After a blissful start to the season, the familiar grumbling about Chase Headley's hitting is back in full force. When he's scuffled earlier in his career with the Yankees, there weren't any immediate options to replace him, so the Yankees kept trotting him out there. To his credit, the switch-hitter's full season performances have been respectable in pinstripes even though a couple of cold streaks have marred them. This year, though, the Yankees may not wait for Headley's offensive numbers to normalize over a full year. Gleyber Torres, recently promoted to Triple-A and the team's top prospect, is expected to be a future star and could prove to be an upgrade at the hot corner this season. Though Torres' primary position is shortstop, he's gotten plenty of work at second and third base, so he might become the solution to Headley's woes, should they continue.
At the end of the day on April 19th, Headley was sitting pretty. He sported a .396/.500/.646 (216 wRC+) batting line with 3 home runs and 3 stolen bases through 58 plate appearances. This was a thrilling start, especially after his putrid beginning to 2016, when he didn't have an extra base hit until May 12th. Nobody was expecting the third baseman to continue his torrid start, but it appeared that Headley was finally going to put together an above average offensive campaign in pinstripes. Alas, just about any player is capable of putting together a hot 58 trips to the plate. Headley's full season batting line is now down to .237/.310/.382 (89 wRC+). It's been quite the slump for the switch-hitting 33 year-old, and perhaps especially daunting for him assuming he's aware that the organization bumped Torres to Scranton.
To my knowledge, there aren't any nicks or bruises nagging Headley that would be explain his slump. His last 110 plate appearances, since the April 19th cutoff I had previously mentioned, have been ugly: .163/.209/.260 (22 wRC+). He's been striking out a ton (30%) and rarely walking (4.5%). In fact, Headley hasn't drawn a base on balls since May 3rd. For a guy with nearly a 10% career walk rate, that's stunning.
The problem appears to be that following his hot start, opposing pitchers started throwing the ball outside of the zone more often. Meanwhile, Headley began to chase bad pitches at a higher clip as time has passed this season. The combination of those two trends is not a recipe for success, and certainly would explain why he's going down on strikes at a higher rate while being unable to reach via walk. His Zone% is starting to tick back up again, but his chase rate is also continuing to rise.
On a positive note, Headley's quality of contact has remained pretty steady throughout the year. His exit velocities haven't wavered much since his hot start, though there haven't been nearly as many balls in play because of his plate discipline issues.
Headley never has and never will light up the exit velocity leaderboards like teammate Aaron Judge, but at least he hasn't exhibited a drop in hard contact during his slump. His plate discipline has been worrisome, but I'd be even more concerned if it was in tow with poor contact. If Headley can get back to his career norms with walks and strikeouts, he should be able to get back to the level of play we've grown accustomed to. No, he won't surge back to the level he was at to start the year, but he's been roughly a league average hitter for much of his career. That seems like a reasonable expectation.
Since his acquisition, Headley's been an easy scapegoat when the offense struggles. He doesn't have a gorgeous swing, so when things are going badly, it looks particularly ugly for him. That said, he's been a bastion of consistency at the plate in the prior two seasons. He posted a 92 wRC+ in both 2015 and 2016, his first two full seasons in the Bronx. Right now, Headley is down to an 89 wRC+ on the season (though admittedly, it feels so much lower). As hinted at before, in no way do I think Headley is done. After all, he turned it around last year after his hideous start and was a solid contributor. I don't see why he can't be a near league average bat the rest of the season. ZiPS (89 wRC+ RoS) and Steamer (95 wRC+ RoS) seem to concur with my sentiment. Then again, there's a potential upgrade approximately 125 miles west: Gleyber Torres.
Torres, 20, tore up Double-A before his recent bump to Triple-A. He's undoubtedly the future centerpiece of the Yankees infield, whether it's at second, third, or shortstop. Given Headley's struggles, his lack of long-term future with the club, and Torres starting to force the issue, it appears that third base is the most likely spot at the moment.
As Mike Axisa of River Ave. Blues noted yesterday, the Yankees have proven that they aren't afraid to bench or trade highly paid players when a prospect deserves a chance. Axisa specifically pointed out two examples from last summer: Gary Sanchez stealing time from Brian McCann and Tyler Austin bumping Mark Teixeira. In the offseason, McCann was traded with two years remaining on his contract (the Yankees are on the hook for a good chunk of that) and Teixeira retired. Perhaps McCann is the model to follow this year with Headley? It would make a lot of sense, provided that Headley doesn't snap out of his slump and Torres continues his hot hitting in the International League. Heck, even if Headley gets his ducks in a row, Torres might be too good to ignore. It's not like McCann was a drag on the Yankees last year when he was eschewed.
The question is: when is the appropriate time to replace Headley with Torres? That leads to a handful of other questions for the front office to answer: Does Torres, the team's top prospect, need a month or two in Triple-A, or just a few weeks? How much patience should the organization have with Headley? Would there be any trade interest in Headley? As long as Torres plays well in the minors and Headley falters, the pressure will mount to make a change. It's far more likely than not that Headley is still a solid-average big league player, but there's a decent chance that Torres is already better than that (and is projected to be a future star). If that's the case, it's difficult to argue against giving Torres a chance.