A few days ago Josh Scramlin made the argument here that the Tigers should have traded for Yoenis Cespedes rather than David Price at the non-waiver deadline. I’m not sure I agree with that one, but I’m also not convinced that Price was the right guy or the only right guy for the Tigers to go after. With this week’s series in the Big Apple, you’ll get a chance to see the guy I think the Tigers should have swung a deal for: third baseman Chase Headley.
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Headley has been mentioned quite a bit as a trade target here at MCB in seasons past, but he has not been the hitter of old lately and as a result the package that the Yankees had to give up to get him in July was nothing like what had been discussed in years past. Headley is a pure rental, but the bargain price of Yangervis Solarte (a stopgap 3B) and Rafael De Paula (a middling pitching prospect) seems well worth it. This would be very much like the Tigers parting with Drew VerHagen and Don Kelly in the same deal, though Yankees fans are free to disagree.
Ah, but the Tigers HAVE a third baseman, you say? One who is hitting better than Chase Headley, you say? You wouldn’t be wrong. Headley is slashing only .235/.301/.361 thus far in 2014 which puts him almost 50 points of OPS behind Nick Castellanos. That might be assuming too much, though. Headley has a long track record of hitting better and he’s bound to see at least a little bump (which we might be seeing already in NY) once outside of the Petco hitters graveyard. I like Castellanos’ bat a lot long term, but for the next 2 months I’d say Headley is no worse than a wash.
No worse than a wash is no reason to trade for a guy, no matter how big the bargain, but that’s not what this is about. The sad truth is that Nick Castellanos’ glove is – at the moment – one of the Tigers biggest weaknesses. Depending on which advanced metric you use, Casty is either one of the worst defensive third baseman in baseball or downright THE worst defensive third baseman in baseball. Overall, the Tigers are an average team in the field aside from twin black holes in Castellanos and Torii Hunter. Castellanos specifically is rated at 20 runs below average by Defensive Runs Saved. Headley, on the other hand, rates as one of the better defensive third basemen, as he typically has/- 10 runs above average according to the aforementioned Defensive Runs Saved.
Prior to the big “arms race” trades that brought Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland and David Price and Joakim Soria to Detroit Tigers and Athletics pitching were close to equal according to their peripherals, xFIPs, etc… but far, far apart in terms of actual run prevention. The problem was and is a yawning gap in terms of converting balls in play into outs – something that the Tigers have struggled to do in relative terms for several years. That bad BABIP allowed goes hand in hand with (typically) and is probably a function of bad defense. Fix the defense, bring down the ERA. Replace Castellanos with Headley and more balls get converted into outs, everyones ERAs drift downwards.
There is no doubt that replacing Drew Smyly with David Price is a sizable upgrade for the rotation. ZiPS and Steamer project either 2.3 or 2.5 fWAR for Smyly by season’s end and either 5.4 or 5.7 for Price. That’s a little over 30 runs worth or run differential (and in the neighborhood of 3 wins, of course). But… going by DRS, exchanging Castellanos’ glove for Headleys would have prevented almost the same number of additional runs: 30 through the season’s first 4 months. Strange that few think of D as an area in which the Tigers need to improve.
Dealing for Headley instead of Price would have left the Tigers in better financial shape for 2015 and with a stronger outfield, dealing for Headley AND Price would genuinely have put the Tigers on par with the A’s (as what really separates Detroit today from the team with the best record in the American League is defense). Of course, it’s all just wishful thinking: the Tigers are going to go finish the season with the team that they have and not the team that we wish that they had. Postseason success is going to require rebounds from Phil Coke and Justin Verlander (among others). And, of course, the Tigers are going to try to muddle through in spite of the most foreseen of all their foreseeable weaknesses, Nick Castellanos’ glove.