MLB Free Agents: Josh Hamilton and 5 Players Killing It in Contract Years

Chris SbalcioCorrespondent IMay 21, 2012

MLB Free Agents: Josh Hamilton and 5 Players Killing It in Contract Years

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    As one might expect, a lot of players put up some of their best statistical seasons in "contract years." Now, it's fairly obvious why this occurs.  

    Players feel comfortable financially in the beginning or middle of their contracts, when they know that even if they have a down year, they're still getting paid for next year and they have time to rebound.  However, in the last year on any contract, players feel the pressure to perform at a higher level to try to give themselves as much leverage as possible in upcoming negotiations for a new contract.

    It's as simple as this. If you have a down year, you get paid for a down year. If you have a good year, you get paid for a good year. If you kill it in a contract year, you become a very rich man. You want to kill it in a contract year.

    So, with that being said, who is currently killing it in their contract years? Who is in line for a big payday and a spot on one of baseball's best rosters? I've narrowed it down to six players who look like they could finish up their current deals stronger than ever.

RF Nick Swisher (NYY)

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    At the start of the season, you had to wonder if the Yankees would entertain the thought of trading Nick Swisher. After all, this is a guy who has continually struggled in the postseason for a perennial postseason contender. But the Yankees stuck with Swisher, and it's looking like a great decision thus far.

    Swisher, despite missing time to injury already and hitting for a shoddy .236 average through 38 games, he is doing so with seven home runs and 27 RBI. He's on track to hit 30-plus home runs with well over 100 RBI if he keeps up his current pace.  

    Now will he? That remains to be seen, but if he can, I don't think the Yankees will have any qualms in offering the "clubhouse MVP" a new, well-paying contract.

    Other teams that could have interest include the Orioles, Dodgers, Phillies and even the rival Red Sox.

C A.J. Pierzynski (CHW)

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    White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski is quietly having an incredible 2012. He is currently hitting .303 with six home runs and 28 RBI, but what's more impressive is that he has played in 39 of his team's 44 games—no small feat for a 35-year-old catcher.

    Pierzynski likely knows about St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina's five-year, $75 million contract extension, and while he also probably realizes he is not about to get a five-year deal, he might still try to get the same kind of annual salary.  

    A two-year, $30 million contract might not be out of the question if Pierzynski continues at his current rate, though it might not be with the ChiSox.

    Other teams interested could include the Diamondbacks if they lose Miguel Montero, or the Rangers if they lose Mike Napoli.

RHP Zack Greinke (MIL)

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    Zack Greinke has had a great year in Milwaukee so far, establishing himself as the definitive ace of the Brewers rotation, rising above Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum. He has pitched himself to a 5-1 record in nine starts, with a 2.70 ERA and 59 strikeouts in 56.2 innings.

    Top-tier starters are always in high demand when they hit free agency, and Greinke will be no different. All questions of his ability to handle the big league stage due to his anxiety issues are gone, as he has proved time and time again that he can take the pressure.  

    When he hits free agency, Greinke will be 29 years old and in his prime. This will make him a highly attractive option for many teams, including big-market free-spenders like the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies and Dodgers.  

    If he can keep pitching like he has already this year, one of those teams, or perhaps another, could be inclined to give him Cliff Lee-money (five years, $120 million).

RF Andre Ethier (LAD)

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    Andre Ethier is having a renaissance season with the surprising Los Angeles Dodgers. He's hitting for average (.321), power (nine HR) and is driving in runs at record pace (40) past the quarter mark. He was thoroughly enjoying hitting behind NL MVP-favorite Matt Kemp before Kemp hit the DL, but Ethier has not suffered a drop-off and has has established himself as a legitimate run producer. 

    If Ethier keeps it up, he is technically on pace to hit around .321 with 32 home runs and 145 RBI—surefire MVP-type numbers. However, I think everyone expects him to fall down to earth a bit. It wouldn't be completely out of the question for a .300/30/110 season from Ethier, though, and if he can do that, he would be in line for a nice payday this offseason.  

