This is Part III in our six-part series: Contract years. It rates among the ways to get bang for your bucks, but it pales in comparison to our other fantasy rules of thumbs: 27-year-olds, third-year starting pitchers, injury-risk sleepers, overlooked sophomores and rookies.
Before we outline the few pending free agents who could have huge years before earning a big payday, you need to be warned why contract years don't always mean great production. There are three primary reasons for this:
1. Free agents tend to be older and past their primes.
Teams are paying for what they have done and not will they will do, like the Nationals did with ex-Phillie Jayson Werth. He had a great year before free agency and he was in his prime 27-32 years of age. But how about Lance Berkman? He went bust with the Astros and Yankees, and for fantasy owners, easily posted the worst season of his career. (Notice the ages of our top contract-year players below: Most are 27-32).
2. Contract status can be a temporary situation.
Last spring, Josh Beckett and Joe Mauer were great players primed for big contract years. That was until they each signed a lucrative, long-term deal before the start of the season -- yet, still likely after your draft day. When that happens the motivation for a big year goes out the window before a pitch is thrown and the dreaded complacency can set in. Beckett was a disaster, and Mauer wasn't worth the hefty freight, struggling to follow up on his career high in homers -- not even breaking double digits, in fact.
3. Want will have to be their master.
Players might want to be at their best, but that doesn't mean they will be. Health issues or mere fate can sap them from building their sharpest resumes. Carlos Pena couldn't get it done last year and he was forced to sign another one-year deal with the Cubs to try again. There are a whole category of annual free agents, which Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon have become after signing one-year deals with the Rays.
But it is not all bad. There are some players who still could be expected to have a big year before free agency. Here are the top 10 draft-day targets of those in this category:
Career highs by category: .299 AVG, 50 HR, 141 RBI, 109 R, 7 SBProjected numbers: .280-40-115-100-1
Fielder is coming off a disappointing year, going .261-32-83-94-1 last season. That will allow you to draft him beyond the top five at his position and the first few rounds. If he has a career year before his first long-term contract, it could be with first-round caliber numbers. He could be this year's Joey Votto-type fantasy MVP. In May, Fielder will turn the same age Votto was last season, 27, by the way.
Career highs by category: .304-40-119-103-1Projected numbers: .290-37-120-105-0
The Red Sox pulled a bit of genius getting an in-his-prime Gonzalez on the verge of his first free-agent contract. If he can get .304-40-119-103-1 highs in the cavernous Petco Park with no supporting cast in San Diego, you have to expect he is going to shatter his career highs in a few, if not all, categories in Fenway Park in Boston. This is going to be an offensive machine with the addition of Carl Crawford and the returns to health of Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jacoby Ellsbury. Oh, J.D. Drew and David Ortiz are also in contract years, too. Gonzalez is just in a perfect situation to outperform his No. 5 ranking at the first base position.
Career highs by category: 5 W, 0.92 ERA, 84 K, 0.77 WHIP, 41 SVProjected numbers: 3-2.18-78-1.10-40
Papelbon's WHIP and walks have risen and his saves have declined each of the past three seasons. All three of those trends stop here. Not only is Papelbon precisely the player fit for a big contract year, but the Red Sox have also significantly bolstered their bullpen in front of him. A good closer is a great fantasy closer when he gets help from his setup men. Daniel Bard is one of the best late-inning arms in baseball; Bobby Jenks is closer-quality in the seventh or eighth; and Dan Wheeler and Hideki Okajima are solid matchup guys from the right and left sides. There is a lot to like about the Red Sox and Papelbon en route to 40 saves.
Career highs by category: .300-19-81-122-78Projected numbers: .285-15-65-110-55
Reyes will never be the 20-plus homer, 80-plus steals player some thought he could be (this writer included), but a healthy Reyes setting the table for a productive lineup can be a machine. The question is how productive can his supporting cast in CitiField be? He might not have to find out for a full season. The Mets' financial woes, need to cut payroll, likely rebuilding process and Reyes' pending free agency might get him dealt by midseason. Can you imagine Reyes in Boston? Wow. Reyes could perform like an early round pick again, even if he might slip into the middle rounds off his most-healthy, but down year in 2010 (.282-11-54-82-30).
