9 Players at Different Positions in their Contract Years


Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

A new day brings us a new item on the countdown. Today, Matt Schindler takes a look at 9 baseball players in their contract years who you should target for a boost to your team.

Previous Countdown Pieces: 14, 13, 12, 11, 10.

The contract year phenomenon is the theory that athletes perform better in the final year of their current contract.  The theory is centered on the idea that the athletes will be motivated by the almighty dollar thus perform better.  Some studies have been done to see if there are any statistically significant results that prove this phenomenon to be true.

I have read a few of these studies and, most of them conclude that the phenomenon is not universal, that not every player in a contract year sees a significant bump in their statistics.  I think most studies fail in their methodology as they study all free agents within a certain time period.

Whereas in fantasy, we use players that have performed well or have shown flashes of their potential which makes your gut tell you they can outplay their projections.  For example, fantasy owners don’t care that Phil Coke is a free agent.  He has neither been of any value for fantasy owners nor shown any signs that he could some day be vital to a fantasy roster.

I can’t help but feel there are certain situations, for players that have shown glimpses of being great, put one entire season together because they know a huge paycheck waits if they do.  Below is a list of guys in certain situations that I think will provide their fantasy owners with valuable results largely due to their impending free agency.

Catcher — A.J. Pierzynski, Boston Red Sox:  I currently have Pierzynski ranked as my #13 catcher.  So if you are in a 12-team league, AJ might just be a waiver target if your #1 gets hurt.  For you deep leaguers, there is a lot to like here.  Pierzynski fits the cliché that you know what you are going to get.  You are going to get 125 games played, an AVG of .270, and you are going to get 15 HR’s.

With the World Series championship lineup surrounding him in Boston, he should do well in RBI’s and runs as well.  I think there is a lot of comfort in his steady play. Whereas there is not a lot of comfort in reaching for a guy like Brian McCann or Wilson Ramos and praying they reach 125 games.

Unlike the other guys on this list, I do not expect AJ to see a bump statically, but I expect him to continue to do what he always does, because in reality he is one bad season away from retirement I must disagree with what Michael Dixon said about him. I don’t think AJ wants to retire yet. Even if he does, he will not mail in his last season.

First Base* — Michael Cuddyer, Colorado Rockies:  Cuddyer finished 2013 ranked as the #35 best player in Yahoo leagues.  Troy Tulowitzki finished at #58.  Yet going into the 2014 season, Yahoo ranks Tulo at #17, and Cuddyer at #117, really?  They both get hurt a lot.  Over the past four years Tulo has averaged 408.5 Abs per season.  Cuddyer has averaged 496.25.  It just does not quite add up.  I understand that Cuddyer’s BABIP was an outlier last year at .382 and concede there will be regression in his average.

However, the confidence he gained last year on the way to winning the batting title will be fresh in his mind.  If somewhere on the back-burner he has the thought this is his last chance to land a multi-year deal; that seems like a productive combination of thoughts.

I think the soon to be 35-year-old can still hit .300 crack the 20/10 level again this year.  For me Cuddyer represents good value anytime after Round 7 in 12 team formats, especially where he has dual eligibility.  (*in some leagues Cuddyer only qualifies as an OF)

Second Base — Ben Zobrist, Tampa Bay Rays:  Zobrist gets an asterisk because he has a team option on his contract and may not be eligible for free agency.  But Zobrist is a man of faith, so money probably does not influence him all that much.  Instead, Zobrist is on a “Mission from God”.

Entering an option year, Zobrist will see the light and will want to put up big numbers, not only because he is a competitive player, but because a middle infielder at his age will not have many more opportunities to prevent orphanages from shutting down.  I like him to end the season with a 15/15 campaign putting him in the top 10 in both 2B or SS rankings.

Shortstop — Hanley Ramirez, Los Angeles Dodgers:  Anyone like a SS that can hit 20 HR and steal 10 bags in 300 ABs? The knock on Ramirez right now is his ability to stay healthy.  In two of the past three years he has failed to reach 100 games played.  However, if you look at his career as a whole, those two seasons, 2011 and 2013, are the only two seasons that Hanley has failed to reach 600 plate appearances.  Tulowitzki has only cracked 600 plate appearances twice in his entire career.  Sorry, I’ll leave Tulo alone.

