Since Adrian Gonzalez emerged as San Diego's franchise player last year, people have wondered who would emerge as Robin to the former No. 1 overall pick's Batman. There were times when it looked like it would be Kevin Kouzmanoff. There were times when it looked like it would be Scott Hairston or Kyle Blanks, too. But now not a single one of those guys is a major contributor to the Padres, and the guy who did emerge is someone that we probably should've thought of all along: former second-round pick and top prospect Chase Headley.
Headley had already been with the Padres for most of 2008 and all of 2009, but underwhelming offensive numbers for a below-average defensive left fielder were awfully disappointing for a player that Baseball America ranked as the No. 32 prospect in all baseball coming into the 2008 season. Plagued by low contact rates and a surprising lack of power given his minor league track record, Headley was able to put up slightly above-average offensive numbers when factoring in Petco Park despite these issues. But as a left fielder who was giving back runs with his glove, he had trouble establishing himself as a legitimate long-term regular.
But with Kouzmanoff's salary increasing through arbitration and the team interested in maximizing it's talent (i.e. instead of putting one of their two 3B in the outfield, how about trading one of them for actual outfielders?), they decided to trade the older, more expensive Kouzmanoff to the Athletics in order to re-acquire Hairston while adding an intriguing young outfielder in Aaron Cunningham. But the best thing that might have come out of this trade was that it freed up third base full-time for Mr. Headley.
While the 26-year-old hasn't shown much improvement offensively, his contact rates are up but his power production has actually declined a little, his glove is proving to be a legitimate asset at third base. While Kouzmanoff was able to offer a similarly strong glove at third base, he wasn't able to couple solid offensive production with it like Headley has. So while Kouzmanoff was able to be a 2.5-2.7 WAR player in San Diego thanks to the value of his defense, Headley is proving to be much more than that.
Despite numbers that look pretty "meh" at first glance- a .278/.338/.405 line with 10 homers and 52 RBI in 530 PA- those numbers are actually 15% better than the league average once factoring in Headley's home park. Toss in a glove that's been 11 runs above average according to UZR and 20 runs above average according to DRS, and you have one of the best third baseman in the league.
David Wright and Casey McGehee have been better hitters than Headley, but their gloves haven't graded out nearly as well in 2010. Placido Polanco's glove has graded out even better than Headley's, but he hasn't provided the offensive value that Headley has. Right now, only Ryan Zimmerman has been a more valuable third baseman in the National League, although Wright and Scott Rolen are close enough that it's fair to say that they're still better players once you factor in their track records.
Still, coming into this season you had a hard time finding places in San Diego's lineup where they'd be well above-average outside of first base. Maybe Blanks or Will Venable was going to come through in the outfield, or maybe Everth Cabrera was going to continue his shocking rise to prominence and become one of the better shortstops in the National League. But realistically, we all should've known that Headley was the guy most likely to emerge as a high-quality regular in San Diego. His glove at third already had a solid reputation before the ill-advised move to the outfield, which really was only done to get his bat into the lineup. And the bat had already proven to be legitimate on at least some levels, as he was a slightly above-average hitter in over 900 PA with the Padres coming into 2010.
San Diego's shocking run towards to the postseason is the culmination of a myriad of factors. The bullpen's incredible dominance despite paying their entire corps a similar wage to what Milwaukee is paying Trevor Hoffman alone. The emergence of Mat Latos as a legitimate replacement to Jake Peavy atop the rotation. The establishment of a defense that's strong at essentially all nine positions, with a team UZR that's 10 runs better than any other team in baseball.
But Chase Headley's emergence as a key cog at third base hasn't been talked about nearly as much. And I think that's a mistake on many levels, because this guy's good, and he's going to be playing third base in San Diego for a while. He's under control through 2014, so Headley at third base is probably a sight that Padre fans should get used to.