The mrkupe Prospect Smackdown: Chase Headley vs. Neil Walker
Background and Intangibles:
Headley: Chase Headley was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2005 draft, 66th overall, out of the University of Tennessee. He went undrafted out of high school and was hampered by a knee injury during his sophomore year of college . . .not exactly the usual path of a future high draft pick. His stock rose rapidly in the months leading up to the 2005 draft on the strength of his outstanding junior season, as he hit .387/.530/.689 while playing in the SEC, one of the stronger conferences in college baseball. Scouts liked Headley too, although not quite as much as the sabermetricians. They praised his ability to make contact and extremely advanced strike zone judgment, but his tools graded out as rather average. In addition, they were concerned about how his power would play against advanced levels of competition. He had a respectable 2006, hitting .292/.390/.435 in the California League, although skeptics pointed to his relatively low isolated power (.138) in the hitter-friendly league as justification for their initial concern. This year Headley came into spring training having added on 15 pounds of muscle, and his power appears to be blossoming with the extra bulk. He has dominated the Double A Texas League this year, in the process earning himself the prize of a major league stint with the Padres and distinction as one of the better corner infield prospects in the game. Headley's makeup is considered to be excellent; a high school valedictorian and an Academic All-American in college, he gets praised for his mature mental approach to the game and his outstanding work ethic.
Walker: Neil Walker was drafted in the 1st round of the 2004 draft, 11th overall, out of Pine Richland High School in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania. An outstanding athlete, he was a star wide receiver in high school who had Divison I football scholarships on the table. Nonetheless, he was regarded as an even better prospect on the baseball diamond than he was on the gridiron, with a bat that projected to hit for plus average and power at the major league level. A catcher by trade, he was considered raw behind the plate but with the potential to improve, and in any case some scouts suggested that his raw athleticism could allow him to play virtually any position on the field. He hit well in his first exposure to full season ball in 2005, but a wrist injury took him out of action for the first part of the 2006 season, and even after returning he didn't hit with quite the same authority he showed previously. Furthermore, he had made little progress defensively, and the decision was made to shift him over to third base for 2007 season. The move has jumpstarted Walker's bat, and he is now making rapid progress into the sort of complete offensive package that the scouts envisioned in 2004. Walker has good makeup and is considered to be a hard worker who strives to get the most out of his talent. He also has excellent bloodlines; he has an older brother who played several years in the Detroit Tigers' system, and his father Tom Walker had a 6 year major league career.
Advantage: Walker was much more highly thought of by the scouting community than Headley, whose raw tools didn't match his statistics. Headley enjoyed a lot of support from the sabermetric community that Walker, as a high school player with questionable plate discipline, didn't receive. Both players faced injuries early in their development only to thrive after overcoming them, a major plus. Headley can't match Walker's familial pedigree, but he is a very intelligent player with a uniquely cerebral approach to the game that few others can match. This is pretty close to even, but I think I'm going to give a slight edge to Walker here.
Physicality, Health, and Tools:
Headley: Headley was born on May 9, 1984. Listed at 6-2 and 195 pounds, he is a switch-hitter and a righthanded thrower. Headley is a decent athlete but not more than that, with a toolset that lags in its overall upside compared to most other prospects of his stature. His best tool is his ability to make contact, using a level and polished swing that sprays hits to all fields and produces a consistently high batting average. He's struggled a little with left-handed pitching in the past, but he's hit them just fine this year, and the fact that he maintains a steady approach against them gives hope that he'll turn this into a trend. While he has gotten noticeably stronger and improved his power stroke this year, his bat speed is only average and he still remains much more of a gap hitter than a home run slugger. Even favorable assessments do not grade out his power beyond major league average, but his plate discipline should allow him to play very close to his ceiling. Headley does not run particularly well, but to his credit he doesn't try to steal too many bags, either. Defensively Headley grades out as a respectable third baseman, with a strong arm and good instincts. He won't be winning Gold Gloves, but he should be able to man the position very adequately for the foreseeable future. The Padres could possibly move him to the outfield if necessary, although he might not hit for the kind of power you'd hope for out of a corner outfielder. As a college sophomore Headley suffered a torn meniscus which caused him to miss some time, but he shows no lingering effects of the injury and has had no major issues since. He profiles as the type of player who would rate just about average in avoiding/recovering from injuries, although it should be noted that his very heavy reliance on skills rather than tools may make him more susceptible to injury-related statistical decline than many other players.
Walker: Walker was born on September 10, 1985. Listed at 6-3 and 210 pounds, he is a switch-hitter and a righthanded thrower. Walker is an outstanding athlete, with a fine set of tools that grades out as at least average across the board. He has very good bat speed that gives him the potential to hit for both average and power at any level of competition. He hits plenty of line drives and puts the ball into the air a lot, good signs that he'll improve his overall power output significantly as he matures both physically and at the plate. He hits well from both sides of the plate, which is nice to see out of a young player who has been promoted aggressively despite missing time with injury. He is a solid runner who might have the ability to steal more bases than he does at present, but then again this may go by the wayside as he ages. Defensively, Walker is raw at third base and will need to put in considerable work to play the position long-term as a major leaguer. The Pirates continue to be optimistic that his athleticism and strong arm will allow him to develop there, but his footwork is below average. The Pirates have no need to rush him and can afford to see the experiment through, but my personal guess is that he'll end up as a corner outfielder who might have the ability to play some center field in a pinch. Walker suffered a broken wrist prior to the start of the 2006 season, which kept him out of action for the first couple of months and sapped his power after his return. He is reportedly fully recovered from the injury, and the offensive progress he has showed this year suggests that there is little to worry about at the moment. It's something to keep in mind, as wrist injuries can linger and re-appear, but it should not be an issue, and Walker has been healthy otherwise. He profiles as a player who should be somewhat above average in avoiding/recovering from injury, although the wrist injury does temper one's expectations for now.
