The Ghost of the Padres

Padres' third baseman Chase Headley has been haunted with trade rumors the past couple seasons after a stellar 2012 followed by a broken 2013, leaving scouts, fans and the team wondering what's in store for 2014.  

Chase Headley is as close to a ghost as the Padres have ever had. And I’m not talking ghost runner, like when we all were kids and played pickup baseball, and there weren’t enough players, so sometimes you’d have to leave a "ghost runner" on second or third base so you could go bat.

No, I mean Casper the Friendly, or pick your favorite, ghost.

Trade rumors have dogged him for two years. Is he here? Is he gone?

Contract talks have hovered off-and-on for nearly that entire time. Is he here short-term? Long-term?

Two years ago, he had a breakout season when he led the National League with 115 RBI and finished fifth in the NL Most Valuable Player voting.

Last summer, he had a broken season, which started with a fractured thumb, continued with a torn meniscus in his left knee and sore back and finished with disappointing numbers across the board.

So… which is the real Chase Headley?

Ghost, man.

He’s in his eighth season with the Padres, and we still don’t know for sure who he is, or which part is real.

We talked about that, him and I, just before the Padres left for Miami and Cleveland, the blank canvas of an open season ahead of him, the seeds of optimism and, surely, more rumors already planted in fertile 2014 soil.

At 29, is he the Headley of 2012 who produced 31 homers, 115 RBI and an .875 OPS in 161 games?

Or is he the Headley of 2013 who produced 13 homers, 50 RBI and a .747 OPS in 141 games?

The Padres wonder. Opponents wonder. Scouts wonder. Padres fans wonder.

Heck, I’d bet a couple of Hodad’s burgers that in his quiet moments, Headley himself wonders.

"Realistically, probably somewhere in between," Headley told me. "I’m not going to say I’m going to hit 30 homers and drive in 115 a year. But last year was an outlier, too."

That’s what makes it so difficult to gauge: He never had a fair chance to build on his breakout season of ’12 because he fractured his thumb in spring training and never did have a healthy foundation in ’13.

"If I play the way I’m capable of, I’m comfortable that I don’t have to do anything differently," Headley said. "I don’t get caught up in that ‘I’ve got to get back to where I was in 2012’, or ‘That year was a fluke.’

"I take pride in being as complete a player as I can be."

Easy thing for Headley and all of the scouts hawking him – both professional and arm-chair – would be for him to come roaring out of the gate in April, flashes of ’12 sparking from his bat.

Of course, while there is still plenty of time for that – really – his .130/.167/.130 slash line through the first six games (and the six strikeouts in 23 at-bats) only confuses things further. The quieter his bat remains in April, the louder the fluke talk grows.

And the higher Headley’s degree of difficulty becomes.

You will not find a more professional and accommodating player in the Padres’ clubhouse.  But a guy doesn’t get $10 million a year – or whatever the figure winds up being – solely for leadership qualities and the example he sets.

Headley is a free agent this winter. It’s no secret the Padres have a pivotal decision to make.

It is futile to leap to conclusions, either way, right now. The season must start to play out. Maybe Headley’s slow first week becomes a hot second week. Maybe if it is a cold April it becomes a hot May.

Only thing we probably know within reason, given his history, is that the trade rumors will appear again like summer tourists in town as June and July approach.

Seems like Headley’s played half his career surrounded by rumors.

"I’ve definitely learned a lot," he said. "You kind of learn that those things are real.

"You see it happen to other players. They don’t say anything, and you think no big deal, but there are real questions that involve your family.

"Hopefully, I’m better for it. Hopefully, I’m better for it by the end of the year."

Long-term, who knows? Given his splits, a trade probably wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for him. It’s no secret that, during his career, he’s hit noticeably better on the road (.292/.365/.451 with 47 homers and 206 RBI in 417 road games entering this week’s series in Cleveland, .241/.332/.371 with 33 homers and 163 RBI in 420 home games).

Still, he’s very happy in San Diego, even if he finds himself persistently stiff-arming speculation and rumor-mongers.

"Obviously, it’s not how I’d draw it up," he said.

But it remains a very real part of life as his 2014 sketch begins. Forget the Ghost of Christmas Past. With good luck and a hot bat, maybe Headley can still avoid becoming the Ghost of Padres Past.

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Longtime national baseball columnist Scott Miller will be a weekly contributor to FOXSportsSanDiego.com, discussing the San Diego Padres and Major League Baseball. Follow Scott on Twitter at @ScottMillerBbl.