San Diego Padres third baseman Chase Headley. He’s been mentioned with Cleveland in multiple trade rumors since last week, with various sources calling the Tribe one of the three or four most likely destinations for the 28-year-old right hander.
Assuming the reports are true and the Indians really are pursuing Headley, one big question looms: Why?
It’s easy to see Headley’s appeal. He’s hitting .267/.363/.423 with 12 home runs, 51 RBI, 51 runs scored, and 11 stolen bases in 2012 despite playing his home games in cavernous Petco Park. He plays great defense at third base and he’s on track for his second straight 125-wRC+ season (i.e., he’s been 25 percent better than a league-average MLB hitter)—put it all together and FanGraphs has him at a phenomenal 3.9 wins above replacement this year. Plus he’s in his prime, he’s under team control through 2014 with a skill set that’s undervalued in arbitration, and he’s right-handed.
The problem isn’t that Headley isn’t good enough. He’s clearly an All-Star-caliber player, and he’d be a huge upgrade over the Tribe’s current hot corner platoon of Jack Hannahan and Jose Lopez. The issue is that any team’s trade for Headley would be as much (if not more) about 2013 and 2014 than about 2012, and in that regard he isn’t a very good fit for Cleveland.
Between Jack Hannahan’s offensive struggles and Jose Lopez in general, the Indians aren’t getting very much production at the hot corner this year. But that’s because Lonnie Chisenhall is temporarily out of the picture after a wrist injury prematurely ended his season. Plate discipline issues aside, Chisenhall has shown solid power and a sweet swing, and it’s safe to say that the Tribe would be in much better shape at third base with him on the active roster.
Chisenhall’s on the shelf now, but he won’t be in 2013 and 2014. There may be reasons to be concerned about his development and we don’t know how comfortable he’ll feel once his wrist heals, but even if he’s already hit his ceiling he’s basically an average third baseman—and as a 23-year-old former top prospect who’s already established himself in the majors, it’s reasonable to assume that there’s some room for growth.
With Chisenhall firmly set as the heir apparent at the hot corner, acquiring Headley to play third would be a long-term solution to a temporary problem. Obviously it would be nice to have Headley around no matter what, but there are other teams in the mix who are in need of some stability at third. It wouldn’t be wise for the Indians to get caught up in a bidding war with more desperate suitors.
Another possibility that’s been floated is the idea of putting Headley in left field or at first base, but again that would be an inefficient use of the Tribe’s limited resources. Headley hasn’t played the outfield since 2009 and he has only three innings of MLB experience at first, so it’s not as though it would be a seamless transition. More importantly, though, Headley’s glove is best at the hot corner and a third baseman who hits like he does is more valuable than a similarly good left fielder or first baseman. Again, he would mean more to a team that could maximize his talent. Trading for Headley and then moving him off third base would be like dealing for Zack Greinke and making him a long reliever.
It’s been established that interest in Headley is huge and that the San Diego’s asking price for him reflects the high demand. The Padres—and presumably most suitors—value Headley as a great third baseman, and the package it would take to pry him away would be based on that idea. Even if the Indians made them an offer they liked, another club that sees Headley as a long-term third baseman would top it.
So what’s the big deal if the worst that happens is that we don’t get him? Well, there is actually a worse scenario: We might overpay for him. It’s shocking to me that the Indians are still purported to be seriously interested in Headley despite his huge price tag. Unless the rumors about Headley coming to Cleveland are overblown, then the front office is seriously considering paying a premium for a player who isn’t really a good fit for the Tribe. And that’s worrisome.
There’s no question that Headley makes this team better, and if the Indians are still serious about contending in 2012 he could be just what the doctor ordered to boost this team back into the race. But a deal with San Diego would mean getting a decent left fielder for the price of an elite third baseman. And that just doesn’t make any sense.