Advantage: On raw tools, Walker beats Headley in a landslide, as he is a better athlete who boasts considerably more bat speed and greater power potential. However, Headley is a better player defensively at this point . . .Walker would move off third base because he needs to, but Headley would move off simply because he might be the best candidate to make such a move on a major league team facing a logjam at the hot corner. Both players have had significant injuries, but neither shows any lasting effects. Walker's injury affects his bat, though, and it is more recent, so one might exercise more caution there. On the other hand, Walker's greater athleticism probably means that he should hold up better over the long-term than Headley. This one probably gets determined based on what factors you value most. I think the most important factor is raw physical ability, so Walker gets the nod here.
Performance and Polish:
Headley: Headley is a career .299/.399/.489 hitter in the minor leagues over the course of 3 seasons. He has hit a staggering .334/.432/.608 in the Double A Texas League this year, and has also enjoyed a short stint in the majors with the Padres, hitting .176/.300/.235. His career BB/K ratio is 166/236 over 1,062 ABs. Headley is an exceptionally polished player who is probably very close to being ready to play at the major league level. He does all the things that you like to see out of a young batter; he works counts both to draw walks and to put himself in favorable hitting positions, he hits the ball to all fields, he is consistent at the plate against both righties and lefties. He has outstanding plate discipline that lets him get the most that he can out of his talent. Overall, there is really nothing bad that can be said for Headley here.
Walker: Walker is a career .286/.334/.439 hitter in the minor leagues over the course of 4 seasons. This year, he is hitting .289/.360/.468 in the Double A Eastern League. His career BB/K ratio is 99/226 over 1,442 ABs, although it should be noted that he has showed a remarkable improvement in this department this year with a 47/64 BB/K ratio over 395 ABs. Walker's critics have pointed to his lackluster plate discipline in the past as a red flag, although it has not been a major impediment to his offensive production in other ways and he does seem to be making major strides with it. He has suggested that the move from catching has improved his stamina, allowing him to focus more on his at bats, particularly later in the game. He hits well from both sides of the plate and drives the ball to all fields. He could stand to be a little more consistent in his production, but it's not a major issue.
Advantage: It would be hard to find more than a handful of prospects who could match Headley's overall polish, and you likely could not find any of them playing below the Triple A level. To Walker's credit he has come a long way in the last couple of years as far as turning his tools into skills, but he still has work to do and Headley would probably make for at least a passable major leaguer right now. The advantage goes to Headley here.
Headley: Headley probably doesn't stand to improve much from what he is at present, but he doesn't need to in order to have a successful major league career. He projects to be a .280-.300 hitter at the major league level, with 18-23 home runs on an annual basis and plenty of doubles. He reminds me in some ways of Morgan Ensberg, another guy with an average toolset but excellent plate discipline, although Headley will hit for better average and won't touch Ensberg's raw power numbers. If you took Garrett Atkins out of Coors Field, he makes for a decent comparable as well.
Walker: Walker should probably improve significantly over the next few years, given his improving plate discipline and power stroke. Keep in mind that had he gone to college at Clemson, he would have been draft eligible this year . . .this is a player with a lot of growing still to do. He projects to be a .280-.300 hitter at the major league level, with 25-30 home runs on an annual basis. Assuming he moves off of third base, I like a lesser version of Shawn Green as a good comp for Walker. Remember that Green was also a very gifted young hitter who needed time to develop his plate discipline. Walker is not going to run the bases like Green did, and I'm not sure he has the capability to become quite that kind of hitter, but they do have similar bats.
Advantage: This one all depends on what you're looking for in terms of a finished product and skillset. Walker clearly posseses the higher upside, but he also carries a larger risk factor. With Headley what you are seeing right now is what you are going to get, something that can be interpreted as a positive or negative based on your perspective. Fans of guys who draw lots of walks are going to prefer Headley, and folks who are looking for power potential are going to like Walker. I think they'll both be successful major league hitters in their own individual styles, and so I'll gladly call this one even.
Summary: This one is exceptionally close. Walker has a slight edge in the intangibles department, not a surprise when we are talking about the son of a former major leaguer. Walker also has an advantage in tools and physicality, thanks to his superior athleticism and bat speed. Headley has a clear advantage in polish and is closer to being a major league contributor, as you might expect when comparing the 23 year old Headley to the 21 year old Walker. They both project to be fine major league hitters, although they do offer different things as hitters. You can expect Headley to be more of an on-base machine, with Walker profiling more as a prototypical power hitter. I think I'm going to take Walker here, as he has the potential to be a special bat that Headley just can't quite match. Headley makes for a great prospect in his own right, however, and it's hard to go wrong with a guy who's got his combination of work ethic, intelligence, and present ability. They both rate well inside the top 50 prospects in the game, and it's hard to find fault with either one.
Who would you take?
Chase Headley (45 votes)
Neil Walker (57 votes)
102 total votes