The pressure that a player feels heading into the last season of his contract can be overwhelming at times, manifesting itself in a costly, mediocre performance on (and sometimes off) the field.
Just ask Chris Perez, who was coming off of back-to-back All-Star games heading into 2013. He his job as the Cleveland Indians' closer and had to settle for a one-year, $2.3 million deal as a middle reliever with the Los Angeles Dodgers—who gave $10 million to another former closer, Brian Wilson, to fill a similar role.
What a difference a year makes.
Whether it's continuing to perform at a high level or rebounding from a disappointing campaign, players in a contract year are often their own worst enemies, putting far too much pressure on themselves to have any chance of finding success. Other times, the pressure propels them to have a career year.
Here's a look at the 10 pending free agents who are under the most pressure heading into the season.
*Draft-pick compensation will certainly help to dictate the earning power that these players have, but as it's impossible to predict how the market will react, it was not taken into consideration.
Injuries, ineffectiveness and poor decisions have plagued Josh Beckett over the past two years, during which he's pitched to a 4.76 ERA and 1.36 WHIP in 36 starts.
Limited to eight forgettable starts for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2013 due to a nerve issue in his neck that ultimately required surgery, the veteran right-hander heads into the final year of his contract with an uncertain future.
He hasn't thrown more than 200 innings in a season since 2009, and entering his age-34 season, there's no reason to believe that he will be able to buck that trend in 2014. At this point, Beckett profiles as a back-end starter, the kind of pitcher that isn't going to command big bucks on the open market.
If Beckett has hopes for one more big payday, he's going to have to prove that he can not only stay healthy, but still perform at a much higher level than he has in recent seasons.
It wasn't that long ago that Asdrubal Cabrera not only looked like he was going to be a long-term fixture at shortstop for the Cleveland Indains, but a perennial All-Star in the American League.
After hitting a combined .272 with 41 home runs, 160 RBI, a .335 on-base percentage and a .778 OPS in 2011 and 2012, Cabrera crashed hard in 2013, hitting only .242 while struggling to get on base or make consistent contact.
A below-average defender, some teams are sure to question whether he still has the range to play shortstop. If the consensus is that he's no longer capable of playing such a premium position, his value on the open market would certainly take a hit.
But the true determination of his value will be how he produces at the plate in 2014. Only 28, Cabrera is young enough to still have plenty of productive years ahead of him. But which version of him is a team getting?
He's going to have to definitively answer that question before any team seriously considers him as part of its upcoming offseason plans.
After a less-than-auspicious start to the three-year, $31.5 million deal that he signed with the Colorado Rockies before the 2012 season, Michael Cuddyer bounced back in a major way last season, leading the National League with a .331 batting average, making his second All-Star appearance and winning his first Silver Slugger Award.
As is the case with nearly everyone who plays in Colorado, his numbers were aided by the thin air of Coors Field. But Cuddyer put up solid numbers on the road as well, well above his career averages heading into the season:
|2013 Splits||BA||OBP||SLG||OPS||XBH (HR)||RBI||wRC+|
Whether he can repeat that kind of performance in 2014, however, is far from a sure thing. Entering his age-35 season, Cuddyer hasn't played in more than 140 games since 2010, and, typically, the older a player gets, the harder it is to bounce back from injury.
As a corner outfielder and first baseman, Cuddyer doesn't possess the kind of power that many teams look for at those positions. While he smacked 20 home runs in 2013, only four of those came after the All-Star break and his somewhat surprising third-place finish in the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game.
If Cuddyer can stay healthy and continue to hit for average and power, he'll have a chance to surpass the average annual value (AAV) of his current deal. If not, he's likely looking at the beginning of what figures to be a string of incentive-laden one-year deals for the rest of his career.
Quality third basemen are always in demand, so even if Chase Headley can't get back to his 2012 numbers at the plate, which included a career-high 31 home runs and a National League-leading 115 RBI, his above-average glove at the hot corner ensures that he'll be in demand when he hits the open market.
But his ability to produce at the plate—and to stay healthy—will dictate just how lucrative of a deal awaits him.
Slowed by a broken thumb and a sore knee that eventually required surgery, Headley's power disappeared in 2013 and his numbers fell back in line with his previous career norms:
While those aren't terrible numbers by any means, that's not the kind of production that will land him an incredibly lucrative free-agent deal. Luckily for Headley, the market appears to be thin on options for clubs looking to upgrade the position, so he may be able to command a big payday regardless of his numbers.
But a return to his 2012 form will certainly help his cause once he hits the open market.
Perhaps no player has more to prove this coming season than Josh Johnson, who will look to hit the reset button on his career as a member of the San Diego Padres.
