Friday, August 10, 2012

Headley's leverage

(UPDATED) An unfortunate statistical mistake by a previous Padres administration is coming home to roost as Chase Headley, who's emerged this year as the team's best player, gains earning power.

Because the Padres failed to make certain Headley wouldn't qualify for early arbitration, Headley will command larger salaries the next few years than CEO Sandy Alderson and GM Kevin Towers planned in 2007-08. Whether the Padres decide to trade Headley or make him a long-term offer, his value to them would be greater if his career time in the big leagues was less by just one day.

The Padres limited Headley's work-service time early in his career largely because they didn't want him to qualify for arbitration until after the 2011 season. Unfortunately for them, Headley got there in late 2010 as a result of earning Super Two status.

One extra day in the big leagues put him over the top. The Padres said they were shocked after learning he slipped into the Super Two class.

Headley has gained millions of dollars in arbitration-enhanced salary as a result, with the promise of more windfalls to come.

Committed to Kevin Kouzmanoff as their third baseman in 2007, the Padres delayed promoting Headley to keep his work-service time down. He came up in June and started five games at third base as part of a 10-day cameo. The Padres brought him back late in the season and used him in one game -- the 163rd game against the Rockies -- with a wild-card berth on the line. (Headley hit a pinch single in the 13th inning.)

The Padres waited until June 17 to promote Headley in 2008, likely heedng their projections for his Super Two eligibility. They didn't wait long enough. At the time, the Padres were 31-40 and 6.5 games out of first place. They still had Kouzmanoff at third base. Headley really wasn't needed. The Padres ended up last in the National League West with 99 defeats.

Such decisions can be complicated. Headley, for instance, was an advanced prospect who had little  left to learn in the minor leagues. As it was, the Padres weren't doing his career any favors. They required him to play left field, a foreign position to him. Towers later was known to be lukewarm about Headley,  saying after the 2009-10 season that both he and Bud Black preferred Kouzmanoff. If the Gunslinger doubted Headley could become a reliable regular, he also may have attached less significance to Headley's work-service time. All the same, limiting that time was the driving force behind the timing of Headley's first promotion in 2007 and his recall in 2008.

As part of on-the-record comments, Alderson, in reviewing his four years with the club,  told me that two mistakes on his watch stood out: Upper management's decision to expose Joakim Soria to the Rule 5 draft against the recommendations of several minor league staffers and at a time when the club had several open rosters spots; and the trade that brought Jim Edmonds and sent David Freese to the Cardinals. Together, Alderson and Towers presided over several good moves, most notably the trade for Adrian Gonzalez and Chris Young. I do wonder if Alderson has regrets about not waiting longer to recall Headley in 2008  Alderson was a stickler for process. He often said the Padres had to be smarter than other teams because they weren't going to out-spend them. On a positive note for the club, Headley's Super Two status didn't affect his eligibility for free agency. He can become a free agent after the 2014 season. At $3.47 million, his salary this year looks like a bargain.

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