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Fantasy baseball 2014 draft prep: Contract-year pitchers

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Jon Lester has a major incentive to improve on his 3.75 ERA and 177 strikeouts from last season.

Fantasy baseball 2014 draft prep: Player rankings, position primers, burning questions and more

Players in the final year of their contract may very well be the best players to have on your fantasy team. Why? Well, imagine if you came into work today and your boss said, "We're letting you go at the end of the year, but if you perform well, we'll compete with 29 other companies to make you a millionaire." You'd likely be showing up a little earlier and staying a little later, and you'd never turn in a half-hearted TPS report ever again.

This is the setup for dozens of major league players that are entering contract years in 2014, who hope to cash in on an even bigger contract for 2015.

Contract-year players often into better shape during the offseason, which could mean fewer trips to the disabled list, and make more of an effort to take care of his body. This makes these players a hot commodity in fantasy drafts.

PRINTABLE DRAFT SHEETS: Top 300 | Rankings by position

For 2015, there are a few teams that are definitely set up to spend some money. For instance, the Red Sox have several high-price contracts that are set to expire after this season.

• SP John Lackey, $15.25 million (with a $500,000 club option)
• SP Jake Peavy, $14.50 million
• SP Ryan Dempster, $13.25 million
• SP Jon Lester, $13 million
• DH David Ortiz, $11 million
• C A.J. Pierzynski, $8.25 million

Boston will be looking to add some pitching, for sure, and one of their biggest competitors will be the Chicago Cubs, who have money to spend, and a ton of great young position players that will be growing into a competitive club soon. You also have to figure the Braves, Yankees and Dodgers will be in the mix, as well.

The following pitchers are notable free agents after this season, and do not have a contract with a club option. Jake Peavy has a $15 million player option, so I'm not sure he'll be as motivated as someone about to get cut loose.

Josh Beckett, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers: On a downward slide for a few seasons now, Beckett has to overcome injuries and sub-par seasons to earn another nice-sized contract for 2015. The Dodgers have the supporting cast to help him do it, but everyone outside of NL-only leagues should be skeptical.

Jon Lester, SP, Boston Red Sox: Lester plans to give the Red Sox a hometown discount to help re-sign him, much like Dustin Pedroia did not too long ago. He wants to stay in Boston -- and there's little doubt the Red Sox want to keep him.

Francisco Liriano, SP, Pittsburgh Pirates: He's the only player to ever win the Comeback Player of the Year Award twice -- in two different leagues! Will you get the 5.20-ERA Liriano from 2011-12, or the 3.00-ERA Liriano from 2013?

Justin Masterson, SP, Cleveland Indians: The tall righty put together his best season yet in 2013. But really, he has pitched well in recent seasons, but he peppered in horrible outings that killed his overall numbers. At just 28 years old, Masterson will try to keep the strikeout-per-inning thing going again.

Ervin Santana, SP, Atlanta Braves: Much like Liriano, you never know what type of Big Erv you're going to get: the one with a 3.24 ERA from Kansas City, or the one that posted a 5.15 ERA in Anaheim in 2012? Pitching in the National League for the first time should help him quite a bit this season, however.

Max Scherzer, SP, Detroit Tigers: It's going to be tough for Scherzer to follow up his AL Cy Young-winning campaign from 2013, but the Tigers still have a great offense and have improved their bullpen from a year ago. He might not win 21 games again, but you draft him for those 240 strikeouts and the sub-1.000 WHIP.

James Shields, SP, Kansas City Royals: The veteran righty did what he was asked to do in his first year with the Royals, winning 13 games and posting a 3.16 ERA. But they'll have to sign him back for a third season if they want to shake off the nightmare of trading away Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi to Tampa Bay for him.

Jason Grilli, RP, Pittsburgh Pirates: There's no question, Grilli's coming off the best year of his 12-season career, as he posted 33 saves on the playoff-bound Pirates. Unfortunately, a forearm strain dented his post-break numbers, and he's still working to come back from that. How much is left in the tank of the 37-year-old late-blooming closer?

Koji Uehara, RP, Boston Red Sox: Much like Grilli, Uehara surprised us all in the ninth inning last season. But weird things can happen to relievers in the season after they break out as a closer -- it's like they get too much time to think about it, and they come off the rails (think: Fernando Rodney). Uehara's a 38-year-old veteran, however, which would seem to signal some reliability.

Casey Janssen, RP, Toronto Blue Jays: Over the past three seasons, he has averaged about a strikeout per inning and a 2.46 ERA. But he had shoulder troubles last season, and those same issues are slowing his spring again.

Jim Johnson, RP, Oakland Athletics: Johnson leads the majors with 101 saves over the past two seasons, and he was rewarded for his service by being traded to the A's this winter. He'll be hard-pressed to keep the 50-saves-a-season average up, even though he's going to be in a nice pitcher's park. The recent injuries ravaging Oakland's starting rotation won't help Johnson's numbers either.

David Robertson, RP, New York Yankees: The Yankees are loaded once again, and Robertson takes over the ninth from Mariano Rivera, the all-time greatest closer in baseball history. Robertson was stellar in a setup role last season, and if he has closer makeup, he could become Yankee rich next season. Unfortunately, he struggled a couple years ago when Rivera went down with a knee injury.

Sergio Romo, RP, San Francisco Giants: The Giants' closer posted a career-high 38 saves last season, and he's set up for a big payday if he can keep those numbers up. At one of the most volatile positions in fantasy sports, Romo has proven to be a reliable closer in a nice pitcher's park. He's 31 this season, with a few more good years left in his arm.

Like these 13 players about to become 2015 free agents, you should pretend you'll get fired from managing your fantasy baseball team if you don't win it all in 2014. Talk about motivation!

David Gonos is a fantasy sports veteran of over 20 years and over 100 fantasy leagues. You can also follow him @davidgonos on Twitter.

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