    Add into the fact that he also plays a great outfield and you've got a player that any team wouldn't mind adding into the mix.

    The only question is how much money Ethier could earn himself in free agency. Could he approach Jayson Werth's seven-year, $126 million deal with the Nationals? That may not be too far off, although I'd be surprised if he came anywhere near Carl Crawford's seven-year, $142 million contract with Boston.

    Someone is going to give him a ton of money, that much is for sure. Teams interested could include the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers, Phillies and Giants, on top of his current team, the Dodgers.

LHP Cole Hamels (PHI)

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    In Philadelphia, standing behind studs like Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee in the Phillies rotation is a young lefty named Cole Hamels. Every year since his MLB debut in 2006, Hamels has put up great numbers for Philadelphia.

    In fact, other than an off 2009 campaign, Hamels has improved with every passing season. His ERA has dropped at least a few points every season, and 2012 is no exception.

    After a fifth-place finish in the Cy Young voting last season behind Clayton Kershaw, Halladay, Lee and Ian Kennedy, Hamels looks like a man ready to capture the award in 2012. So far, Hamels has pitched to a 7-1 record with an amazing 2.17 ERA and 66 strikeouts in 62.1 innings pitched.  

    Those kinds of numbers belong to an ace, not a No. 3 starter. Next year, Hamels will be a staff ace, and it won't be for the Phillies rotation.

    The 28-year-old Hamels is going to leave Philadelphia, mark my words. The only question is what team will be willing to spend the money, assuming he isn't traded at the deadline and signed to an extension to hit free agency.

    We can all assume that teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers, Tigers and Nationals will all be in the mix, but I don't see him landing in any of those places.

    I see Cole Hamels signing a lucrative contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. The Blue Jays have reportedly already expressed interest in trading with the Phillies for the star southpaw, no doubt sensing their chance has come with the incorporation of the second wild card coupled with the struggles of the Yankees and Red Sox so far this season.

    Hamels would be a perfect fit atop the Toronto rotation, with a young talented staff below him and a great offense to back him up. We'll have to wait and see what happens, but my gut tells me a move to Canada is in the cards for Hamels in 2013.

OF Josh Hamilton (TEX)

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    What is there to say about Josh Hamilton that hasn't already been said this season?

    As we all know, Hamilton has been incredible so far in 2012. Through 42 games played, he has already swatted 18 home runs and driven in 49 runs, leading to an impressive .379 batting average. Even if we assume that Hamilton only plays in 145 games due to those ever-constant injuries, he would still be on pace to hit 68 home runs and drive in 179 runs.

    Now this is the point in the article where I usually say something like "obviously that is not going to happen, but we should expect...," but this time, I'm not so sure. Hamilton is absolutely raking right now, and he has shown no signs of slowing down.  

    Even if we assume that those numbers are too excessive to be realistic, what are we calling realistic now? Fifty-five home runs and 150 RBI? A .350 batting average? If that happens, Hamilton unanimously wins the AL MVP and wins the Triple Crown. You could decrease those numbers even further and he would still win the MVP.

    What I'm trying to say is that the sky is the limit for Hamilton. If he continues at even a fraction of his current pace, he is guaranteed to receive monstrous offers from the best teams in baseball. Who can we expect to give Hamilton a call? The Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, Orioles, Nationals, Tigers, Cardinals, Reds, Brewers, Angels, Dodgers, Giants and pretty much everyone else will be in on the hunt.  

    Hamilton will likely get to choose where he wants to go and how much money he wants to make for the next eight to 10 years. The only caveat will be all the incentives and out-clauses that will revolve around his health and substance-abuse issues, but that's something that every team will require, and he'll have to accept that.  

    Those concerns might keep teams from spending a quarter-billion on him, but he'll still get his $200 million, that's for sure. Will it be from the Rangers? Maybe, who knows, but Josh Hamilton is going to be a very, very rich man very soon.