The Yankees announced their second major trade of the season today, acquiring Padres third baseman Chase Headley in exchange for rookie infielder Yangervis Solarte and right-handed pitching prospect Rafael De Paula.
There was a time when Headley would have fetched a much loftier return, but the 30 year old third baseman has had a hard fall from grace over the last couple of seasons. In 2012, he slashed to a .286/.376/.498 line with 31 home runs, while finishing fifth in the NL MVP voting and taking home both silver slugger and a gold glove awards for third base. Over the course 218 games and 799 at bats since, the free-agent-to-be has hit a meager .243/.340/.384 and has an on base percentage under .300 this season.
Solarte signed a minor league contract with New York before the season and made shortly after breaking camp with the Yankees. He got off to a huge start, hitting .336/.414/.521 with four home runs and 23 RBIs through May 14th – capping it with nine game stretch in which he left the yard three times, drove in ten, and collected 15 hits in 31 at bats. As with many rookies, however, his dominance faded fast. The 27 year old has been anemic since June 1, with a .267 on base percentage, a .192 slugging percentage, and just three extra base hits – all doubles.
De Paula, meanwhile, is something of a wild card as a prospect.
His best weapon is a plus fastball sits at 94 with hard sink. He uses the pitch a vast majority of the time, but also mixes in pair of inconsistent off-speed pitches: a hard breaking ball – a “slurve,” MLB.com scout Bernie Pleskoff called it – and a change-up. He induces a ton of ground balls and strikeouts (11.4 SO/9 across three minor league seasons), and prior to the 2013 season, Baseball America ranked him as the tenth best prospect in the Yankees system.
But the 23 year old struggled to adjust to stiffer competition in the High-A Florida State League last summer (6.06 ERA, 5.5 BB/9) and he failed to make BA’s Yankees Top 10 for 2014. There was also concern over his ability to start. In addition to his erratic nature and under-developed secondary pitches, he just wasn’t lasting deep into games. Fangraphs.com’s Nathaniel Stoltz reported that in one start in April of 2013, De Paula’s velocity fell from 91-94 MPH in the first couple of innings to 88-92 MPH by the fourth.
Then, early season struggles, particularly with command, this year led to him being dropped from MLB.com’s ranking of the Yankees top 20 prospects.
De Paula simply looked terrible. On June 18th, he was 2-5 with a 5.86 ERA and a mediocre walk rate of 4.6 per nine innings.
After that, however, De Paula somehow found his command, and he has been in control ever since. In his last five starts, he is 4-0, with a 1.34 ERA, a 2.7 BB/9, an opponents’ OPS of just .549, and just one home run allowed. This run of dominance may have increased his stock and led to his inclusion in the trade.
It seems as if he has traded some strikeouts for command as while his walk rate has improved, his strikeout rate has taken a mild dip. He had an 11.5 SO/9 through June 18th, an 8.8 SO/9 since, and a 10.5 SO/9 overall.
If this recent streak is actually a sign of improvement, De Paula may yet have a future as a big league starter. The more likely outcome, though, is that he eventually moves to the bullpen, where he could add more velocity to his already nasty fastball, and thrive as a set-up man.