Through his first six seasons (1998 - 2003), Adrian Beltre was a pedestrian third baseman, a career .262 hitter who had never hit more than 23 home runs or driven in more than 85 runs. Then, in his seventh year, Beltre exploded, hitting 48 home runs to go with 121 RBI and a .334 batting average -- 94 points higher than his average the year before. How, you might wonder, was Beltre able to play so well all of a sudden? Well, one explanation could be that 2004 was the last year of Beltre's contract, and because he knew his professional livelihood was at stake, he tried harder and played better than ever so he could clean house in free agency. (Sure enough, the Mariners gave Beltre a five-year, $64 million deal.)
Is this a foolproof theory? Absolutely not. Historically, there's conflicting data as to whether or not players tend to do better in contract years than in normal seasons. And hey, Tim Lincecum, Dan Haren, Josh Johnson and Paul Konerko were all in a contract year last season, and they were all pretty terrible. But then there's guys like Beltre and Jose Reyes and R.A. Dickey and Carlos Beltran who were so awesome in the final years of their contracts that the theory can't be disproven out of hand.
So with that in mind, let's take a gander at which hitters are in the last year of their contracts, and could -- if the theory is true -- play abnormally well this season in an effort to earn a fatter paycheck.
Pablo Sandoval, 3B, San Francisco Giants
This could very well be the year that Pablo Sandoval emerges as a fantasy superstar. Sure, he's been pretty injury-prone over the course of his career, and he hasn't been able to match the 25 homers he smashed in 2009, but he's a naturally good hitter who doesn't strike out much, and he covers a hard position to fill at an extremely affordable price. (I was able to nab him in a Yahoo! league for just $10.) There are two things about him that his owners should be excited about: first, he's 27 years old, which is often an age that baseball players peak at, and second, he dropped 30-40 pounds in the offseason. If you can't nab an elite third baseman like Miguel Cabrera or the aforementioned Beltre, Sandoval and his upside are a fantastic consolation prize.
Hanley Ramirez, SS, Los Angeles Dodgers
At 31 years old, Ramirez is going to get one and only one chance to go after a Cano-esque, Pujols-esque mega-deal. But he'll only be able to demand one if he stays healthy, which has definitely been a problem for him; Ramirez has missed at least 65 games in four of the last five years. When he's healthy, there's no question that he's best shortstop in baseball, and his line from last year (.345-20-54) was made even more impressive by the fact that he only played in 86 games. Average those numbers out over the course of a 162-game year, and you're looking at someone who would have posted 38 homers, 19 steals, 117 runs, 107 RBI and a .345 batting average from the thinnest position in fantasy baseball. Is he something of a risk? Absolutely. But he's so incredible when he's rolling that he's more than worth it, and the fact that he's in a contract year is an added bonus. There may not be five better players to build a team around this year than Ramirez.
Victor Martinez, DH, Detroit Tigers
V-Mart is one of the trendiest sleepers in fantasy this year, which is an odd status for a 35-year-old utility hitter. If he can regain his catcher eligibility, he'll immediately reassert himself as one of the elite at that position. It's easy to say that Martinez' low power numbers were a result of him being rusty from not having played in a year, but that's not really the case. His average was down, but his 14 homers in 2013 were actually two more than he hit for Detroit in 2011, and the number of doubles he hit (36) were only four less than he accumulated in '11. I'm more inclined to think that his .301-14-83 output from a year ago is a more indicative statline of how Martinez will perform than from any other season. Again, give the Martinez from last year catcher eligibility and you've got yourself a must-own backstop. But you might have to wait a few weeks or months for him to reclaim that eligibility, and considering his age and his weaning power numbers, he's not someone who should necessarily reach for on draft day.
Corey Hart, 1B, Seattle Mariners
Hart missed all of 2013 because of knee surgery, but he now finds himself in a cushy fantasy position, as he's slated to begin the year as the Mariners' cleanup hitter. Hart averaged 24 homers and 78 RBI in his last six years with the Brewers, and hit 30 homers in two of the last three years, so the power is legit. Considering he's had microfracture surgery in both of his knees, I think it's fair to ask how much he'll run this year, if at all. Still, he's an excellent man to take a flier on in the later rounds of the draft.
