By Eric Mack
March 07, 2012

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Watching Johan Santana pitch his spring debut Tuesday while coming off shoulder surgery might be exciting for some. For fantasy owners and Mets ownership, it is probably equally depressing: This is a talent who was once the best pitcher in baseball, the perennial No. 1 arm to target in fantasy and someone whom the Mets ownership lavished with a six-year, $137.5 million contract, including a full no-trade clause and a 2014 option.

It is caveat emptor, buyer beware, with big-money players. Money in baseball tends to mean you used to be good, not you will be great. Following the money might be a bad thing in fantasy.

Santana made $22.5 million last season to watch the game from the trainer's room. He didn't throw a pitch for the Mets. He did nothing in fantasy but take up a reserve roster spot for six months. Now, he'll be lucky to consistently top out at the 90 mph he threw Tuesday -- or lucky to just feel good enough to throw in five days.

"The way I feel today and felt after the game, it's a good sign," Santana said after his effort to show enough strength in his shoulder to finally try to do what he will be paid $24 million to do this season (although that money is best spent on someone dominant, not merely healthy enough to take the mound). "I don't see any problem on making the next [start]."

Santana is yet another cautionary tale of signing pitchers, especially those in their late 20s or early 30s, to long-term deals. It is a lesson we can learn in fantasy, too: Players past their prime with big contracts are more bust than boon.

And despite some scattered cases -- like Jose Reyes, Prince Fielder and Lance Berkman last year -- players entering their contract years just aren't as promising as the expectations.

Baseball front offices are wising up, signing their pre-prime players to long-term deals, such as Andrew McCutchen and Cameron Maybin this winter. It makes for fewer promising fantasy picks remaining in the contract-year category. Heck, if the players were really still trending up, the teams wouldn't be letting these guys go free, right?

But fantasy types often are slow to learn and clamor for the list of players playing for a big contract every spring. We are obliged to provide it, but we do it with the caveat: Contract years tend to amp hype and raise fantasy value, making finding those who outperform their draft position difficult.

This is why we finish up's pre-draft series on finding breakouts and potential sleepers with Part VI: Contract years. It should be used as a tool, yes, but one far less important than the five prior pieces (27-year-olds, third-year starting pitchers, injury-risk sleepers, rookies and overlooked sophomores).

Here are top 10 players who could outperform their draft position because they are motivated for a big payday:

There were parts of 2009 and '10 where Ethier looked like he was the best outfielder in fantasy. It is little coincidence those were his first years of his prime around age 27. Now turning 30 this April, Ethier is coming off a season in which he hit just 11 homers and has seen his fantasy value dip considerably. This looks like an ideal time to buy. He is a free agent this winter and is plenty motivated to show he deserves elite outfielder money.

Upton led in the 27-year-olds story, but he bears mentioning here, too. Not only is Upton finally entering his prime and playing for a big contract, he also has yet to put it all together for the huge season once expected of him. If there is any time it should come, it has to be now, right? His somewhat muted performance until now is a primary reason people are down on this talent. It should be reminded some players merely arrive to the majors by this age. Upton has been here for years and should be here for years to come. The best may be yet to be seen.

Another prime-aged talent you have to like for more than just his contract status. The Giants are working on a long-term contract extension as we speak, so they know what they have. Cain won just 12 games a year ago and hasn't struck out 200 batters in a season yet, but he has the stuff capable of winning a Cy Young. He never misses a start and is a legit workhorse. An 18-win, 200-plus strikeout season heading into free agency could make him a very, very rich man.

We haven't seen the Wright stuff from this guy in the past year-and-a-half, but there is too much talent and .300-30-100-100-20 potential to ignore. The fences being moved in at Citi Field can help, but all the trade talk in New York should motivate the face of the franchise to perform up to his current contract, much less the one that expires after '13. He is due $16 million with a $1 million buyout next year and if he has another year like '11, he just might be bought out, or dealt. Wright is over his post-concussion issues and fractured back, so a bounce-back year is entirely possible. He has been an every other year guy since his career year in '08.

Hamilton has already been a league MVP and helped lead his team to back-to-back World Series appearances, but he still has plenty to prove. First, he has to show he can stay clean after years of drug and alcohol abuse and he has to prove his body -- worn by that hard living -- won't give out on him. He is now 30 and entering the twilight of his most productive years. Hamilton is playing hard ball with the Rangers and clearly wants to get paid like a stud. He'll have to have a year like '08 (. 305-32-130-98-3, .368-. 554) or '10 (. 359-32-100-95-8, .411-. 633) to do that. Like Wright, he is an even-year gem.

