Padres' Headley happy to be back at third
Return to infield could signal anticipated breakout year
PEORIA, Ariz. -- With the sincerest of apologies to his outfield brethren, Chase Headley has vowed never to look back, either literally or figuratively, as he plots what has been a much-anticipated return to his natural position.
"I'm better when I have a lot of things going on," Headley said of his return to third base. "In the infield, you have bunt plays, first-and-third plays, you're moving around, you have scouting reports on where guys will hit ground balls.
"You're a lot more in tune with the game. The type of player I am, I'm a lot more locked in and focused because I have to be."
No, there's no time to watch the grass grow in the infield, not at the Major League level. But the outfield, where Headley spent the last two seasons, left him ample time to brood over at-bats that didn't go his way.
"You hate to say that, because we are taught not to do that," Headley said.
Headley's move back to third base was facilitated when the Padres traded third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff to the Oakland A's last month. The move was made, in large part, to fill a pressing need, a right-handed bat (Scott Hairston) in the outfield.
The trade also allows the Padres -- and first-year general manager Jed Hoyer -- to determine what the 25-year-old is capable of while playing a full season at his natural position.
Read between the lines, and it is evident the organization wants to see if Headley is more of the on-base machine he was in the Minor Leagues or the player who has had middling success in his first 255 Major League games.
"Now is the time in Chase's career where he sees himself as a Major League player," manager Bud Black said. "He's not a rookie. He's not a guy who is just coming on the scene. He has been here in the big leagues. He knows what it's about.
"I think Chase is up to the challenge of being a solid, productive Major League player."
Headley has been a polarizing figure within the organization since he started climbing the Minor League ladder, reaching the Major League level, to fill the shoes of an injured Kouzmanoff, for the first time in the summer of 2007.
Opinions have been split -- and still are, to some degree, with changes in the front office -- on what the ceiling is for Headley, a switch-hitter with a discerning eye, a .400 on-base percentage in the Minor Leagues and some power from both sides of the plate.
Because of this, the Padres have resisted moving Headley in trades in the past. The team once turned down a proposed trade that would have sent Headley to the Pirates for two outfielders, future All-Star Nate McLouth and Xavier Nady.
The Padres and Headley are each viewing this season as an important year in his continued development. This will be his second full season after earning a promotion from Triple-A Portland midway through the 2008 campaign.
"I wouldn't say it's a make-or-break year ... but I feel that I have a good chance to go out and improve on what I've done so far," Headley said. "You have a certain amount of time when you come up [to] learn the ropes and go through ups and downs. There's a learning curve.
"I feel like I'm at the point now where I have seen what's out there, I have faced a good portion of the guys in the big leagues and I think the team is counting on me to step up and be a big producer in the lineup. I also think going back to the infield is going to be beneficial. You want to be where you're going to be the best player."
Headley is coming off a season in which he hit .262 with 12 home runs, 64 RBIs and 10 stolen bases. He hit better from the left side (.270) than the right (.244), and, like many of his teammates, did more of his offensive damage on the road (.305) than at home (.208), where the dimensions of PETCO Park suppress offensive success.
Headley did an adequate job in the outfield, but he said that being merely adequate doesn't cut it with him.
"I think a year and a half in the big leagues is a big advantage," said hitting coach Randy Ready. "Going to third base, I see some elevation in his game. Any time a guy changes positions, there's a lot of emphasis on that and the extended energy on that."
Headley saw a team-best 3.98 pitches per plate appearance last season. That often led to advantageous counts to hit in. The flipside of that, of course, is sometimes it left him in a hole, especially since Major League pitchers throw far more strikes than Minor League pitchers did when Headley posted his gaudy .400 on-base percentage.
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"I think you'll see some more consistency with him," Ready said. "I think his forte is his knowledge of the strike zone. He's a very patient hitter. If that's the type of hitter he is, we're going to try and maintain that. That is his style."
Headley, who's coming off a second half during which he hit .293, says he feels more settled than he ever has. He feels that his best baseball is the baseball that still has yet to be played.
"My power numbers were obviously something I was disappointed in last year," Headley said. "I think the doubles were OK. I expect to drive the ball more than I did last year. There's no question I should hit more home runs than I did last year.
"I was really proud of the way I was able to finish. I had a tough time early on in the first half, but I was able to get through that. I think it made me stronger in the second half. ... For me, it was learning to deal with the failures and knowing things don't always go your way."
Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.