I cannot guarantee that Hanley stays healthy this year, but I do feel a contract year will encourage him to play through some pain that otherwise might cause him to take an extra day of rest.

Third Base — Chase Headley, San Diego Padres:  Headley had a monster year in 2012 hitting .286 with 31 HRs and 17 SBs.  Then he came back to earth in 2013 hitting 13 HRs with only 8 SBs, which is consistent with his career averages.  I think the hidden value in 2014 with Headley is the contract year.  I do not see him signing another contract with the Padres.  Thus, I think Headley gets traded before the deadline, just in time for your stretch run in fantasy.

If…when he gets traded, he will most certainly get traded to a team with a better supporting cast, meaning better pitches to swing at, and better trickle down statistics in runs and RBIs.  Also, odds are Headley gets traded to more of a hitters park too as Petco has consistently favored the pitchers.

Obviously some dominoes need to fall for my prognostication to prove true, but if it does, I am confident Headley will finish the season cracking the top 12 in 3B rankings.

Outfield — Brett Gardner, New York Yankees:  I view Gardner as a poor man’s Jacoby Ellsbury.  With Ellsbury you expect an AVG around .300, single digit HRs, and you hope for around 50 SBs.  All of that is similar to expectations those that draft Gardner have except for the average.

Gardner’s career AVG is .268 but he has proven he can swipe over 40 bags when healthy. If Gardner hopes to get a raise after this year, he has to be aggressive on the base paths and showcase his legs in 2014.  If you are looking for a source of SBs late in the draft, I think Gardner will be a good fit.

Outfield Colby Rasmus, Tampa Bay Rays: Colby has a few things going for him this year.  Rasmus will be 27 for a majority of the season, a magical year for baseball players to mature and reach their potential in fantasy.  Rasmus and mature may never have been used in the same sentence until now as he has had a history of being labeled as just the opposite, especially with his time in St. Louis.

Then you have the fact that he comes in healthy after an injury-plagued year in 2013 that interrupted a solid season where Rasmus hit .276 with 22 HRs in just 417 ABs. With a solid offensive lineup in a traditionally hitter’s park, those numbers could see a nice bump if he is able to stay healthy.

To top it off, Rasmus finds himself in his first ever contract year.  If Rasmus is still immature, the potential of big payday next winter is enough motivation to at least pretend to be mature.  Anyways, I view Rasmus as good organizational depth in 12 team leagues with the upside of being in your starting lineup in stretches.

Starting Pitcher — Homer Bailey, Cincinnati Reds:  Recent reports have Bailey and the Cincinnati Reds far apart in extension talks.  You cannot blame the Reds for trying to start low.  Bailey has never won more than 13 games in a season and his career ERA is 4.25.

However, Bailey has pitched very well over the past two seasons, better than his record indicates.  His ERA last year was a solid 3.49 with an impressive xFIP of 3.34(Fangraphs).  His fastball averaged over 94 MPH last year and his K/9 was a career high of 8.57.  Oh yeah, he has thrown no-hitters in consecutive years heading into 2014 as well.

So with the Reds coming into negotiations low-balling, you better believe Bailey is on a mission to cash out after this year.  With his 28th birthday coming up in May, his next contract will probably carry him through his prime.  A once highly touted high school and minor league prospect, this could be the last chance for Homer to earn an elite contract.  I think Bailey is going to end up being a top 20 SP this year and earn himself a lot of money in the process.

Closer — Jim Johnson, Oakland Athletics: Johnson had his owners worried a bit last year after positing a 9.75 ERA in May.  However, he rewarded his loyal owners with a 2nd half ERA of 1.69 Moves to a solid team, and a forgiving ballpark.  Also, opponents had a BABIP of .327, 40 pts above his career average, which hints toward some correction this season.

He did lose about a mile of his fastball, which is a little concerning, but he was still averaging 93.5 MPH.  If he does not lose any more velocity, I like for his numbers to improve from last year.  Also, his GB/FB ratio of 2.70 is appealing and I just do not see him giving up too many home runs at the Coliseum.

His K/9 is not that sexy, but you draft closers more so for saves, and hope they avoid blowing up your ERA and WHIP on their occasional bad outings.  Johnson has back to back 50 save seasons and knows he will get a nice contract if he comes close to that mark in 2014.