CLEVELAND -- The so-called "contract-year phenomenon" -- the belief that certain athletes rise to the occasion on the eve of their free-agent eligibility, only to return to their career norms after the ink dries on their megadeals -- is a concept Chase Headley can't quite wrap his mind around.
Not even now, in the midst of his own contract year.
"This is a really difficult game," Headley said. "Maybe there are guys who can do that. But trust me, my good seasons versus my worst seasons aren't due to effort."
Were the phenomenon based in fact, Headley probably wouldn't be batting .107 a little more than a week into a season that might very well be his last in San Diego. And for that matter, if player performance was merely a matter of effort, his Padres probably wouldn't be carrying a .595 team OPS into Wednesday's doubleheader with the Indians.
Headley's early numbers -- like the vast majority of statistics being posted on scoreboards in these early weeks of the season -- aren't indicative of anything, really. And let's not read too much into San Diego's early struggles, either. The Padres are still considered a potential sleeper in the National League West, although injuries (Cameron Maybin, Carlos Quentin and Josh Johnson are all hurt … again) continue to hamper a club that used the disabled list 43 times combined during the 2012 and '13 seasons.
But let's say Headley rounds into form and San Diego doesn't. Surely, then, the Padres would finally be forced to part with their hot-corner staple at the July 31 Trade Deadline, right? Surely, then, Headley, who has had his name associated with the Yankees nearly as much as the Padres in recent months, would be propelled to the land of pinstripes, no?
Well, not necessarily.
For starters, let's see how Headley responds to the early-season struggles at the plate. Already, we might be seeing the ill effects of the three weeks Headley missed during Spring Training due to a calf injury. As was the case last year, when he fractured his thumb in mid-March, it's been slow going out of the chute. But unlike last year, when the thumb issue coincided with a knee injury that eventually required offseason surgery, Headley doesn't feel physically restricted in searching for his swing.
"I'm finally getting my legs under me," Headley said. "That's the biggest thing. It's getting the conditioning back and getting used to being on your feet every day. You really need that spring to get you not just the repetitions, but also the stamina to have your body bounce back. That's baseball -- figuring out the best way to give yourself a chance to feel good every day. When you don't have your legs under you, it makes it pretty tough."
The thing is, even Headley's injury-affected 2013 was still pretty good by the standards of the average third baseman. Headley did not match his output of 2012, when he broke out with 31 homers and 115 RBIs in 161 games. However, he did post a weighted runs created mark that was 13-percent better than league average, and a WAR number that ranked sixth among all Major League third basemen.
In other words, if you embrace the growing assumption that 2012 was an extreme outlier in Headley's career, his average production is still acceptable and still quite valuable.
And that leads to the next issue, which involves Headley's trade value relative to the value of keeping him for the length of 2014.
Again, San Diego's play will be the foremost determining factor as to whether Headley will even be available to other teams. Right now, manager Bud Black's club looks familiar: The Padres aren't exactly healthy, and they aren't exactly producing, either -- their hitters entered Wednesday batting .138 with runners in scoring position. The Friars have a lot of optimism about a rotation in which Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross took a big step forward last season, but Ross is very much a work in progress, as evidenced by his nine walks so far in 10 1/3 innings and San Diego's attempts to get him to move toward the middle of the rubber.
Oh, and Johnson is hurt, so that relatively low-risk reclamation project isn't off to the strongest of starts, either.
If this sleeper stays asleep, the expectation to move Headley will be strong. The Padres' incentive to do so, however, might not be as enticing as some assume. The way teams value Draft picks these days, it's difficult to see San Diego getting a meaningful return for a half-season (or less) of Headley, whose trade value peaked at the end of 2012.
More enticing, it seems, would be to make a qualifying offer after the season and get a Draft pick should Headley sign elsewhere. In fact, the qualifying offer, which could exceed $15 million, might be enticing to Headley, who has made no secret about his desire to stay in San Diego.
"That's all something that you have to sift through and sort through as you're trying to figure out what makes sense and what doesn't," Headley said. "Fortunately, I have some representation that's done some analysis of that. At the end of the day, you have to trust that the research and the work that's been done will ultimately be the right answer."
Right now, Headley and the Padres are searching for answers to what's troubled them the first week of the season. Headley knows he's not going to hit .100 all year, and he also knows his response to his early struggles is being closely monitored both by his own team and several others.
But if Headley does get out of his April funk and go off, try not to attribute it to the contract-year phenomenon.
"It's a contract year every year," he said. "Until you've signed an extension, you're playing for your life every year."