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Chasing a third baseman: Is Headley an option?

The free agent market at third base seems barren. Could the Cardinals be a match in a deal with the Yankees?

The Cardinals have already addressed the most glaring hole on their roster, signing center fielder Dexter Fowler to a five-year, $82.5 million deal earlier this month. The deal gives them a true center fielder and leadoff hitter, and they should be commended for locking in their prime target. Still, as they should, the Cardinals continue to seek out further upgrades this winter.

Two names that have popped up in recent weeks are Edwin Encarnacion and Mark Trumbo, with the thought being that one of those sluggers could man first base and bump Matt Carpenter back to third. Another possibility, at least until recently, was Justin Turner, who seemed like a better fit for the Cards than either Encarnacion or Trumbo. Alas, a return to Los Angeles always seemed inevitable for Turner, and the Dodgers were able to retain him.

Turner’s removal from the market has left the landscape barren at the hot corner. So instead, we look to the trade market. We’ve already explored the idea of Todd Frazier, but one year of him doesn’t seem to be worth the cost in prospects. Of course, the Cardinals already have a perfectly viable option in Jhonny Peralta, not to mention Jedd Gyorko. Still, let’s throw one more name into the hat: Chase Headley.

Why he fits

Offensively, Headley and Peralta were pretty much the same player in 2016. Peralta (.260/.307/.408/.715) had a 90 wRC+ season, meaning 10 percent below league average, while Headley (.253/.331/.385/.716, 92 wRC+) was about the same. Now, you may say that Headley had the luxury of Yankee Stadium while Peralta was stuck in Busch Stadium, and you’d have a fair point, but wRC+ takes this into account, so those values are normalized already. Steamer projects the two to be neck-and-neck again in 2017, with Peralta ticketed for a 96 wRC+ campaign and Headley for a 95 wRC+.

Remember, however, that hitting isn’t the only way batters create offensive value. Once batters are on base, they turn into runners, and what they do once on the basepaths can affect a game just as much as a given plate appearance. According to FanGraphs, Headley provided 3.9 baserunning runs above average, while Peralta was 2.2 baserunning runs below average. That distinction is what provides the difference in their overall offensive values, where Peralta was a 5.9-run negative and Headley was a 1.0-run detractor.

Also, it’s a plus that Headley is a switch-hitter while Peralta is a righty. Minus third base, the Cardinals currently have four righties, two lefties, and a switch-hitter in the starting lineup. Adding the second switch-hitter of the offseason would give manager Mike Matheny plenty of flexibility with his lineup card.

Still, neither is really a difference-maker on the offensive side of the ball. Defense, on the other hand, is where Headley’s true advantage lies. Headley, a 2012 NL Gold Glove Award winner, had seven defensive runs saved in 2016. Peralta, on the other hand, had negative eight DRS. That 15 DRS difference between the two is the same as Adrian Beltre. And that’s with Peralta only playing 570.1 innings at the hot corner due to injury. Put all that together and you have a player that was worth 3.1 more fWAR than Peralta in 2016.

Overall, Headley fits what the Cardinals are trying to do this offseason. He would make them slightly more athletic and much better defensively. At the same time, they wouldn’t lose anything at the plate, get a bit more flexible, and even get a bit younger (Headley is 32, Peralta is 34).

What a trade would look like

Now for the tough part: making a trade work. That requires us to answer two questions. One, why would the Yankees trade Headley? Two, what would it take?

The first question makes sense for a lot of reasons. The Cardinals and Yankees as trade partners are a perfect fit. The Cardinals are looking to contend this season, while the Yankees, even after signing Aroldis Chapman, probably have their sights set on 2018 and beyond. They’ve shown an unprecedented willingness to trade veterans to restock the farm system, starting with the trade deadline fire sale and the more recent Brian McCann trade. Most importantly, they want to get under the luxury tax line in the near future, and Headley is owed $13 million in each of the next two seasons–perfectly reasonable for him, but a good chunk of cash that they can get off the books.

