Thursday September 24th, 2015

Timing isn’t everything when it comes to the stock of impending free agents. Clubs have by and large become too sophisticated to overpay a player based on a single suspiciously strong walk year—that seems to be an NBA thing—or to overlook an otherwise impeccable track record because of an uncharacteristically weak season.

Still, contract years remain important, both in the context of a player’s overall body of work and as an indicator of the direction in which his career might be trending. This season has seen a number of impending free agents significantly improve, or re-establish, their values, including Yoenis Cespedes, Chris Davis and Zack Greinke; the impact for them will be counted in tens of millions of dollars.

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Conversely, other players have sizably diminished the pay days they might have expected come early November. Many will still make a fortune, and many will be included in the eighth annual Reiter 50, SI.com’s ranking of the top 50 free agents, which will be released after the World Series. But their struggles at the worst possible time mean that they won’t rank as high as they might have before this past Opening Day, and that the financial ramifications will be severe.

Here are the ten players whose poor contract years in 2015 will most negatively affect their values this winter.

1. Ian Desmond, SS, Nationals

No one has seen his free-agent stock fall more precipitously in 2015 than Desmond. After putting together three consecutive 20-homer-20-steal seasons, the 30-year-old currently has 18 home runs and 12 steals (in 17 attempts) to go with a career-low .232 batting average and .671 OPS. His fielding, meanwhile, has declined to the point that advanced metrics rate him among the league’s worst half-dozen defensive shortstops. It has been many years since an elite shortstop has hit the market—probably since Jose Reyes in 2011—and Desmond’s struggles mean that trend will continue this winter.

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2. Johnny Cueto, SP, Royals

Not long ago, the longtime Reds ace was considered a genuine rival to David Price for the title of this free-agent class’s top pitcher, and perhaps even its top player. That began to change not long after the trade deadline, when both were dealt to contenders. While Price has been better than ever for the Blue Jays—he is 8–1 with a 1.95 ERA and has probably locked up the AL’s Cy Young Award—Cueto is just 2–6 with a 5.12 ERA for the Royals. He has especially struggled recently, going 0–5 over his last six starts, in which he’s allowed 30 earned runs and a seemingly impossible 56 hits in 33 1/3 innings. Cueto, 29, will be able to re-establish some of his value in October, but for now he’s fallen not only well behind Price, but also Greinke and possibly Jordan Zimmermann as well.

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3. Jeff Samardzija, SP, White Sox

Samardzija’s numbers are ugly: 10–13 with a 5.04 ERA that is more than two runs worse than last year’s. Chicago’s league-worst defense is partly to blame, but not entirely: His Fielding Independent Pitching of 4.18 is his highest since he became a full-time big leaguer in 2011. There are some reasons for optimism. Samardzija’s fastball hasn’t lost a tick (it still averages over 94 mph); he is relatively young, at 30; and his one-hit shutout against the Tigers on Monday—coming on the heels of a ten-run, three-inning outing against the Athletics—showed that he still has it in him to put everything together. But it’s hard to imagine that any team will give a pitcher with a five-plus ERA anything close to the borderline ace money he might have once commanded.

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4. Mat Latos, SP, Dodgers

Latos is, in fact, already a former Dodgers pitcher; a season that began with the Marlins appears to have ended on Sept. 17 when Los Angeles, which had acquired him in a 13-player trade on July 30, designated him for assignment. The 27-year-old averaged 200 innings between 2010 and '13, going 51–35 with a 3.27 ERA, but he was mediocre for the Marlins (4–7, 4.48 ERA) and awful for the Dodgers (0–3, 6.66 ERA). The good news is that he will have more time than expected to plot his free-agency strategy.

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5. Doug Fister, SP, Nationals

The trade that brought Fister to Washington from Detroit two winters ago seemed the heist of that off-season, as he went 16–6 with a 2.41 ERA. This season, though, is really the first of a big-league run that began in Seattle in which he has been anything less than dependable. The 31-year-old has gone just 5–7 with a career-worst 4.32 ERA, and he was demoted to the bullpen in early August. Fister has never struck many batters out, which was fine when he wasn’t allowing many hits either. This season, though, he’s yielded 10.7 hits per nine, the seventh-worst rate in the league.

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6. Jimmy Rollins, SS, Dodgers

Yes, he’s 36, but heading into this year, Rollins might have expected at least one more big contract. Torii Hunter, for instance, got two after he was 37, adding up to three years and $36.5 million. Rollins, however, is batting a career-worst .220 in his first season in Los Angeles (after 15 in Philadelphia) with a career-worst .633 OPS and a career-low 12 steals. His defense has also regressed to the point where it is firmly below average. He’s not done, but his compensation going forward won’t nearly approach someone like Hunter’s at the same point in his career.

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7. Neftali Feliz, RP, Tigers

Feliz is a prime example of why Tommy John surgery should not be considered a sure thing. Before he underwent the procedure, in 2012, he was electric, with a fastball that averaged 96 mph and could, on occasion, exceed 101. This is the first season since that his average heater has topped even 94, and his results have been abysmal: a 4.58 ERA in 18 games with the Rangers and, after they cut him in July and he was picked up by the perennially bullpen-needy Tigers, 7.62 in 27 outings with Detroit. Feliz is only 27, and has plenty of time to regain his powers, but he’ll likely be forced to accept a one-year deal.

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8. Matt Joyce, OF, Angels

Joyce represented general manager Jerry Dipoto’s central offensive addition this this winter, as he was acquired from the Rays for setup man Kevin Jepsen. Dipoto is already gone from Anaheim, and the lefthanded-hitting 31-year-old will soon follow him. Joyce has never done anything against southpaws, but this season he’s batting just .186 with a .592 OPS against righties. Overall, a player that hit .252 with averages of 18 homers and 60 RBIs between 2011 and '13 is hitting just .174 with five homers and 21 RBIs. He hasn’t appeared in the Angels' starting lineup since July, due to both his ineffectiveness and a concussion, and his free-agent value is all but shot.

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9. Denard Span, CF, Nationals

If you want to know why the Nationals have so notably underperformed this year, that they have three players on this list is one place to start. Unlike many on this list, Span’s 2015 numbers look good: a .301 average, a .796 OPS, 11 steals in 11 attempts and solid outfield defense. His problem is that he has proven somewhat injury-prone. In 2011 and '12, he played in just 70 and 128 games, respectively, as a member of the Twins, and he’ll finish this year having appeared in only 61 due to a progression of maladies that included hernia and core muscle surgery last winter and then a season-ending torn labrum in his hip. Clubs are already wary of 30-something free agents (Span will be 32 by Opening Day) with speed-based games, and his injury history will only give them further pause.

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10. Steve Pearce, 1B/OF, Orioles

The versatile 32-year-old journeyman leapt into stardom in 2014 when he batted .293 with 21 homers, 49 RBIs and a .930 OPS and put up a 6.0 WAR that ranked ninth overall among AL hitters. A repeat performance would have firmly placed him in this winter’s upper tier of free agents, but it hasn’t come: He’s hitting just .227 with 14 homers and 37 RBIs and has been essentially replacement level, with a WAR of 0.0. This was, in other words, a major swing year for a player who has made more than $700,000 in a season just once, and it swung the wrong way.

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