Fantasy Baseball Strategy: Targeting Contract Year Players

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Fantasy Baseball Strategy: Targeting Contract Year Players

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For most professional athletes, the window of fiscal opportunity can close at any moment.

A serious injury, a major slump or bad attitudes leading to a sticky perception as a head case are contributing factors toward an athlete missing his payday.

So, therein leads the idea that an athlete harbors extra motivation to excel in the last year of his contract, commonly referred to as a contract year.

Counting on contract-year players to give your team an extra boost can result in tricky circumstances.

On the bright side, you can look at Adrian Beltre as the mother of all contract year players.

In 2004, Beltre batted .334 with 48 homers and 121 RBIs.

A 25-year-old at the time, some saw the year as a breakout season. Four seasons later, though, it's apparent 2004 been a major outlier for Beltre

His next highest season average is .290, accomplished in 2000, his second full season.

The closest he's come to the 48 homers before or since were the 26 long balls he smacked in 2007 and he hasn’t had another 100 RBI season in his career; the closest he came to that mark was in 2007 with 99 RBI.

You see, a contract year can motivate a player in some situations to play above and beyond what his overall career numbers suggest. It's sort of like the A.J. Burnett (SP, NYY) effect.

Only in his contract years has Burnett reached 200 innings, a strange occurrence that will be interesting to track this season now that he's signed an $80-plus million contract.

On the other hand, you have Brad Penny (SP, BOS).

Penny came off back-to-back All-Star appearances in 2006 and 2007, seasons in which he posted a combined 32-13 record, but in 2008, with free agency and a likely sizzling contract looming, Penny broke down.

He pitched just 94 2/3 innings, posting a 6.27 ERA and a 1.63 WHIP. In return, he was able to sign "only" a one-year; $5 million deal with the Red Sox.

There's no doubt Penny wished he could have posted another All-Star season in '08 with a major contract on the line, but he couldn't sustain his health and his game fell apart as a result.

A factor next off-season, which can’t be ignored, is the crippled economy, which has had a major effect on all but the most elite free agents this off-season.

With a recession predicted by many to continue through 2009, MLB team owners might again be unwilling to shell out large contracts to most players, leaving players competing for much less money in the marketplace than what has been seen in years.

This isn't to say a players' motivation to secure a new deal will weaken, but many of the impending free agents must realize they are likely playing for much less money than what they would have envisioned a year or two ago.

In any case, we'll go through this season's contract-year players, position by position:

Catcher

Victor Martinez (C/1B, CLE)
Martinez might see extensive time at first base and designated hitter, as the Indians would like to ensure he remains healthy.

Martinez has more to prove than most other contract-year players, given his health issues last season.

If he posts anything near the 25 homers and 114 RBI he put up in 2007, he'll turn himself into a very coveted free agent.

Bengie Molina (C, SF)
He’s the most offensively gifted of the three Molina brothers, Bengie produced career-highs in hits (155), doubles (33) and RBI (95) in 2008.

His age, 34, could become an issue, as it does with most catchers in their mid-30s. This might be Molina's final chance to cash in on a major contract.

Others:

·         Jason Kendall (C, MIL)

·         Brian Schneider (C, NYM)

·         Ramon Hernandez (C, CIN) (Player Option)

·         Miguel Olivo (C, KC) (Player Option)

First Base

Carlos Delgado (1B, NYM)
Delgado shook off a wretched start to last season (.229 AVG, 11 HR, 35 RBI through June 25) to finish with another fantastic campaign (.271 AVG, 38 HR, 115 RBI).

His 159 games in '08 was his highest total since 2003. If he can play around that many games this season, there should be enough proof that his body isn't breaking down at the rate it was once suspected.

Aubrey Huff (1B/3B, BAL)
Before you make a joke that Huff had his contract year a season too early, his .304/32/108 line wasn't unprecedented in his career.

He went .311/34/107 in 2003, but many fantasy baseballers had forgotten that since it came for the then-putrid Tampa Rays.

Last season wasn't really a fluke, either. His .314 BABIP was high but not out of the ordinary.

He had a 41.7 fly ball percentage, and his 14.9 percentage of fly balls that crossed the fence was right in line with his career 14.3 mark.

Adam LaRoche (1B, PIT)
It's hard to envision LaRoche finally breaking the 100 RBI barrier in the Pirates lineup and there aren't any indications that he'll suddenly break the 30-home run barrier for a second time.

His BABIP the last two seasons has been .321 and .313, so he's already had a fair share of good luck.

His fly ball percentages the last two years were in the low 40s, so, unless he begins to knock an inordinate amount of his fly balls out of the park—like he did in '06 when 21 percent of his flies went yard—his numbers are likely to hold steady.

Others:

·         Nick Johnson (1B, WAS)

Second Base

Brian Roberts (2B, BAL)
Here's an odd stat: Last year, Roberts batted .296 despite carrying a .345 BABIP.

In 2005, Roberts batted .314 while producing a .343 BABIP.

So, why the lower average last season?

One part of the answer could be his increased strikeout percentage.

Roberts fanned in 17 percent of his at-bats last year—a career-high—vs. 14.8 percent of his '05 at-bats. Fewer balls put in play in '08 meant fewer opportunities for base hits.

Placido Polanco (2B, DET)
His numbers is very dutiful: expect a .300 average, close to 100 runs, 50-60 RBI.

You can live with that and you know what to expect.

He'll be 34 in the next off-season, but his skills will translate well as he ages. He can be a .300 hitter for several more years.

Mark DeRosa (2B/3B/OF, CLE)
A player who really carved out a pleasant fantasy spot in his two years with the Cubs, DeRosa is slated to man the hot corner for the Indians.

