Commentary

30 Questions: Will Chase Headley impress as a sophomore?

Updated: March 19, 2009, 2:05 PM ET
By Jason Grey | ESPN.com

Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.

What can we expect from Chase Headley after a quiet rookie season?

Although I like Chase Headley's offensive potential more than most do, determining how close he comes to fulfilling it this season is a little bit difficult.

Last season, I think I overestimated how quickly he would adjust to big league pitching, especially after the way he mashed the ball in spring training. When he was called up to the big leagues in mid-June, he didn't look out of place, hitting .269 with nine homers in 91 games. But the numbers weren't quite what was expected, and he struck out 104 times.

So what can we expect out of the 24-year-old this season?

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Even though I'm a fan of Headley, I just don't expect him to take a huge leap forward, though he still can be a useful player in the short term.

Headley is not one of those "tools" guys who has great athleticism. He has no real plus skills, but he does a lot of things well and makes the overall package work. He's the kind of player who scouts say "plays above his tools." What that means is that the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts, and his baseball instincts plus makeup and intangibles help him get the most out of his raw ability.

A switch-hitter, Headley swings the bat equally well from both sides, possesses good bat speed and can be short and quick to the ball, although his swing did get a little long at times last season as he tried to hit for more power instead of letting it come naturally. He has good pitch recognition, but too often last season he would offer at pitches he shouldn't have or ones he couldn't drive. A confident player, Headley is a big believer in mental preparation as a key element to his at-bats, so it was a little surprising to see him go into "see ball, hit ball" mode at times. He has shown the aptitude to make adjustments in the past, so I expect him to make a little more contact this season.

There is more juice in his bat than we've seen at the big league level, evidenced by his .558 slugging percentage in Triple-A last year and the .576 mark he posted in Double-A in 2007. Although he'll never be a huge power hitter, he has the ability to be a 20- to 25-homer guy at the big league level.

One thing to consider when deploying him in mixed-league play is his home/road split. Headley hit just .230 and slugged .358 at Petco Park, but he improved those numbers to .301 and .470 on the road. His home park really hurt his homers and doubles totals, but you can see the seeds of something good in the road splits. The Petco factor undoubtedly was an issue in how his swing grew a little too long last year, as he tried to "muscle up" and drive more balls out of the vast expanse of his home field.

A minor point, but one worth mentioning, is that Headley had some struggles adjusting to left field last season, which could have helped him feel a bit less confident at the plate. He looks much more comfortable in the field this spring, so although it's not a big factor, not having to worry about transitioning to an unfamiliar position might help him be a little more focused at the dish.

[+] EnlargeChase Headley
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelChase Headley's adjustment to his new position of left field might have been partly responsible for his .235 batting average in his first 41 games of 2008.

Headley will be in the lineup every day and might be able to squeak out third-base eligibility again during the season depending on the health of Kevin Kouzmanoff, so he'll earn enough at-bats to build on his rookie campaign.

I see Headley as a player who will make consistent progress during the next couple of years. He'll eventually post a .300 average and challenge 25 homers on a regular basis as he finds the balance between being passive and aggressive that eluded him at times in 2008. I'm talking about his making steady, incremental progress, rather than being a player who all of a sudden puts it together and has a huge breakout season.

What does that mean for 2009? My initial projections had him in the .275 range with 18-20 homers, and I don't think the final numbers will be too far off those if he stays healthy. That's not a huge improvement, but it's improvement nonetheless. That makes him a consideration in the mixed-league endgame, especially if you have the flexibility to bench him in weeks heavy with home games.

Jason Grey is a graduate of the MLB Scouting Bureau's Scout Development Program and has won two Tout Wars titles, one LABR title and numerous other national "experts" competitions.