Injuries have been an issue for the 30-year-old throughout his career, including in 2013, when a multitude of issues limited him to 18 pretty forgettable starts with the Toronto Blue Jays before he underwent elbow surgery after the season.
A strong showing with the Padres this season, one in which he avoids a trip to the disabled list and flashes the stuff that made him a Cy Young Award contender, will set Johnson up for a big payday after the season from a team that is desperate for pitching and willing to gamble on his health.
If not, he'll likely be destined for a series of incentive-laden, one-year deals for the rest of his career.
Like Josh Johnson, injuries have been a problem for Brandon McCarthy throughout his career, as he's never made more than 25 starts or thrown 175 innings in any of his eight big league seasons.
Many around baseball believed that the Arizona Diamondbacks had gotten one of the steals of the offseason last winter when they signed McCarthy to a two-year, $15.5 million deal. Except the injury bug hit again, limiting him to 22 starts and mediocre numbers—a 4.53 ERA and 1.35 WHIP with nearly 11 hits per nine innings of work.
Entering his age-31 season, McCarthy can't afford another mediocre campaign, one that sees him spend significant time on the disabled list and put up so-so numbers. A full, healthy season could find him in line for the kind of deal that Scott Feldman scored from the Houston Astros this winter (three years, $30 million).
Another typical McCarthy season, however, will find him in the same boat as Josh Johnson—staring at a series of incentive-laden one-year deals for the rest of his career.
Colby Rasmus' power is real—he's hit at least 20 home runs in three of the past four seasons—and he's an above-average defender in center field, but he's been anything but a consistent player over his five-year career.
There's no denying his natural talent, and still in the prime of his career at 28 years old, his best seasons may still be ahead of him. But he's going to have to put together another excellent campaign in 2014 to prove that he's turned the corner in his development.
While he's never going to command the kind of nine-figure contracts that players like Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo landed this winter, back-to-back seasons with an OPS above .800 will find far more doors open—and far more lucrative offers awaiting him—when he hits the open market.
If you want to talk about pressure, try replacing a living legend.
That's what David Robertson has to look forward to with the New York Yankees in 2014, tasked with replacing Mariano Rivera as the team's closer.
One of the premier setup men in baseball, Robertson certainly has the stuff to transition into the closer's role and succeed. But there's no replacing Rivera, and with the amount of money that the Yankees spent this winter, they aren't likely to give Robertson a long leash should he flounder in the ninth.
While closers are no longer landing mega-deals like the four-year, $50 million pact that Jonathan Papelbon signed with the Philadelphia Phillies before the 2012 season, success in the ninth inning will set Robertson up for a far more hefty payday after the season than he'd see if he wound up back in the eighth.
Like Chase Headley, Pablo Sandoval will benefit from a relative lack of other quality third base options on the open market following the 2014 season.
But unlike Headley, Sandoval doesn't flash an above-average glove at the hot corner, and some teams may look at him—and his girth—and see a first baseman, not a third baseman, something that would decrease his value.
Sandoval boasts an impressive career line of .298/.351/.476 and will still be in the prime of his career when the 2014 season comes to an end. But he lacks the requisite power that teams typically look for from the corner infield positions, hitting more than 14 home runs only twice over the last five years.
He's also been a bit injury-prone, limited to an average of 122 games a season since 2011. No matter how talented a player may be, nothing kills value like an inability to stay on the field.
Sandoval needs to stay healthy—and get some of his power back—in order to truly maximize his earning power on the open market after the season.
At some point over the next year, Max Scherzer is going to become a very rich man.
The only question is how many times we'll have to use the word "very" to describe just how wealthy he becomes.
Represented by Scott Boras, who loves nothing more than to bring his high-profile clients to the open market, where he can incite a bidding war between big-market clubs, Scherzer is coming off the best season of his career, one that earned him the AL Cy Young Award and a place among the game's elite.
While expecting a repeat of his 2013 numbers may be unreasonable, Scherzer will be looked at to once again be among the best starters in the game, not to step back into old habits that resulted in good, but not great, numbers over his first four full MLB seasons.
That's a pretty big disparity, and the gap between what Boras and Scherzer believe he's worth and where teams would value a pitcher who put up the numbers Scherzer did from 2009 to 2012 is equally as large.
If Scherzer continues to deal like he did in 2013, then landing the seven-year, $196 million deal that ESPN's Jim Bowden (subscription required) believes he has coming to him might not be as far-fetched as it seems.
Should he return to his prior form, though, he'll probably be looking at something closer to the six-year, $147 million deal that Zack Greinke signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers last year. While that's still going to make him incredibly wealthy, it pales in comparison to what Bowden predicts he'll get.