San Diego Padres third baseman Chase Headley has gotten an education this summer in the challenges of trying to replicate a career season. It's never a good sign when the question du jour goes from "how did he do it?" to "what the heck happened?"
Sometime this winter, when Headley is no longer busy breaking down tape or taking extra swings in the cage in search of his swing, he'll gain a better understanding of the economic repercussions.
A season after winning a Silver Slugger Award and finishing fifth in the National League MVP race, Headley has endured a hard fall and a character test. The numbers are down markedly, and Padres general manager Josh Byrnes and his staff have some hardcore analysis and numbers crunching in store this winter while Headley and his agent, Jim Murray, sit down and take stock of the relationship from the player's perspective.
Headley is eligible for free agency in November 2014, so the standard menu of options applies. The Padres can try to sign him to a contract extension; they can trade him this winter or in July; or they can do nothing until he reaches free agency, in which he's likely to generate ample interest from clubs in need of a third-base upgrade.
The decision is further clouded by the emotional ties that bind a player to the only team he's ever known. Headley has been a Padre since his name was called in the second round of the 2005 draft. He's played 161 games twice in the past four seasons, so durability is a plus. And his friendly demeanor and professional approach make him popular with fans and teammates alike. In a perfect world, he would sign a long-term deal with San Diego and take a major step toward finishing his career where he started it.
But sentiment only goes so far in this case. Headley was raised in Colorado, spends his offseasons in Tennessee (where he played college ball for the Volunteers) and has a farm in Kentucky, so he's not necessarily wedded to San Diego if the planets fail to align.
"My first priority would be to stay in San Diego," Headley said. "I love San Diego, and I've been with a lot of guys in this room for a long time. There are a lot of pieces here, and we're a lot closer [to contending] than people think.
"It's probably prudent for both sides to get a little clarity this offseason versus this dragging on. From the conversations I've had with our ownership and with Josh in the past, they honestly want to keep me here. I really believe that. If it doesn't work out, it doesn't mean they didn't try or that we didn't want to be here. Sometimes, things don't work out. But there's still mutual interest, and I expect it will continue in the offseason."
Where's the pop?
The Padres aren't alone in trying to figure out precisely what Headley offers. The question also confronts teams that might be interested in assembling trade packages for him this winter. Which version of Chase Headley can they expect in return?
Logic says it's something between last season, when Headley hit 31 homers, knocked in 115 runs, slugged .498 and posted a Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of 6.3 and this season's model, which has produced 10 homers, 40 RBIs, a .381 slugging percentage and a 2.6 WAR.
Headley enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2012 after working with Padres hitting coach Phil Plantier to take a quicker path to the ball and generate more backspin. After hitting 17 homers with men on base a season ago, he has one this season. That's cause for disappointment even though he plays half his games at Petco Park, which remains a pitcher-friendly venue despite the Padres' decision to move in the fences in 2013.
As usual, there's not one convenient, catch-all explanation for Headley's decline. He suffered a thumb injury late in spring training that forced him to miss the first two weeks of the regular season. He hit .261 in April, only to regress and bottom out with a .183 batting average and a .527 OPS in June. Headley concedes that fatigue might have been a factor after he was unable to lay the usual groundwork in the Cactus League.
"He got derailed with the thumb out of the chute, and, like a lot of players, he probably came back a week too soon," Padres manager Bud Black said. "So there was a little bit of catch-up there. Then, he got into May and some of the numbers weren't where he thought they should be, and a natural thing occurred: He put pressure on himself to try to validate what he did last year. That always gets you."
As FanGraphs recently noted, Headley ranks up there with Matt Kemp, David Freese, Ike Davis and Josh Hamilton among baseball's batted ball distance decliners. His OPS from the left side of the plate has dropped from .912 to .690, and he inevitably expanded his strike zone so that his walks declined as his strikeout total kept climbing.
