Chasing Headley

Denis Poroy

With rumors swirling again, should the Braves look to acquire the switch-hitting third baseman.

Chris Johnson was one of the best stories of 2013 for the Atlanta Braves.

Considered an afterthought in the Justin Upton trade, Johnson finished 2nd for the NL batting title with a .321 average, and he was one of the few consistent offensive contributors to the NL East title run. He continued to win fans over by being part of Freddie Freeman's hugging campaign and for sticking up for his teammates during those ... controversial ... moments toward the end of the season. And while he had his little dust-up with Terry Pendleton, it was over quickly, and it wasn't the result of Johnson being an idiot or a problem - he just cusses at himself a lot and throws things. Overall, Johnson is a pretty lovable guy, and he did what we all wanted him to do - hit.

Of course, that was 2013, and we are now worried about 2014. And that is precisely where Chase Headley comes in. Seemingly in the rumor mill for the past several seasons, Headley is squarely back in the picture as it appears extension talks between him and the Padres have gone nowhere. With the Padres somewhere in the middle of the competitive cycle, they'd be happy to keep Headley around for the next winning ballclub, but without that signed extension, they'd like to get more than a draft pick for their star third baseman. Should the Braves pounce?

During several of the primer posts, we've discussed the difference between "production" and "talent", and Johnson will be a nice test case. Production is simply how much a player contributed during a certain period of time, and hitting .321/.358/.457 (127 wRC+; weighted Runs Created - a way to compare hitting production across the league where 100 is average) and netting 3 wins makes a player pretty valuable. But "talent" is how much production we can expect a player to have for a certain period of time, and that's why we're looking at replacing Chris Johnson.

The first spot to look is Johnson's hitting production. That .321/.358/.457 line is more than fine. Despite not walking very much, I'll take that line every day of the week and twice on Sundays. The problem is that we probably won't be offered that line again. Johnson's career batting line is .289/.328/.438, which is good for a 108 wRC+. He's a good hitter, but as you can see, it's below what he did last year. The issue is if he can repeat 2013 in 2014.

The answer is probably no. Lord BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) had a huge .394 BABIP last season, and while his career mark is .361, that still means he probably produced more than we can expect him to repeat. His batted ball profile was excellent - the 27% LD% (Line Drive%) is well above-average and the reason he can sustain a high BABIP - but it wasn't terribly different from past seasons. He struck out a lot less - 21% vs. his 24% career mark - and that definitely helps. Johnson is also in his peak seasons. But that was probably Johnson's peak season, and Steamer - which uses historical data and comparables to predict future performance - projects a slash line that mirrors his career line.

In terms of runs added offensively, that means an 11-run loss from 2013 to 2014. Johnson was 14-15 runs above average in 2013, but the 2012 season that was close to his career marks had him around 3-4 runs above average. Keep this in mind.

We also need to worry about baserunning and defense, both of which peak earlier than hitting does. Johnson's -2 runs on the basepaths fit his career norms and probably declining speed, so there was no weird thing there, though he might be slightly worse in 2014. Defensively, he wasn't the worst third baseman in the world according to UZR or DRS, but both had him around 6 runs below average. He's been worse to a lot worse in previous seasons, but one could make the argument that Andrelton Simmons takes away some of that negative value by being so good. I'm not sure if he'll be worse next season, but I can't imagine him being better.

In terms of runs, we're not really subtracting anything from the baserunning or defensive sections, but we aren't adding anything, either. Johnson was worth about 3 wins last season, and if we take away the 11 runs (or about 1 win due to 10 runs being about equal to 1 win), that leaves us with about a 2-win expectation for 2014. Even if you want to believe that Johnson won't be as bad as this, we're still talking about a 2-3 win player, who maxes out just shy of 3 wins.

Chase Headley offers more than that. Despite his .250/.347/.400 slash line from 2013 being worse than Johnson's, Headley was actually worth more overall according to fWAR (FanGraphs' version) and way more according to bWAR (Baseball-Reference's). Why? Baserunning and defense. While he's not much on the bases, Headley is one of the better defensive 3B in the league, consistently above-average according to both UZR and DRS. There's almost a win and a half gap between Headley and Johnson on defense.