There is a good reason the Phillies are heating up talks the past few days about a long-term deal. He looks strong in camp and is capable of besting his career numbers across the board. He is still just 28 and has yet to win more than the 15 games he won in his first full season in the Phillies' rotation. He is going to be a lot more expensive after this year than he is now. Regardless of whether he signs in the coming weeks, we still project Hamels to go 18-7 with a 2.75 ERA, 215 strikeouts and a 1.000 WHIP. Those are numbers that might elevate Hamels to the elite of fantasy arms. He will be a better value than many of the elite arms picked ahead of him, because his arrow is still pointing up. Every arm that gets picked before him has already had a career year.

Youk is past his prime, and more disturbingly, has not played more than 147 games in any season. He hasn't even reached 500 at-bats since '08. But he is a lot better than he has shown the past two seasons, which leaves him a bit undervalued. We should expect a Jason Bay-like contract-year monster campaign out of Youk this go round. The problem is he has a $13 million contract with a $1 million buyout. It won't take much for him to earn that deal, but he certainly wants to look worthy of an extension now, because age 33-plus is no time to be slugging for a new contract.

After a career year of hitting .320 with 30 homers, Napoli is, arguably, the top fantasy catcher. There is only one place to go from there: down. But Napoli has only passed 400 at-bats once in a season and his career-high totals of 72 RBI and 72 runs are beatable. Napoli won't hit .300 with 450 at-bats, but he can drive in 100-plus runs. If he is not the first catcher off the board in your draft, it will be a good time to snatch up a slugger with the potential to improve with an increased amount of at-bats.

Liriano was an enigma last season and he has been one for most of his fantasy career. He once looked capable of being the best pitcher in baseball, but now many wonder if he is even worth picking in a standard mixed league. He is, if only for his contract situation. Liriano looked like he completed his comeback from Tommy John elbow surgery in '10, winning 14 games and striking out 201 batters, but he faltered to waiver fodder last season. Motivated to not only earn a contract, but to keep his spot in a major league rotation, we can see the best of Liriano over a full season for the first time. He has yet to reach 200 innings, but if he can do that, he is going to be a great late-round pick in fantasy ... and worthy of a decent contract.

Loney hasn't looked like anything more than a marginal major league first baseman the past four fully health seasons. At a prime age and playing for a contract, he just might show the .300-20-100-90-10 (. 375-. 525) potential that lies within him. The good news is he plays every day and comes at a bargain. He is a good bet to be worth a late-round flier.

C Miguel Montero, 28, Diamondbacks -- He is coming off a career year in his age-27 season, but now is the time to earn a contract by duplicating those numbers (. 282-18-86-65-1, .351-. 469) in back-to-back years. Catchers rarely project to get 500 at-bats, but Montero is one of the few who can reach that plateau. He should be a decent candidate to perform at his optimistic draft position because of his contract status.

C -- Miguel Montero, ARI1B -- James Loney, LAD2B -- Ian Kinsler, TEX3B -- David Wright, NYMSS -- Stephen Drew, ARIOF -- Josh Hamilton, TEXOF -- Andre Ethier, LADOF -- B.J. Upton, TBDH -- Mike Napoli, TEXLHP -- Cole Hamels, PHIRHP -- Matt Cain, SFCL -- Brandon League, SEA

If you don't like our picks above for the top 10, honorable mentions or the All-Free-Agent-To-Be Team, you can pick or choose who you put your own money on this spring. We provide a list from Cot's Baseball Contracts at of the top pending free agents for 2013 by position. The players marked with an asterisk * are those who have a team-held, player-held or mutual option remaining on their current contract.

Catchers: Koyie Hill, STL; Chris Iannetta*, LAA; Russell Martin, NYY; Jeff Mathis, TOR; Brian McCann*, ATL; Miguel Montero, ARI; Mike Napoli, TEX; Wil Nieves, COL; Miguel Olivo*, SEA; Ronny Paulino, BAL; A.J. Pierzynski, CHW; Humberto Quintero, HOU; David Ross, ATL; Carlos Ruiz*, PHI; and Yorvit Torrealba, TEX.