Career highs by category: 15-2.81-170-1.21-24Projected numbers: 15-3.50-180-1.25-0
It was hard to imagine Wilson could go from being a full-time reliever to a 200-inning horse, but he did just that a year ago. He will now have to do it back-to-back to earn a contract next fall. The innings uptick is a warning sign for injury, but it is funny how things don't hurt as much when you're in a pennant race and facing free agency. The projections here are modest. There were stretches last season in which Wilson looked like he could go 18-2.75-200-1.10-0.
Career highs by category: 7-2.59-114-0.96-36Projected numbers: 4-3.08-90-1.20-35
Broxton fills a few of our favorite categories: a pitcher who is downgraded due to a non-throwing injury, in his prime at 27 and on the verge of free agency. He had a great first full season as a closer in '09, rising to the top of the charts going into last spring, but he slumped, had a lower leg issue and wound up out of the closer's role by season's end. He heads to spring training as the team's choice to close again and you should expect he have a season much closer to his '09 than '10.
Career highs by category: .357-49-137-137-16Projected numbers: .331-41-123-118-8
Pujols won't go past the first pick in your draft, but we figure we have to list him somewhere in this top 10, since he is still in his prime. He also has the addition of Berkman and the maturation of Colby Rasmus working in his favor around him. Pujols already had a $100 million contract to his credit, the first on this list to get a second big contract -- yet he is still just 31. Yeah, get your hands on Pujols, if you can.
Career highs by category: .287-26-71-93-13Projected numbers: .285-25-75-100-10
Johnson finally got a full-time job last season with the D'backs and the power showed up. Most of his career highs were set last season, so projecting a season better than last would be tough. If you want to consider a high side, though, we could see .295-30-80-110-15. Johnson could prove to be a steal after the top five fantasy second basemen are off the board. Because he has done it essentially only once in his career, he might even go after the first 10 at his position, too.
Career highs by category: 21-2.70-251-1.11-0Projected numbers: 20-3.20-200-1.15-0
Sabathia is a unique case because, like A-Rod before him, he already signed a huge contract that gives him an out after this season. Remember the last time he and A-Rod were in a contract year? Sabathia tossed a career high 253 innings, working on three-day's rest every turn down the stretch of '08, winning 17 games, striking out a career-high 251 batters and posting a career-low 2.70 ERA and a career-low 1.115 WHIP. Oh, he also had a career-high 10 complete games, which is almost double his next-highest total in any other season. It is enough to make a millionaire change his life and his eating patterns. Sabathia did. He reportedly is 25 pounds lighter this spring under a new diet and training regimen. Sounds like someone motivated to opt of a seven-year, $161 million deal after this season.
Career highs by category: 5-1.73-123-0.99-62Projected numbers: 4-2.50-75-1.20-35
K-Rod has a whole bunch of motivation this spring, including cleaning up his personal image after a domestic dispute with his baby's maternal grandfather cost him a team-imposed suspension and left him with a thumb injury that required season-ending surgery. The Amazin' mess almost made his current contract void. The Mets definitely wanted to get out of that $17.5 million option with a $3.5 million buyout. K-Rod will already make $11.5 million this season, and you might as well tack on the the buyout. Closers just aren't worth $17.5 million a year. K-Rod has to keep his nose clean, because the Mets are in financial trouble and they'll lilely use any excuse possible to cut costs and try to void this deal. So consider this a make-or-break year for K-Rod, a contract-year at that. Remember the last time K-Rod was headed to free agency before signing with the Mets? Oh, all he did was set the single-season saves record. Yeah, it could be a good year for him and his fantasy owners. And he will come cheaper than ever on draft day.
