NEW YORK – Chase Headley has come to New York, which, if you left off a couple years back with Headley an MVP candidate and in negotiations for what a San Diego Padres executive boasted would be the largest contract in club history, doesn't sound so bad.
It's not that Chase Headley.
This Chase Headley, the one the Yankees acquired Tuesday for two ballplayers and a promise to pay most of Headley's salary, hasn't played like that for a while and, therefore, isn't worth that anymore. In fact, though Headley remains a good defender, the numbers say the Yankees just downgraded offensively at third base, where they've been just average over nearly four months.
So, why did the Yankees, did Brian Cashman, even bother?
They had to try, that's why.
And in the 14th inning of his first day as a Yankee, some 4½ hours after he'd introduced himself to his teammates in the dugout – "Chase Headley, nice to meet you" – he pushed a single into left-center field and Brian Roberts scored from third base. The Yankees had won 2-1, and Headley was swarmed by his new best friends, and he emerged from the mob with Mark Teixeira hanging from his neck.
"I couldn't be happier to be a Yankee," he said afterward. "It's unbelievable. I can't believe I'm even saying that."
Facing Texas Rangers right-hander Nick Tepesch in the final inning because Ron Washington had run out of relievers, Headley stepped into the box, then out, then back in again. He'd been told of the trade this morning, gone to Wrigley Field to shave and say farewell to his former teammates, then boarded a flight bound for La Guardia Airport at 3:30 in Chicago.
He said he thought, "Why not? Why wouldn't this day go this way?"
Three pitches later, the game-winner was floating over the shortstop's head.
Headley is 30 years old. He is a switch-hitter. He's batted .308 since the end of June. They take him from the vastness of Petco Park and bring him to Yankee Stadium, to the walk-in closet they call right field. They believe the medicals that say the knee injury of '13 and the back issues of '14 are manageable. They also relieve Headley of what some in San Diego call "Padre fatigue," a syndrome that apparently results from exposure to excessive Padre-ness. For Headley, it might have developed because of the pitcher-friendly ballpark, the losing, the tight and low-scoring games, the notion the team's every offensive failure rested on his bat, the contract that went undone, the general hopelessness.
A scout who'd been in San Diego recently said Headley was swinging the bat better, though still without power, and was moving with some freedom, which he – like the Yankees – attributed to the epidural Headley required to resolve his back pain. Cashman referred specifically to the increase in Headley's "hit velocity," which measures the speed of the ball coming off the bat, and concluded Headley was worth the risk, seemingly minor given the cost was infielder Yangervis Solarte and 23-year-old right-hander Rafael De Paula.
So Headley became the fifth player – after Solarte, Kelly Johnson, Zelous Wheeler and Scott Sizemore – to man third base during Alex Rodriguez's sabbatical, and when the season is over he will be a free agent, at which point he'll be welcome to sleep off the Yankee fatigue.
For the next two months, Headley is free to remain upright, to reclaim his career and to recover some of the money he's spent by failing to produce for going on two years. He arrived a .229 hitter with a sub-.300 on-base percentage. Until the past few weeks, Headley appeared to have left his prime altogether, as if he'd skipped from 28 years old (when he batted .286 with 31 home runs and a league-best 115 RBI) to 38, to a player hanging on by reputation alone. To his credit, he played hard and he played hurt, neither easy when there's so little left of a season in July. He got his season back on Tuesday, and perhaps he can get his career back, too, starting as he did at .000 and four games behind the Baltimore Orioles.
"I'm a firm believer things happen for a reason," Headley said. "Hopefully I can get back to being the type of player I know I am. It may not be 31 and 15. But I know I'm a good player."
He added, "knock on wood," his back feels fine.
"We think he's an upgrade," said Cashman, who for the past months has been losing players – some of them critical players – faster than he can replace them.
While it'd be rude to complain about injuries with the Texas Rangers in town, the Yankees have laid up four members of their starting rotation, have Teixeira resting a sore side, are trying to be gentle with Carlos Beltran, regularly field two 40-year-olds (Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki) and on Tuesday night had Johnson in right field. Johnson had not played right field as a major leaguer. He lasted 10 innings before leaving because of a groin injury.
This is what Cashman is trying to gain on, and it appears to be coming, if only an inch at a time. He acquired Brandon McCarthy from Arizona, and McCarthy pitched well in two starts as a Yankee. Cashman went understated again with Headley, who entered as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning and struck out, and was 0 for 3 as a Yankee until the 14th.
If there's more coming, and it would seem the Yankees' season would depend on more, Cashman sounded as though he was game.
"I feel like I have more work to do," he said.
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