By John Perrotto
CLEVELAND -- Chase Headley sits back in a chair in front of his locker and ponders the question. He does not shy away from it as many might, or falsely claim he is not thinking about it.
The San Diego Padres third baseman's contract expires at the end of the season. Barring some change on one side or the other, he will either be dealt by the July 31 non-waiver deadline or allowed to become a free agent when the season is over.
Headley has been center of so much speculation about his future that talking about it has become nearly as routine as taking batting practice and stretching before every game. After all, he has held the unofficial major league lead in being involved in trade rumors for nearly two full years.
"It's something that I've had a lot of practice at," Headley said with a smile. "It seems like I'm always going somewhere or another. I can't control it, so I've learned not to worry about it. There was a time when the rumors first started two years ago that I did let it get to me. I remember thinking as the All-Star break approached in 2012 that I was definitely going to be gone and I really let it affect me. I learned from it, though. I'm much better at blocking out distractions and just living with the fact that my name is going to come up in trade rumors, especially with my current situation."
Headley's situation is that he is on a one year contract worth $10.5 million. He is the highest paid Padres player and his salary takes up more than 10 percent of the small-market team's approximately $90 million payroll. The Padres and Headley have been talking about a long-term contract extension for nearly two years without getting very far, and it seems certain the 29-year-old will be headed to free agency in the fall.
While it can be an awkward situation for some players, Headley insists he will not let the situation bother him and it has nothing to do with 4-for-32 (.125) start through his first eight games of the season. The cleanup hitter did not drive in his first run until Wednesday, when his sixth-inning single lifted the Padres to a 2-1 victory over the Indians at Cleveland in the second game of a doubleheader, the win improving San Diego's record to just 3-6.
"It's nothing more than the result of a small sample size," Padres manager Bud Black said of Headley getting out of the gates slowly. "Chase is a good player and he's very professional. I fully expect him to have a good season if he's healthy. Health is really the only thing that can hold him back. Nothing else will have any kind of effect."
Headley has always been a bit of a slow starter throughout his seven major league seasons. His career statistics before the All-Star break include a .258 batting average, .338 on-base percentage and .383 slugging percentage. In the second half, those numbers rise to .280/.362/.448.
While Headley has established himself as a second-half player, the question remains whether he is a star or merely solid performer.
He had a breakout season in 2012, when he hit .276/.376/.498 with 31 home runs and a National League-leading 115 RBIs in 161 games while posting a career-best 6.3 WAR. However, last year, he batted .250/.347/.400 in 141 games with 13 homers, 50 RBI and 3.8 WAR while beginning the season on the disabled list with a broken thumb, then having arthroscopic knee surgery at the end while suffering with calf and back strains along the way. While Headley figures to get a large contract in free agency, he could set himself up for a nine-figure payday if he replicates 2012, though many major league talent evaluators believe that was an outlier, with one saying, "you'll look on the back of his baseball card when he's done playing and say 'what happened that year?'"
"A lot of it was confidence," Headley said of his 2012. "You get rolling, it gets a whole lot easier to start feeling good. There were some mechanical things we worked on starting in spring training that carried over all year, and I had the swing I wanted. I'm not going to say I'm going to hit like that every year. I'm probably somewhere between that year and last year.
"It's hard me to say 2012 was an outlier season because I did it and that tells me the player I can be. I'm not saying I will duplicate it, but I have no reason to think my year this year won't look more like 2012 than last year."
The biggest question, though, is next year and what uniform Headley will be wearing then. He has been with the Padres throughout his entire professional career, being selected in the second round of the 2005 amateur draft from the University of Tennessee. Headley has also developed strong ties in San Diego, including starting his "Headley's Heroes" program in which he and his wife Casey invite patients from Rady's Children Hospital to be their guest at a home game at Petco Park.
"There are a lot of great things about my situation in San Diego, there's a tremendous amount of positive things both in the city and in the organization," Headley said. "If we are able to find some common ground, it would be great to stay. If we don't, then there will be no hard feelings.
"I won't feel like they didn't want me and I won't leave them with the feeling I didn't want to be there. Sometimes things just work out that way and I understand it. It's all just part of baseball."
* * *
John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.