Pirates Pursuing Chase Headley
According to Ken Rosenthal, the Pirates’ current hot streak has their front office pondering additions to the offense; the latest trade rumors hint at the Bucs’ interest in Bryan LaHair, Kevin Youkilis and Chase Headley. Let’s look at each of these players to determine if they are a good fit for the club, as well as what the cost might be to acquire them.
LaHair is a 29 year-old career minor leaguer who is making the most of his first real chance at the big leagues. Still, the Cubs would dispense of him at the first sign of a reasonable offer, given their heist of Anthony Rizzo in the offseason. Here are LaHair’s numbers so far this season:
Lest you get too excited, LaHair has 27 at bats against left-handed pitchers this season, and has struck out in 46.9% of them. While the small sample size is making this tendency look worse than it is, LaHair has always been a considerably better hitter against right-handers. That fact makes him of limited value to the Pirates, who have had a worse time coming up with a right-handed platoon partner for Garrett Jones over the last few years; this year’s models, Casey McGehee and Matt Hague, have been slow off the blocks. More importantly, the last thing the Bucs need on a team that struggles to make contact is another player who strikes out nearly 30% of the time; just imagine LaHair and Pedro Alvarez in the same lineup. Theo Epstein may hold out for a legitimate prospect in a deal for LaHair, but there is virtually no chance that he will get one from Pittsburgh.
Now let’s look at Kevin Youkilis. The Greek God of Walks has been hurt so often recently that his value has plummeted. He posted a wRC+ of 159 in 2010, and was down to 126 in 2011. This year he sits at 85, at age 33. Worse yet, he too is fanning at a 27% clip. Even if a team wants to gamble on Youkilis holding it together and contributing down the stretch, they will still be faced with a $13M option year and no compensation pick for their trouble. This makes Youkilis essentially a rental player, and Neal Huntington has flatly stated that he will not trade a top prospect for a rental. If the Red Sox are amenable to just dumping salary in exchange for a couple of minor league nonentities, I could see the Pirates taking this gamble. Otherwise, I believe they will pass.
Chase Headley is a horse of a different color. He is a financial fit for the Pirates in that he would be under team control through 2014, and might be amenable to a contract extension that would include his first two free agent seasons. The issue with Headley is simply determining how good he is. He has always put up respectable numbers despite playing his home games at Petco, and he has improved considerably over the last two years, his 27 and 28 year-old seasons.
What has many followers of the game attracted to Headley as a trade target is the obvious fact that he has always hit much better away from Petco. Headley will never be a big power guy, but an ISO of .147 and OPS of .818 would probably resonate positively with Pirates’ fans. But there is something that nags me about Headley, and that is pinning down how much of his home/road differential is an accurate representation of the effects of Petco, as opposed to an exceedingly high BAbip. I took a look back at the history of Petco, and the average BAbip for Padres hitters at home has been .283, against.300 on the road. Headley’s are .300 at Petco and .373 on the road. I really find that to be quite an extraordinary road BAbip over such an extended period of time – basically two full seasons of plate appearances. Obviously, it would go down slightly simply as a result of playing a few road games a year at Petco, but still, that is quite a number. To put it in perspective, here is a list of players with the highest total BAbip from 2007-2012 (minimum of 2,000 at bats), as well as their home/road splits:
|Shin Soo Choo||.352||.359||.345|
To begin with, Headley is 13th in total BAbip during this period, yet his home BAbip is a full 33 points lower than the next lowest player – Petco is clearly killing Headley. In 2009 and 2010 – when his total BAbip was in the range of .325 – Headley’s overall numbers were not very exciting. His superior OBP and SLG% in 2011 as well as 2012 coincide with increased BAbips of .368 and .342 respectively. Looking at batted ball data, Headley has certainly adapted to Petco in ways that would be associated with developing a higher BAbip; from 2009 – 2012, he has increased both his LD% and GB% by 5%, and decreased his FB% by 10%. So his improved numbers over the last two years seem to be genuine. But is it realistic to take his road numbers at face value? Probably not, but the list of names above puts him in some rarified air; not even Joey Votto and Matt Kemp have career road BAbips as high as Headley’s, and no one is claiming they are due for a regression to the mean.
Having determined that Headley is a really good hitter – probably better than most people think – there are two issues the Pirates would have to resolve to make a deal for him viable. The most readily apparent is that the Pirates already have a third baseman (of sorts) in Pedro Alvarez. Headley would probably have to be moved to first base or left field, which he would probably not take kindly to, and which would weaken the team’s defense considerably.
The other issue is the cost to acquire him. Regardless of what side of the fence you are on about Headley, he will undoubtedly be the priciest player of this threesome by far. I am confident that Neal Huntington will be very reluctant to part with Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Luis Heredia, Starling Marte or Josh Bell, but I also have no doubt that the Padres will want one of these players in a package. However, there is an alternative that would solve both problems – a trade of Alvarez for Headley.
Unlike some Pirates’ fans who believe we have a well of minor league talent just waiting to overflow, the truth is that the Pirates are in a better position to trade from their own 25-man roster than from the upper levels of their farm system. The Pirates’ system may have attracted a good deal of attention lately, but it is top heavy and lacks depth; a trade of any of their top 5 prospects could be ruinous for their future. What the Pirates do have is Alvarez, and an immediate need for more offense. The Padres are certainly in a position to trot him out there every day and see if they can turn him around – his power is one thing that is not in dispute. He has had one tantalizing torrid streak this season that certainly did not go unnoticed by scouts. The Padres do have third base prospects in James Darnell and Jedd Gyorko, but both come with significant question marks.
Despite his youth and potential, Alvarez would not be enough to pry Headley from the Padres. Rather than give up Marte, or any of the few remaining top hitters in the system, I would offer another young, underperforming player in Jose Tabata. He too has shown flashes of brilliance, and he has the range and arm to man a good deal of Petco’s vast outfield. If the Padres turn these players around, they could have a significant win; the chances of success are just as strong as the chances they would be taking on developing minor league prospects.
If the Pirates find themselves relevant a month from now, and do manage to swing a big deal for a hitter, I expect it will turn out to be Headley. Hopefully the price will not be too steep for an organization that really is not ready to peak for another two years.