David Ortiz, DH, Boston Red Sox
Big Papi was magnificent in 2013, hitting .309 with 30 homers and 103 RBI in the regular season, and then almost single-handedly carrying the Red Sox to a title in the postseason. Now with one year left on his deal, the 38-year-old Ortiz has said that if he doesn't get a multi-year deal at the end of the season, he might pack his bags and leave town. So obviously, he appears pretty motivated to have a great year. However, Ortiz has very little upside; last year's season was his best since 2007. While it's indisputable that Ortiz still has a lot left in the tank, it's not practical to think he'll do even better now that he's a year older and the Red Sox lineup is slightly shabbier. A .290-25-90 line is more realistic, which itself is still pretty fantastic. Ortiz is definitely worth targeting, but if the bidding for him starts to get into the teens in an auction league, bailing on him might be the way to go.
Asdrubal Cabrera, SS, Cleveland Indians
Cabrera regressed hard in 2013, hitting a measly .242 and nabbing only 66 runs, 14 home runs and 64 RBI. To put those awful numbers in perspective, Reds shortstop Zack Cozart posted nearly identical numbers last year (74 runs, 12 home runs, 63 RBI, .254 batting average), and most wouldn't want to own Zack Cozart in even a Cincinnati-Reds-only fantasy league. Cabrera has a few redemptive distinctions. He's finally healthy after dealing with a quad issue for most of last year, and he's only 28, meaning there's a chance we haven't yet seen the best of him. However, an enormous dagger is going to hang over Cabrera's head this year, and that dagger's name is Francisco Lindor, who the Indians see as their shortstop of the future. The Indians, historically, have had no trouble cutting ties with players they feel they're going to lose anyway, which makes Cabrera a likely candidate to be traded. With only one year left on his deal and with Lindor poised to be called up, Cabrera has all the reason in the world to want to play his ass off in 2014, and if you need a shortstop, he'll definitely be a cheap one. Just know that there are an awful lot of if's with him, and that there's no guarantee he'll still be in Cleveland by the end of the year.
Chase Headley, 3B, San Diego Padres
Headley was nothing short of spectacular in 2012, posting a .295 average to go with 95 runs, 31 home runs, 115 RBI and 17 stolen bases. But after getting hurt, his 2013 stats were a pittance compared to the previous year: .250-13-50-8. And a strained calf has a chance to keep him out of the lineup on opening day for the second straight year. All that being said, he's going so cheap in drafts right now that he makes for an excellent sleeper, especially since he's playing for a contract this year. I wouldn't draft him with the intention of using him at third base; he seems fairly injury-prone at this point, and there are plenty of options at the hot corner that are more reliable than him. But his upside is so enormous that he's more than worth using in the utility role.
Jed Lowrie, SS, Toronto Blue Jays
On the surface, Lowrie's 80 runs, 15 home runs, 75 RBI and .290 batting average from a year ago don't seem that glamorous. But those are some fine numbers for a middle infielder, especially one that has eligibility at both second base and shortstop. And it showed: among second basemen last year, only Cano, Pedroia, Carpenter, Kinsler, Kipnis, Murphy, and Phillips ranked ahead of him, and as a shortstop, only Ramirez, Tulowitzki, Andrus, Desmond and Segura outranked him. In other words, he's the best option after all the guys you want at second or short have already left the board. He's basically a 29-year-old version of Marco Scutaro, with a bit more power, so there's a limit to how positive I can be about him. But as far as last resorts at second or short go, he's not a bad one.
Colby Rasmus, OF, Toronto Blue Jays
A former first-round pick by the Cardinals, Rasmus has gone from a highly-touted prospect to a players owners may have forgotten is still on a Major League roster. Rasmus will spend most of his time batting somewhere in the middle of the Blue Jay's potent lineup, behind the likes of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. So that's a positive. And he's at that vaunted age of 27, when players randomly start to blossom into All-Stars; remember, Alex Gordon -- a former top prospect himself -- was also extremely crummy before he turned 27. Really though, you have to buy into Rasmus' past hype to be excited about him, as he's a lifetime .248 hitter and there are a million other options at outfield this year. I'm not discouraging him as a guy to take a chance on, but that's all he represents at this point: a chance.