Chase Headley is the new kind of baseball free agent.
Technically, he won’t be on the market until after the 2014 season. But he’s effectively available now.
Padres executive chairman Ron Fowler told U-T San Diego this week that the team would offer Headley a franchise-record contract “before midseason.” Great news, except one small detail: Headley told MLB.com that he doesn’t want to negotiate during the regular season, and his agent, Jim Murray, later confirmed as much to FOXSports.com.
In other words, Headley will be only one year from free agency when he’s willing to re-engage the Padres in talks on a long-term contract. Players who are only year from free agency tend to be very curious about it — particularly when their current franchise has one winning season since 2007 and is in last place now.
At the very least, the absence of negotiations will make the 28-year-old Headley one of the most coveted players in baseball leading up to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. He’s a switch hitter with power who last year won the National League RBI title and a Gold Glove at third base. He also played left field earlier in his career, which enhances his value.
For the moment, the Padres say signing Headley to a long-term contract remains a priority.
“Our first choice is to make every effort to keep Chase in San Diego,” Padres general manager Josh Byrnes told FOXSports.com Thursday. “Both sides agree that we have a lot of time to work through the process. We have a lot of time before he becomes a free agent.”
On top of that, it isn’t easy to trade an everyday player at midseason unless he’s in the final year of his contract. For a deal to work with a player who isn’t a free agent that year, the acquiring team needs to meet three criteria: near-term need at his position(s), long-term need at his position(s), and the necessary prospect package. Unless the original team is willing to include cash in the deal, the acquiring club needs payroll flexibility, too.
Despite those obstacles, Headley will be in demand this July because of his positional value and the larger market forces in baseball. The torrent of television money into the sport has allowed more teams to sign their homegrown stars, reducing the number of impact free agents available.
The ideal way to combat that scarcity is by drafting and developing talent on your own. Increasingly, though, the next-best option is to trade for an All-Star who is (a) unhappy in his present environment and/or (b) more likely to sign a multiyear with your team than his current organization. The Atlanta Braves’ deal for Justin Upton is one obvious (and successful) example.
The Padres probably have a good idea of what Headley’s market value would be, and, based on Fowler’s comments, they will try to meet it. Headley’s agents could argue that he deserves a deal near the six-year, $100 million extensions signed by fellow third basemen Evan Longoria and Ryan Zimmerman. That’s about twice the franchise’s current record contract. But what if staying in San Diego isn’t really, truly Headley’s first choice?
By the end of this year, Headley will have earned more than $15 million in his career, according to Baseball-Reference.com. So, he has a great amount of financial security. Perhaps he would rather sign with a perennial winner that plays closer to his home, which is a suburb of Nashville, Tenn.
The ability to make those decisions is the essence of free agency — or, in this case, a strategy that makes free agency more likely.
Headley doesn’t have a no-trade clause. So, he can’t directly dictate where he plays. He can, however, slow-play his future in San Diego to the point that the Padres have little choice but to trade him.
In that event, interested teams would be willing to surrender better players if they have assurances that Headley would sign long term with his new team. That can be accomplished with a formal negotiating window granted by the commissioner’s office or a sequence of winks, nods and handshakes, as with Adrian Gonzalez’s arrival to Boston.
The New York Yankees have been mentioned as a suitor for Headley, even though they’re paying $29 million this year to a certain third baseman who remains on the disabled list. Headley is precisely what they need, but the Yankees don’t appear to have the high-impact, close-to-the-majors prospects the Padres would want.
The Chicago Cubs probably are a better fit. Cubs GM Jed Hoyer knows Headley from his time in San Diego, and Byrnes’ ties to the Chicago front office (Theo Epstein, Hoyer, Jason McLeod) could help facilitate a deal. But the Cubs’ top prospects are in the low minors, meaning they likely would offer Byrnes a package that is more “win-later” than “win-now.”
It may be that no suitor will have the right blend of need and prospects this July. That wouldn’t be a horrible outcome for the Padres. The team could restart talks with Headley during the offseason and trade him then if the sides arrive at a stalemate.
But the point here is that Headley’s reluctance to talk now, whatever the reason, has put him squarely in this year’s trade deadline spotlight. With a dearth of premium free agents this winter outside of Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo, general managers need to look elsewhere. And so, they’ll be watching the third baseman at Petco Park.