The Miami Marlins are looking to bolster their lineup, and while the focus has been at first base, the team should also get creative and figure out methods to build the roster without specifically snagging the positions clearly in need. Position switches could be one way to achieve that, and that is the focus of our 2015 Marlins Offseason Plan after the signing of Giancarlo Stanton. The Marlins' focus has always been on "pitching and defense," and I think it is high time the club respect that decision rather than continue paying lip service to it. One way to do that would be to go after the next player on our list of targets: free agent third baseman Chase Headley.
Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reports that the Marlins had interest in Headley and could be prepared to make a major offer, but Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald mentioned otherwise. Right now, it is unknown whether the real Fish have engaged discussions with Headley, but in our plan, the Marlins should be very interested in him given the current price, which is said to at least be four years and $65 million.
The most important thing to remember about Chase Headley is that his defense is of high caliber. He is a perennial Gold Glove candidate at third base, which is something the Marlins have not had since Mike Lowell patrolled the hot corner in the early 2000's. Headley mixes strong instincts and a good arm at third base. He is regularly among the least error-prone third basemen in the league as well; he committed just eight errors in 124 games last season. Of course, he has the range to match up, so this is not a Casey McGehee situation where he simply does not get to enough balls. According to BIS play-by-play data, Headley made plays on 76 percent of balls hit in his "zone of responsibility." Compare that to the error-less McGehee, who only made plays supposedly on 66 percent of such plays. The difference is large.
Headley does generally pass the eye test as well. He won a Gold Glove in 2012, though that may have been voters recognizing him more thanks to a strong offensive season as well. The Fans Scouting Report voters consistently vote Headley as above average, though not often as through-the-roof good as zone-based metrics have. Still, over three seasons, FSR voters have put Headley as the fourth-best third baseman in baseball, behind only Adrian Beltre, Evan Longoria, and Josh Donaldson.
The Marlins want strong defense, and there's no better way right now to guarantee that kind of play on the right side of the infield than to acquire Headley. The combination of Headley and Adeiny Hechavarria should provide good coverage on one side of the infield, making it harder for righties to pull singles through. If Hechavarria is as good as the Marlins think he is (I have my doubts), having Headley there will mean a death to grounders, which works perfectly for a grounder-inducing starting cast in Miami.
Much is always made about Headley's offense, despite defense being his calling card. People are quick to point out that he struggled for years to provide the production he did in college, and that his 2012 season was a fluke rather than an MVP norm.
Much of that is probably true. Chase Headley is not your middle-of-the-order bopper like he flashed in 2012. That season was probably a fluke. But if we look at the third basemen who have recorded at least 2000 plate appearances since 2010, you will see that Headley actually ranks fairly highly in terms of wRC+, which is a wOBA-based total offense metric that corrects for home ballpark and league adjustments. In that time period, Headley's .266/.350/.412 batting line (.336 wOBA) ranks seventh in wRC+ at 17 percent better than league average. This is essentially equal to the next guy on the list, Pablo Sandoval, who just signed a five-year contract worth $95 million. Sandoval and Headley have essentially been equal hitters when correcting for park effects, with both guys playing in depressing stadiums.
That plays into Miami's advantage to a degree. Sure, Headley may look to go to a hitter's park after years of spending time in Petco, but at least the Fish know that his numbers would translate decently playing in larger dimensions. For a guy who has been lambasted for his hitting throughout his career, it should be noted that only once has Headley ever finished a season hitting below league average (2010). He has spent the rest of his career putting up excellent walk rates and smashing doubles into gaps, of which Marlins Park has plenty.
The concern is that last season was such a disaster relative to his career that he may be heading towards a fast decline. Decline is a significant risk for a 31-year-old, but there are positive signs. Headley supposedly hit liners on 27 percent of his batted balls last season, which is a huge number. He hit .660 on those balls, which is lower than his career .719 mark on liners. It is difficult to imagine Headley's fly balls traveling far due to Petco Park, but his average fly ball distance last season was at 287 feet, which would be among the Marlins' best if he repeated it. The year before, he hit flies an average of 281 feet, so it would appear as if his meager power has not changed much despite the deflated numbers.
And the best part about his offense is, ironically, his defense. Even if Headley declines at the plate and moves closer to league average and below, he still can retain value by playing excellent defense for the Fish. This is the advantage of going after a two-way player rather than a one-sided talent like any first baseman.
The contract would be an issue. Before the signing of Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, the market looked flush with potential third baseman. Headley is now the top name in the market, and competition will be stiff. Four years appears to be the minimum, and at least $60 million is apparently the target number. Apparently Headley has a four-year, $65 million deal in hand, so beating that may be a necessity.
The Marlins have a little bit of salary space available to them, as we discussed before. Stanton's $6.5 million salary would allow Miami to make a move for a free agent this season given their expected $65 million budget. Even at $65 million, Miami could have upwards of $14 million in payroll space available. Adding Aaron Crow to the roster likely cuts that to $12 million, but Miami has backloaded contracts in the past to fit limited space.
They could do that here with Headley. How could a contract look like?
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This proposed deal is for four years and $68 million and would backload the first year of the deal. But would Headley be worth it? The average value of this contract is $17 million a season, which means that the Marlins would be expecting Headley to be around a 2.5-win player per year over the lifetime of the contract. Next season, Headley is expected to hit 12 percent better than league average and provide good defense, at least according to Steamer's projections. Assuming Headley hits the offensive marks but is just five runs above average defensively, he may be worth 3.5 wins in 2015. If you take half a win off per year, Headley hits two wins by the end of his time in Miami, which is perfect for the Fish. He would average 2.75 wins per season, which fits right into the salary's expected value.
Chase Headley even at this price is a good investment for Miami, and the Marlins should look to upgrade and shift Casey McGehee to first in an attempt to corral a solution to one of those positions.