"Of course he's playing hard; he's in a contract year."
This is the sort of thing you hear every season when a young player about to hit free agency for the first time, or a veteran player on the last year of his current deal, raises his game noticeably.
For the 2013 Phillies, the "contract year" effect could pay huge dividends.
Chase Utley is in the final year of a seven-year, $85 million contract.
From 2007-2010 (the first four years of the contract), Utley made the All-Star team every season.
When Utley missed 47 games in 2010, it was the team's first real indication that injuries were going to be a problem for their cornerstone second baseman.
Utley missed 59 more games in 2011; in concert with the end of the the Phillies' five-year playoff run in 2012, Utley played only four more games (83) than he missed (79).
Along with all the missed games came declines in Utley's production. From 2005 through 2008, Utley drove in more than 100 runs every year, hit no fewer than 22 home runs, hit no worse than .291 and scored more than 100 runs three times, including a league-leading 131 runs scored in 2006.
But in the past two seasons, Utley has 44 and 45 runs batted in and batting averages of .259 and .256, respectively. These are not the sorts of numbers that will inspire the Phillies or anyone else to give Utley one final "big" contract.
Utley's motivation for 2013 is evident in his mere presence on the field in Clearwater—2013 marks the first time Utley has played a spring training game since 2010.
The 2013 Phillies could benefit from Utley's desire to re-establish his value in advance of free agency.
Roy Halladay is in the final year of the three-year contract extension he signed in December of 2009. He will make $20 million this season.
If he pitches 258.2 innings in 2013, his $20 million option for 2014 will vest. Because his career high in innings pitched is 266 (in 2003), it seems patently unlikely that Halladay can make that happen.
So Halladay is essentially pitching for another contract. Halladay has to prove that his 2012 drop-off (11-8, 4.49 ERA) was a one-off and that he can still pitch at or near the top of a rotation to bolster his value in free agency.
To lesser extents, the "contract year" effect will be tested in other areas of the Phillies' projected lineup.
Carlos Ruiz is in the last year of his current contract, which calls for him to make $5 million this season. Coming off a 2012 campaign that saw him post career bests in the Triple Crown categories, Ruiz figured to be setting himself up for a windfall in free agency.
Then he was hit with a 25-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball's performance-enhancing drug policy. When he comes back, then, Ruiz will be playing to prove not only that he can produce while clean, but that time (he recently turned 34 years of age) has not caught up to him.
Michael Young will make just over $16 million this season and, at age 36, is unsigned thereafter. He hit .277 last year. Michael Young also needs to put up numbers to earn another deal; by "numbers," read that as home runs and runs batted in, as he will play a power position (third base) in a hitter-friendly environment.
Delmon Young signed a one-year contract for $750,000. Coming off ankle surgery, he must get fully healthy and demonstrate that he can play right field without seeing his hitting suffer to boost his value next offseason.
That makes five players who figure to be prominently involved in the success or failure of the 2013 Phillies who are, to varying degrees, playing for their professional lives.
Is the "contract year" phenomenon reality or myth?
The 2013 Phillies hope it's the real thing.
All contract data in this article per www.baseball-reference.com.
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