According to sources Cot's Baseball Contracts at MLBcontracts.blogspot.com and Tim Dierkes at MLBTradeRumors.com, here are the top players who are either heading into free agency next fall or playing to earn their remaining option years left on their current contract (marked with an *); players are listed alphabetically, by position(s) they are eligible at on draft day:
Catchers -- Yadier Molina, STL*, Dioner Navarro, LAD; Jorge Posada, NYY; Ivan Rodriguez, WAS; Brian Schneider, PHI; Kelly Shoppach, TB*; Chris Snyder, PIT*.
First basemen -- Berkman, STL; Michael Cuddyer, MIN; Fielder, MIL; Gonzalez, BOS; Derrek Lee, BAL; Lyle Overbay, PIT; Pena, CHC; Albert Pujols, STL.
Second basemen -- Clint Barmes, HOU; Robinson Cano, NYY*; Luis Castillo, NYM; Mark Ellis, OAK; Carlos Guillen, DET; Bill Hall, HOU*; Aaron Hill, TOR*; Omar Infante, FLA; Kelly Johnson, ARI; Brandon Phillips, CIN*; Freddy Sanchez, SF.
Shortstops -- Yuniesky Betancourt, MIL*; Ronny Cedeno, PIT*; Rafael Furcal, LAD; Alex Gonzalez, ATL; J.J. Hardy, BAL; John McDonald, TOR; Melvin Mora, ARI; Reyes, NYM; Jimmy Rollins, PHI; Ramon Santiago, DET; Marco Scutaro, BOS*; Miguel Tejada, SF; Jack Wilson, SEA.
Third basemen -- Bautista, TOR; Casey Blake, LAD*; Infante, FLA; Jose Lopez, COL; Aramis Ramirez, CHC.
Outfielders -- Bobby Abreu, LAA*; Bautista, TOR; Carlos Beltran, NYM; Milton Bradley, SEA; Pat Burrell, SF; Mike Cameron, BOS; Coco Crisp, OAK; Cuddyer, MIN; Damon, TB; David DeJesus, OAK; Mark DeRosa, SF; Drew, BOS; Jeff Francoeur, KC*; Jonny Gomes, CIN; Brad Hawpe, SD; Raul Ibanez, PHI; Conor Jackson, ARI; Jason Kubel, MIN; Ryan Ludwick, SD; Nate McLouth, ATL*; Juan Pierre, CHW; Ramirez, TB; Juan Rivera, TOR; Cody Ross, SF; Grady Sizemore, CLE*; Nick Swisher, NYY*; Josh Willingham, OAK.
Designated hitters -- Jack Cust, SEA; Ortiz, BOS; Hideki Matsui, OAK; Jim Thome, MIN.
Starting pitchers -- Mark Buehrle, CHW; Chris Carpenter, STL*; Aaron Cook, COL*; Kyle Davies, KC; Zach Duke, ARI; Jeff Francis, KC; Rich Harden, OAK; Edwin Jackson, CHW; Kenshin Kawakami, ATL; Scott Kazmir, LAA*; Hiroki Kuroda, LAD; Paul Maholm, PIT; Jason Marquis, WAS; Scott Olsen, PIT*; Roy Oswalt, PHI*; Vicente Padilla, LAD; Oliver Perez, NYM; Joel Pineiro, LAA; CC Sabathia, NYY*; Tim Wakefield, BOS; Chien-Ming Wang, WAS; Brandon Webb, TEX; C.J. Wilson, TEX; Chris Young, NYM.
Closers -- Heath Bell, SD; Broxton, LAD; Francisco Cordero, CIN*; Octavio Dotel, TOR*; Ryan Franklin, STL; Brian Fuentes, OAK; Mike Gonzalez, BAL; Brad Lidge, PHI*; Joe Nathan, MIN*; Jon Papelbon, BOS; Jon Rauch, TOR*; Francisco Rodriguez, NYM*; George Sherrill, LAD; Rafael Soriano, NYY*; Matt Thornton, CHW; Jose Valverde, DET.
Eric Mack writes bi-weekly for SI.com. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy. Hit him up. He honestly has nothing better to do with his free time.