But what about that bat? After merely being above-average early in his career, Headley became one of the better hitters in baseball in 2012 with a .286/.376/.498 line while hitting in Petco for half his games (145 wRC+). Headley, of course, didn't repeat that in 2013. Headley fractured his thumb in Spring Training, and thumb injuries are notorious for causing power outages - Headley's ISO (ISOlated power - SLG minus BA) dropped from an excellent .212 to an average-ish .150. Is that and the loss in batting average due to the thumb? Maybe in part, but it was also unlikely that Headley would simply maintain 2012 levels of power in 2013 and beyond.

Now, what about 2014? Steamer projects a line very similar to 2013 - .254/.344/.400 - and with park effects added in, that's essentially equal to Johnson's projected line - 112 to 109 wRC+; if Headley played in Atlanta, the line would look a little better. Add in the baserunning and defense, and Headley is clearly the better player. The question is how much. Steamer says about 2 wins, and that seems about right given Headley's history.

Two wins could mean a lot for the Braves - current estimates are putting a win around $6-7 million in worth, and for a winning team like the Braves, it's probably toward the upper part of that limit and maybe more. The Padres will also point toward Headley's ceiling. The main difference between Headley's value in 2012 (7.2 wins) and 2013 (3.6 wins) was 100 PA and 18 HR. The 100 PA should come back as Headley's been fairly healthy in his career, and the Padres will argue that much of the power will come back in a more neutral park and with a healthier thumb. Will it? Probably not all the way, but there seems to be a decent chance that some of it does - Headley, like Johnson, is also in his peak.

That makes Headley more of a 4-5 win player, meaning more of a 3 win difference with a chance at 4. With so few spots for the Braves to really improve this offseason, they can't simply ignore the possibility. The last bit of information we need is how much Headley will cost. MLBTR projects $10M for him in his last season of arbitration, and if we give him 4 wins of value for 2014, that's (4 x $7M per win) $28M in value and an $18M "surplus" that has to be accounted for in the trade.

That $18M, according to probably outdated but excellent research, plus the draft pick the receiving team would likely get (valued at around $2M) is worth a very top pitching prospect (Lucas Sims) or a pretty good position player prospect (Christian Bethancourt) plus a little extra. You might be able to split the value up and give up a guy like Jose Peraza along with a solid pitching prospect (Mauricio Cabrera, maybe), but it's up to the Padres there. We simply don't know. What we do know is that the Padres don't have as much leverage as they did last season - Headley came back to Earth, is only under control for 2014, and is going to cost ~$10M, which isn't chump change - but they do still hold the asset teams covet.

So is the extra 2-3 wins worth it? Probably. The Braves have a pretty tight window to win - basically 2014 and 2015 - and Headley, barring injury, makes this team better in 2014. As always, it just depends on the price the Padres demand, and we simply don't know what that is. Headley's probably a 4-win player, and he has the ceiling of a 6-win player if a chunk of the power returns. Plus, they would likely get a draft pick when he presumably walks at the end of the season.

As for Chris Johnson, the Braves have a few options. Keeping him a $4M bench player isn't terrible, but the straight addition of Headley's $10M probably taps out the budget. The Braves don't really need to add anything, so it's not the worst thing in the world. The Braves could also trade Johnson to a team looking for a 3B - Yankees, White Sox, Tigers, Dodgers (?) - and clear some of the payroll while netting a useful player in return. There's nothing wrong with shuffling things around.

But in the end, I feel fairly similarly to this as I did with trading for a front-line pitcher - I get it if it happens, and I get it if it doesn't - and the Braves will likely have to choose between Headley or a front-line pitcher if they choose to seel the farm. This is still a 90+-win team that doesn't really have any immediate needs, but with the window possibly closing as the young players go through arbitration, I wouldn't mind going for the gusto and dealing with the consequences in 2016.

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