First basemen: Jeff Baker, CHC; Travis Hafner*, CLE; Aubrey Huff*, SF; Adam LaRoche*, WAS; Carlos Lee, HOU; James Loney, LAD; Mike Napoli, TEX; Mark Reynolds*, BAL; and Ty Wigginton*, PHI.

Second basemen: Orlando Hudson*, SD; Maicer Izturis, LAA; Howie Kendrick, LAA; Jeff Keppinger, TB; Ian Kinsler*, TEX; Freddy Sanchez, SF; and Skip Schumaker, STL.

Third basemen: Geoff Blum, ARI; Brandon Inge*, DET; Maicer Izturis, LAA; Chipper Jones*, ATL; Kevin Kouzmanoff, KC; Placido Polanco*, PHI; Mark Reynolds*, BAL; Scott Rolen, CIN; Mark Teahen, WAS; Ty Wigginton*, PHI; David Wright*, NYM; and Kevin Youkilis*, BOS.

Shortstops: Erick Aybar, LAA; Jason Bartlett*, SD; Stephen Drew*, ARI; Jhonny Peralta*, DET; and Ryan Theriot, SF.

Outfielders: Michael Bourn, ATL; Marlon Byrd, CHC; Melky Cabrera, SF; Matt Diaz, ATL; Andre Ethier, LAD; Curtis Granderson*, NYY; Josh Hamilton, TEX; Torii Hunter, LAA; Carlos Lee, HOU; Angel Pagan, SF; Carlos Quentin, SF; Aaron Rowand, MIA; Luke Scott, TB; Ryan Spilborghs, CLE; Ichiro Suzuki, SEA; B.J. Upton, TB; Shane Victorino, PHI; Reggie Willits, LAA; and Delmon Young, TB.

Starting pitchers: Scott Baker*, MIN; Joe Blanton, PHI; Matt Cain, SF; Fausto Carmona*, CLE; Kevin Correia, PIT; Jorge De La Rosa*, COL; R.A. Dickey*, NYM; Gavin Floyd*, CHW; Zack Greinke, MIL; Jeremy Guthrie, COL; Cole Hamels, PHI; Dan Haren*, LAA; Tim Hudson*, ATL; Colby Lewis, TEX; Francisco Liriano, MIN; Kyle Lohse, STL; Derek Lowe, CLE; Shaun Marcum, MIL; Daisuke Matsuzaka, BOS; Brandon McCarthy, TEX; Dustin McGowan, TOR; Brett Myers*, PHI; Carl Pavano, MIN; Jake Peavy*, CHW; Anibal Sanchez, MIA; Jonathan Sanchez, KC; Ervin Santana*, LAA; Joe Saunders, ARI; James Shields*, TB; Jake Westbrook*, STL; Randy Wolf*, MIL; and Carlos Zambrano*, MIA.

Relief pitchers: David Aardsma, NYY; Jeremy Accardo, CLE; Mike Adams, TEX; Grant Balfour*, OAK; Matt Belisle, COL; Rafael Betancourt*, COL; Taylor Buchholz, NYM; Sean Burnett*, WAS; D.J. Carrasco, NYM; Randy Choate, MIA; Jose Contreras*, PHI; Scott Feldman*, TEX; Pedro Feliciano*, NYY; Brian Fuentes*, OAK; Kevin Gregg*, BAL; J.P. Howell, TB; Hong-Chih Kuo, SEA; Casey Janssen, TOR; Bobby Jenks, BOS; Brandon League, SEA; Matt Lindstrom*, BAL; Mark Lowe, TEX; Brandon Lyon, HOU; Sean Marshall, CIN; Peter Moylan, ATL; Pat Neshek, BAL; Will Ohman, CHW; Juan Carlos Oviedo (formerly Leo Nunez), MIA; Tony Pena, CHW; Joel Peralta, TB; J.J. Putz*, ARI; Ramon Ramirez, NYM; Mariano Rivera, NYY; Joakim Soria*, KC; Huston Street*, SD; Hisanori Takahashi, LAA; Robinson Tejeda, CLE; and Carlos Villanueva, TOR.

This concludes our annual six-part series on finding players a bit undervalued on draft day. It is advisable to highlight the players our six breakout/sleeper categories on your cheat sheets and target them periodically throughout your draft. Good luck and happy drafting.

Eric Mack writes fantasy for You can also find him on Twitter, where you can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice @EricMackFantasy. He reads all the messages there (guaranteed) and takes them very, very personally (not really).

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