The second question might be a bit more difficult. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has reportedly been turning down offers for Headley in recent weeks. There’s no doubt the Yankees intend to begin 2017 competitively, and trading Headley makes that tricky business. While an obvious trade candidate, they have almost no one to replace him. There’s Ronald Torreyes and Ruben Tejada, and Miguel Andujar isn’t ready yet. So there’s no urgency to trade Headley, as opposed to someone like Brett Gardner, who sits in a crowded Bronx outfield.

Luckily for the Cardinals, trading for Headley also means they’ll need to deal Peralta (or Gyorko), unless they plan on having an expensive bench option. So why not start the return with Peralta? It gives the Yankees a viable third base option for 2017 until Andujar is ready, and New York gets to clear $3 million in 2017 and another $13 million in 2018, when the payroll becomes more important.

To build around Peralta, let’s look at the aforementioned McCann trade for an outline. McCann, like Headley, had two years remaining at $17 million each, and the Yankees ate $5.5 million in each year to trade him at two years, $23 million, roughly the same terms as Headley’s deal. McCann, though, has a long track record of being a better hitter than Headley and plays a more valuable position. So let’s look at the return the Yankees got for him and work down from there.

To get McCann, the Astros gave up Albert Abreu and Jorge Guzman, two promising but very young arms. At best, Guzman can be described as interesting, while Abreu is a few yards short of baseball’s top 100 prospects. Since we already have a major league piece going back to the Yankees in Peralta, let’s assume the Yankees get one other piece back in this deal, someone in between the talent levels of Abreu and Guzman and similarly far from MLB.

Again, the Cardinals seem to be a great fit in a potential trade. Browsing over MLB.com’s top 30 Cardinals prospects, St. Louis has a handful of guys who fit that description after their top prospects. Magneuris Sierra, Edmundo Sosa, Junior Fernandez, and Sandy Alcantra, among others, all seem to fit the bill. The Yankees tend to target big guys with nasty stuff among pitchers, and Fernandez and Alcantra definitely check those boxes at 6’1″, 180 pounds and 6’4″, 170 pounds, respectively. Here’s a snippet of each pitcher’s scouting report via MLB.com:

Fernandez lit up radar guns last summer, throwing his four-seamer in the 94-99 mph range and touching triple digits on occasion. But the teenager is more than just a thrower, with a solid feel for pitching. He’ll throw a two-seamer with pretty good sink and shows an advanced feel for his changeup, an offspeed pitch that could be plus in time. His third pitch is his slider, which is fairly new to him. Fernandez throws it with tight spin, but it’s still inconsistent.

His ability to command his fastball and changeup alone should allow him to succeed at some level. If the slider improves, Fernandez has the chance to be a pretty special starter. If not, his power stuff certainly would work out of a bullpen. Fernandez’s combination of stuff and pitchability gives him the most upside of any pitcher in the system after Reyes.

And Alcantra:

Based on pure velocity, Alcantara has a top of the scale fastball, one that hits 99-101 mph and sits consistently north of 95 mph. A lack of movement and below-average command keep it from being an 80 on the scouting scale. The rest of his stuff is raw. His changeup is a bit more consistent than his breaking pitches and he will show an above-average offspeed pitch from time to time. Alcantara is working on both a curve and slider, with the former ahead of the latter, an 11-to-5 breaker with good rotation and depth at times. He started to show the ability to throw strikes more consistently with his secondary pitches during his jump to full-season ball in 2016.

Let’s assume the Cardinals would be more hesitant to deal Fernandez based on the pure upside that he possesses. That’s not to say that Alcantra doesn’t have upside, but the Yankees tend to take guys like him (Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, Abreu, Guzman) with nasty stuff and hope the command comes later. Alcantra could well end up as a reliever if he fails to improve his command. So say the Cardinals would be willing to give up Alcantra.

The verdict

So would something like Headley for Peralta and Alcantra work? I think it’s fair, and I think it’s something the Cardinals should pursue. It wouldn’t be a flashy splash like Encarnacion would, but it would accomplish the Cardinals’ offseason goals while not costing them a ton. Get it done, Mozeliak.

Image Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

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