Worrying About Chase Headley

Headley vs SEA 2015 Less than three weeks from pitchers and catchers reporting and I continue to feel good about the 2016 Yankees.  Despite avoiding the MLB free agent pool like the plague, Cash managed to improve major areas of need on the roster and added youth and depth of talent to supplement the aging core.  There's still one player left for him to snag to complete the roster, but I don't actually expect that signing to happen.  The Yankees appear to be set with what they've got to open the year and once again they are going to face a ton of questions.

As far as the questions about the lineup go, I feel good about most of the answers.  I don't expect Jacoby Ellsbury to be as bad as he was in 2015, and the addition of Aaron Hicks should help keep both Ellsbury and Brett Gardner fresher for the later months of the season.  Despite the obvious and measurable signs of permanent decline, I still expect Brian McCann to pop 20+ homers and drive in runs this season.  I think Teix is going to come back and keep raking, even if his production is down a bit from last year's torrid pace, I think Didi and Starlin Castro are going to take a step up, and I even think A-Rod and Carlos Beltran are going to continue to contribute positively as offensive players.

The only guy in the lineup who really worries me is Chase Headley.  He wasn't envisioned as a major offensive factor when the Yankees re-signed him last offseason, but I think everybody was expecting more than a .259/.324/.369 slash line and 91 wRC+.  Bare minimum I think we were all expecting Headley to maintain his ability to get on base and be a flexible lineup option for Joe when matchups were favorable.  Instead he saw his BB rate drop to an average level and his power continue to dwindle.  After being hot or cold for most of the season, Headley finished September at his absolute coldest, posting a .475 OPS and a 28.5% K rate in 123 plate appearances.

As with McCann, a look at the statistical trends shows that last year was not just an off year for Headley.  The dip in OBP and power was the continuation of a 3-year trend that's been taking place since Headley's monster 2012 season, the season that got him a permanent spot on Cashman's wish list.  I touched on this on Twitter over the weekend, but if you're unlucky enough to not follow me, here's the simple scoop.  Headley has seen his BB rate and slugging percentage drop in every season since 2012.  First the BB rate:

12.3% in 2012, 11.3% in 2013, 9.6% in 2014, and 7.9% in 2015

And the SLG:

.498 in 2012, .400 in 2013, .372 in 2014, and .369 in 2015

Both of those 2015 values represented new career lows for Headley, and with them coming at the age of 31 they raise a serious question about how bad the next 3 years of this deal could look.  Headley played in his highest number of games since that 2012 season, but back problems crept up on him again late in the year and surely had something to do with his brutal September.  That back could continue to be a problem this season and beyond, and unfortunately we've seen how bad Headley is when he's not at 100% physically.  Even when he is, he's shown that he's not the hitter he was a few years ago and there's little reason to expect that trend to turn back around at age 32.  Whatever the deeper statistical reasons are, the simple statement of fact is that Headley doesn't get on base or hit for power like he used to.

In addition to that offensive decline, Headley developed the nasty little habit of misfiring on throws from third base last season.  If he wasn't going to be an above-average offensive player, at least the Yankees could take comfort in knowing Headley had the hot corner covered.  Now that's not the case anymore after what was easily his worst defensive season at third.  Call it bad fundamentals, call it bad luck, call it the yips, call it whatever you want.  Again, the simple statement of fact is that Headley was not a good defender at third base last season, and the nature of that decline raises a lot of concerns about how he'll perform on that side of the field this year.

As happy as I was when the Yankees finally acquired him and as much as I was looking forward to his first full season in pinstripes, Chase Headley has become my greatest source of worry on the roster heading into Spring Training.  There's nothing he did in 2015 or over the last 3 seasons to inspire confidence that he'll bounce back.  That 2012 season looks more and more like a freak outlier with each passing year.  Headley never came close to doing anything like that in the seasons before and he hasn't come close in the seasons since.  Now he appears to be on the decline much earlier than people were expecting and the 3 years remaining on his contract don't look good.  I suppose he could he could stay healthy and surprise me this season, but right now I do not feel good about Chase Headley.