By Jack Etkin
By the end of June, San Diego Padres third baseman Chase Headley knew something needed to be done. With 242 plate appearances, his statistical rubble couldn't be pinned on a small sample size, and Headley was hitting .201 with six home runs, 23 RBI and a .612 OPS.
"I just wasn't having a whole lot of success," Headley said. "Rolling over a lot of balls. The approach to the ball -- everything looked like I wanted it to. Just the barrel was hitting on the outside top of the ball, so I figured it had been long enough. It was time to try something else."
What Headley tried was something from his past, an old grip that has helped him have a much more productive July. A free agent at the end of the season, Headley's resurgence undoubtedly helped make him more marketable, and on Tuesday, the Padres traded him to the New York Yankees for infielder Yangervis Solarte and minor league pitcher Rafael De Paula.
It was the second notable deal before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline for the Padres, a distant third in the National League West. Last week, they sent closer Huston Street to the Los Angeles Angels in a six-player swap that brought the Padres four prospects.
Just like Headley, the Padres know that making adjustments is the only way to get results. Including this year, the franchise seems to be stuck in a cycle of mediocrity, with no clear path on how to improve, especially with the front office still in flux after general manager Josh Byrnes' dismissal. In the interim, A.J. Hinch, Omar Minaya and Fred Uhlman Jr. seem to be running the show and taking on the challenge of setting the franchise up for the future, even if none of the three may be making decisions at this level next season. It's actually amazing they've been able to accomplish as much as they had, with so many cooks in the kitchen.
Although no remaining trade asset may have as much upside as Huston or Headley (who two years ago led the National League with 115 RBIs and hit 31 home runs), the hydra-like multiheaded Padres executive team may try to unload veterans Joaquin Benoit, Chris Denorfia and Ian Kennedy in the next week.
Like Headley, Denorfia, 34, can be a free agent after this season. He can play all three outfield positions, but is best in right field. He's hitting .239 with one homer, 15 RBI and a .610 OPS in 248 plate appearances this season. Typically, Denorfia feasts on left-handed pitchers, hitting .308/.374/.459 against them in 755 career plate appearances before this season, but just .238/.289/.321 in 90 plate appearances in 2014.
Denorfia is a fourth outfielder or platoon option for a contender, whose return is limited unless he's part of a larger trade package. In addition to his impending free agency, Denorfia is expendable because Padres outfielders Carlos Quentin, Seth Smith, Cameron Maybin and Will Venable are all signed through next season.
The Padres may find it hard to part with Kennedy, whom they acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks on July 31, 2013 -- as buyers at the deadline. The 29 year-old righthander may have found his footing with San Diego after regressing from his stellar 2011 season when he went 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA for the Diamondbacks and was in the Cy Young conversation. Kennedy's velocity is up slightly thanks to work with Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley.
"He's making more of a turn when he kicks his leg," Balsley said last month. "He's developing more torque in his delivery. His arm's in a good slot now. The last couple years, he was under the baseball a little bit, which takes off some velocity. Now, he's over the ball and throwing it more downhill than he used to."
Kennedy turns 30 in December and is signed through 2015, so he has the attraction of not being a two-month rental (although he's arbitration eligible after this year and is due for a raise from his $6.1 million a year salary). Kennedy is 7-9 with a 3.62 ERA this season while averaging 9.53 strikeouts and 2.57 walks per nine innings. And it's not as if he's simply thriving in pitcher-friendly Petco Park and struggling on the road. Kennedy has pitched the same number of innings (64 2/3) at home and on the road with a 4.18 ERA at home and 3.06 on the road.
Kennedy would fit nicely in the Padres' 2015 rotation with Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross. But his trade value is high, and the Padres have seen starters Jesse Hahn and Odrisamer Despaigne emerge this season.
Meanwhile, Benoit -- who turns 37 on Saturday -- earned 24 saves after becoming Detroit's closer during the 2013 season and moved into that role with the Padres following the trade of Street. Benoit has a 1.99 ERA in 40 games with 11 walks and 47 strikeouts in 40 2/3 innings.
He is under contract for $8 million next season, making Benoit affordable to a contender seeking a dependable veteran at the back end of the bullpen. And as the Padres saw when they traded Street to the Angels, bullpen help is a priority at this time of the year.
As for Headley, the trade to the Yankees brings closure and the end to a swirl of speculation about his fate after he and the Padres were unable to agree on a multi-year deal. In 2012, he was an All-Star and won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger. He also had an astounding second half in which Headley hit .308 with a .978 OPS in 329 plate appearances with 23 home runs and 73 RBIs.
Those two-and-a-half sublime months were a blessing and something of a curse for Headley, as skeptics came to view that great run as a statistical aberration.
Now he's out to prove that wasn't the case.
"Playing in a tough ballpark to hit, in a division that's built on pitching, on a team that hasn't scored a lot of runs -- I think I had a pretty good career up to that point, too. So it's frustrating when people are like, 'Hey, it's two months. That's all this guy is,'" said Headley. "Obviously, that was a great time in my career. I've been a pretty good player before that."
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Jack Etkin has covered professional baseball since 1981 for such outlets as the Kansas City Star, Rocky Mountain News, Baseball America, The Sports Xchange and MLB.com.