Sitting at seven and 13, the San Diego Padres have had a lackluster start to the 2018 season. Much of what has taken place so far should come as no surprise when considering the team is still marinating in its development. While much of what has taken place on the field has been painfully predictable, there have been some pleasant surprises.
Rookie left-handed pitcher Joey Lucchesi was a last-minute addition to the rotation during opening week and has certainly risen to the occasion. So far he has put together a record of 2-0 with an ERA of 1.66. Right-handed pitcher Adam Cimber, also a rookie, has pitched 13 innings of relief, posting an ERA of 1.38 and a K/9 rate of 11.08. He has been extremely effective out of the bullpen. Then, of course, there’s third baseman Christian Villanueva, who has taken the game by storm, leading all rookies in home runs with six, slashing .327/.421/.776 with a wRC+ of 231. Before his recent surge, it was known that Villanueva has some power, however nobody would have predicted his performance this season, which has earned him some national attention.
The list of predictables include neutral things like Eric Hosmer performing above average (most of the time) both offensively and defensively, Hunter Renfroe being an easy strikeout target for pitchers able to place their pitches, and Luis Perdomo still not quite having things figured out on the mound.
Not all of these things are dire when observed through the lens of development. Granted, the Renfroe strikeouts are extremely frustrating, but just not a huge surprise. It’s easy to go on and on. Bryan Mitchell is a work in progress, not a surprise. Austin Hedges hasn’t put it together at the plate yet, also, not a surprise. Jose Pirela is still hitting well. Okay, that belongs in the pleasant surprise category.
Chase Headley entered this season with pretty low expectations placed on him by a consensus of Padres fans. It would seem that the Padres themselves, and especially Andy Green, has held him with a little higher regard, as demonstrated by giving him the opening day start at third base.
Much of the criticism surrounding Headley has been that he is an average to below average player who can’t come through in clutch situations and has been riding one great half of a season back in 2012 and not much else. Defenders of Headley cite his ability to get on base and his patience at the plate. In as recently as last season, he put up a respectable on base percentage of .352 with the New York Yankees. His ability as a switch hitter was seen as another credit to his game.
What has ended up happening is Headley has performed dismally in the last 19 games, currently slashing .074/.242/.111 with 39% strikeout rate. At the beginning of the season, it seemed that the team viewed him as the starting third baseman. As time has passed and Headley has struggled, he has become at best a spot starter at first and third, and more commonly, a pinch-hitter. It hasn’t helped his cause that Villanueva has performed so well, forcing the team to put him into the lineup everyday. A slow start for Headley and a great start for Villanueva have magnified the attitudes surrounding the season’s early position battle.
So what’s to be done with Headley? Many would argue that the team should cut him, eat his $13 million contract, and be happy with the lottery ticket arm that they received in Mitchell. This would free up a roster spot for another more deserving player and fans would no longer have to agonize over watching Headley play. This knee-jerk reaction is understandable. If fans are expected to watch a developing team, might as well actually give the younger players the chance to prove themselves.
Maybe cutting Headley is inevitable, and in fact, the best course of action, but could waiting just a little bit longer before doing that be the wisest move? It’s silly to base a decision on one at-bat, but on April 17 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Headley gave some merit to Andy Green’s faith in him. Headley was sent to the plate in the ninth inning with two outs, Kenley Jansen was on the hill, Franchy Cordero was on third and the Dodgers were leading 3-2. Maybe it was that Green was out of his best bench options, or maybe it’s that he truly believes in Headley, but regardless, he put him into that game at its biggest moment. Headley worked the count to full before slicing a line drive into right field for a double, scoring Cordero and tying up the game. He immediately became the hero, and for those few moments, San Diego loved him again. The Padres would go on to lose the game 5-3 in the 12th inning, but the moral victory was almost enough to soothe the pain.
The best-case scenario would be that this event would ignite Headley and bring him back to being the serviceable, and frankly above average player, that he has been for years. If this is the case, the team can try to rebuild his value to flip at the trade deadline in exchange for more prospects to add to the stockpile. Headley would get to join a contender and the Padres would continue to build for the future.
There’s no doubt that the team needs to be focusing on the future. Villanueva needs to be the man at third base right now. Headley really has no future with the Padres. He can be, however, a solid switch hitting piece off the bench, and potentially a trade asset if he can actually use Tuesday night’s game as a springboard moving forward. Otherwise, the team may need to eat some money pretty soon.