"There hasn't been an extended period of time where I've said, 'I'm seeing the ball like I usually do. I'm swinging at the pitches I usually do, and my swing is right,'" Headley said. "It's been a constant battle to try and get there. For whatever reason, it hasn't happened like it usually does."
Contenders or pretenders?
As the Padres prepare to address Headley's status, they have to figure out where they're headed as a franchise. They've been set back this season by performance-enhancing drug suspensions to Everth Cabrera and Yasmani Grandal, surgeries to Carlos Quentin and Cameron Maybin and a broken hand that's limited Yonder Alonso to 95 games. Put those players on the field with Headley, 20-homer man Will Venable and promising rookie Jedd Gyorko, combine them with a rotation that includes Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross and a reinvigorated Ian Kennedy, add a couple of rehabbing Tommy John surgery patients (Cory Luebke and Casey Kelly) and hot pitching prospect Matt Wisler to the mix, and it's not a major reach to think the Padres can play .500 ball or significantly better in 2014.
"There's a good team in there," Byrnes said. "We just can't seem to sustain it and/or stay healthy."
Headley would be a great fit on a San Diego team with aspirations of contending in 2014 or 2015, but at what price? David Wright's deal with the New York Mets is for eight years and $138 million. Evan Longoria's 10-year, $136.6 million contract with Tampa Bay runs through 2022 and Ryan Zimmerman agreed to a six-year, $100 million extension with Washington in 2012. Headley is a good player, but you won't find many find talent evaluators who place him in that realm.
One intriguing comparison: Kansas City's Alex Gordon, a former third baseman turned left fielder who signed a multiyear extension that peaks with a $12.5 million salary in 2015. Headley and Gordon share similar Baseball-reference.com profiles and, coincidentally, are both represented by Casey Close's Excel Sports agency.
As Headley's long-term future creeps toward a resolution, both sides are choosing their words carefully. While Headley professes his fondness for San Diego, he knows a lot of players have one big shot at a lucrative contract and it's important not to close any doors. If he bounces back from this season and hits the open market in 2014, it's easy to see the two Los Angeles teams, the two Chicago teams and the Yankees among the potential fits.
Even though new owner Ron Fowler plans to sink more money into the payroll, it's never been the Padres' M.O. to be market trendsetters. Franchise icons Tony Gwynn and Trevor Hoffman were alternately praised and maligned through the years for taking "hometown discounts" to stay in San Diego.
"There are a lot of elements in these contracts, with any player," Byrnes said. "We really want the contracts to be fair. But when we're making a multiyear commitment, we also want guys who are excited about being Padres and the challenges we're going to face. We know what lower-payroll teams need to do in order to pull it off. The key guys not only play, but they sort of wave the flag about who the team is and how they intend to succeed. That's important. That's sort of an intangible with these contracts."
Headley understands that emotions are going to run high, even in laid-back San Diego, and he'll take some dings if negotiations lead to an impasse. That's the inevitable by-product of free agency.
"The sentiment is understandable," Headley said. "A lot of times, people want to paint somebody as the villain even when there isn't a villain. I'm a basketball fan and a football fan, and I'm always saying, 'Dang, we lost this guy,' or, 'Let's get this guy.' I get it. But for the most part, it's strictly business. The team and the player are both trying to accomplish their objectives, and there's nothing wrong with that from either side."
The Padres didn't want to sign Headley to a long-term deal off a 31-homer season that might have been an outlier. Conversely, Headley and his representatives would prefer that the next round of conversations doesn't begin with rehashing this season's wall-to-wall grind.
"I'm not going to say I should get a contract like a guy who'll hit 31 homers and drive in 115 runs every year, because I haven't done that consistently every year," Headley said. "But I also don't think I'm this type of player, either. I don't consider this to be the norm of my career. I think I'm going to come back and play better."
Headley will have ample opportunity in 2014 and beyond to prove this season was a fluke. Time and the economics of baseball will determine whether he's still wearing a San Diego uniform.