The Indians lineup could experience a surge this season with the return of Travis Hafner (DH, CLE) and Victor Martinez.

Those returns could result in either more runs scored or more RBI opportunities for DeRosa, depending on where he bats in the lineup.

Others:

·         Freddy Sanchez (2B, PIT) (Player Option)

·         Adam Kennedy (2B, STL)

Shortstop

Miguel Tejada (SS, HOU)
His OPS+/—which is OPS adjusted for park and league factors—has dwindled from 126 in 2006 to 109 in 2007 to 92 in 2008.

He knocked just 13 HR last year, despite producing 632 at-bats.

His eroding power will affect the number of suitors interested in him, so this is obviously a critical year for him to prove he still has some pop in the bat.

Khalil Greene (SS, STL)
You would think Greene moving out of San Diego's cavernous PETCO Park would help his home run total.

After all, San Diego has ranked 29th and 30th the last two seasons in home run rate, but Busch Stadium in St. Louis has averaged just a 22 ranking in home runs in its three seasons.

Don't expect a return to his 27 home run year of '07.

Others:

·         Bobby Crosby (SS, OAK)

·         Marco Scutaro (SS, TOR)

·         Jack Wilson (SS, PIT) (Player Option)

Third Base

Adrian Beltre (3B, SEA)
Mariners fans can only wish Beltre replicates his contract year from 2004, mentioned at the top of this article. He hasn't produced stats anywhere near that before or after, so teams might not be as willing to spend the dough as they were after the '04 season. Still, he's been a relatively solid player for a long time, so at least you don't have to worry about third base when he's on your team.

Chone Figgins (3B, LAA)
Is age creeping up on Figgins? The 31-year-old has played in just 115 and 116 games the last two seasons. That is one reason why his steals have tumbled as much as they have, from 62 in 2005 to 34 last year. But for him to garner a juicy contract after the season, the diminutive third baseman will have to show he isn't as injury-prone as the last two seasons indicate.

Others: Chipper Jones (3B, ATL), Hank Blalock (1B/3B, TEX), Melvin Mora (3B, BAL) (Player Option)

Outfield

Matt Holliday (OF, OAK)
The potential prize of the next free agent class, Holliday is unlikely to be re-signed by the budget-conscious Athletics.

If he's not traded at some point in the season, he'll likely become a free agent pursued by many of the big market teams, in the same fashion as Mark Teixeira (1B, NYY) last season.

Vladimir Guerrero (OF, LAA)
Last season marked the first time Vladdy accrued fewer than 100 RBI in a season in which he had more than 500 at-bats.

Still, he missed that mark by just nine RBI and he could easily have a prototypical .300/30/100 season if he stays healthy.

He could be a decent buy-low option if other teams in your league are scared off by his knee and triceps problems the last couple seasons.

Jason Bay (OF, BOS)
Do you realize Bay has reached the 30 homer/100 RBI marks in three of the last four seasons?

It's entirely conceivable that Bay could post those numbers again in a very tough Red Sox batting order.

That would make him one of the highlight free agents next off-season, assuming he doesn't re-sign with the Red Sox during the season.

Others:

·         Johnny Damon (OF, NYY)

·         Carl Crawford (OF, TBR) (Player Option)

·         Magglio Ordonez (OF, CHW) (Player Option)

·         Jermaine Dye (OF, CHW) (Player Option)

·         Rick Ankiel (OF, STL)

·         Xavier Nady (OF, NYY)

·         Brian Giles (OF, SDP)

·         Randy Winn (OF, SFG)

·         Coco Crisp (OF, KCR) (Player Option)

·         Marlon Byrd (OF, TEX)

Starting Pitcher

John Lackey (SP, LAA)
Lackey could be the best starter on the market next off-season, assuming Josh Beckett (SP, BOS), Brandon Webb (SP, ARI) and Cliff Lee (SP, CLE) all pick up their options after the season, but Lackey would be desired no matter what, given his age (30), respectable 1.31 WHIP,and career 7.2 K/9 rate.

Rich Harden (SP, CHC)
It seems that no matter how well he pitches, Harden will receive similar trepidation on the market as Ben Sheets (SP, FA) has received as of early February.

Harden's track record is so, suspect that even his outstanding numbers from 2008 (2.07 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 11.0 K/9) would make teams think twice before giving Harden guaranteed money.

Others:

·         Erik Bedard (SP, SEA)

·         Brett Myers (SP, PHI)

·         Jason Marquis (SP, COL)

·         Todd Wellemeyer(SP, STL)

·         Cliff Lee

·         Josh Beckett

·         Brandon Webb

·         Brad Penny

Relief Pitcher

Jose Valverde (RP, HOU)
Valverde has saved 40-plus games in back-to-back seasons at an 87 percent save rate, therefore, he'll be the premier closer heading to the market next season or that's at least how it looks right now, considering two other relievers with loads of closing experience—Kevin Gregg (RP, CHC) and J.J. Putz (RP, NYM) (Player Option)—will open the season as setup men.

Now, that could change if Francisco Rodriguez (RP, NYM) or Carlos Marmol (RP, CHC) go down with an injury, but for now Gregg and Putz will have to do their best setting up closers to get closer-type cash next off-season.

Others:

·         Octavio Dotel (RP, CHW)

·         Joaquin Benoit (RP, TEX)

·         Kevin Gregg

·         J.J. Putz

Kyle Stack can't comprehend what it would feel like to be a professional athlete. You mean you could lose most of your contract value and still sign somewhere in the low seven digits?

Sign Kyle up! If you have any questions for Kyle that don't involve why he's not a pro athlete, feel free to email him at kylestack@rotoexperts.com.

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