When players are on the final year of a contract, it's not uncommon for them to have some of the best years of their career. Whether it be because players are more motivated, are more focused on their performances or because they simply work harder, it always seems that the biggest seasons come when it's a walk year.
In this article I will look into who are the best players, at each position, that are on a contract year.
NOTE: Players that have options are NOT included on this list (regardless of whether their options are likely to vest/be picked up or not).
Catcher is, for me, the most important position in all of baseball; not only does a catcher contribute to the team's offense but, more importantly, the catcher controls the pitching staff, may call the actual pitches thrown, keeps baserunners honest and can even help align the infield. Without a doubt the catcher has the most responsibility of any player on the team.
Since the catcher position is so important, and comes with so much responsibility, teams will give a lot of consideration into who they put at that position.
This year there aren't a lot of starting catchers available via free agency, especially young ones, but the best one available has to be Ramon Hernandez. Aside from his career .265 BA and .329 OBP, Hernandez has a career 21.1 Wins-Above-Replacement and a career 30 percent caught stealing.
Most importantly, however, Hernandez knows how to handle a pitching staff and can be extremely valuable in mentoring young pitchers.
He'll be 35 years old next year, probably reaching the point where being an everyday catcher isn't possible anymore, but in a platoon role, or as a backup, Hernandez could be very helpful to a team.
The question is, though, will he be willing to accept a less prominent role and for the money that goes along with it?
No surprise here. Albert Pujols is the best offensive player in baseball so, obviously, he is the best player at his position this upcoming free-agency class.
Pujols is off to a very slow start in 2011 but it's hard to get concerned when he sports a career .330 BA and .425 OBP with 409 career home runs.
The big question for Albert Pujols is what uniform will he be putting on this time next year. Does he agree to take less money and stay with the Cardinals or will he go to another organization, probably for more money.
I'm not a Cardinals fan but I'd like to see him stay in St. Louis because we see too few players playing with one organization their entire career. I think there's something to be said for creating and building a legacy within one city.
Only time will tell what Pujols decide to do...
Kelly Johnson will be 30 years old for the 2012 season and, in this class of free agents, he is the best second baseman available.
I would also consider Omar Infante and even Jose Lopez as good options, but Johnson is the best among them. He has a career .268 BA with a career .351 OBP. While his defense could be improved, Johnson has a solid bat with good plate discipline that can make him valuable to a lineup.
An interesting fact about Johnson is that he hits LHP better than RHP; his career BA against RHP is .256 while his career BA against LHP is .299. Typically, a left-handed batter like Johnson would have more success verses right-handed pitchers then left-handed pitchers; Johnson, however, is the complete opposite of the norm though.
Jose Reyes is an amazing player with a lot of talent so he was another easy choice on this list; he'll also only be 29 in the 2012 season so he still has a lot of good seasons ahead of him. The question, however, with Reyes is if he can stay healthy. The last time Reyes played in 150+ games was back in 2008. Teams interested in Reyes also may be worried that a lot of his injuries have been to his legs, which is basically where all of his value is.
If Reyes can stay healthy though, it'll be hard to find a player who can cause more problems for an opposing pitcher at the top of any lineup. The biggest weakness is Reyes' game is his OBP (career .335); as a leadoff hitter, teams usually would want to see that higher.
Reyes does have amazing speed, as the baseball world has come to know, and he is also very good defensively. Reyes has an above average arm and has excellent range at the shortstop position.
Aramis Ramirez may be turning 34 in the 2012 season, but he can still drive the ball as well as he did a few years ago. Much like Jose Reyes, though, Ramirez's biggest issue is his inability to stay healthy.
Ramirez's bat is still intriguing enough that he should be able find work but he's quickly heading for the common fate that most older power hitters face—a move to the designated hitter position. Not only will a move to the DH allow for Ramirez's bat to be in a lineup, but it may also help keep him healthy by not having him play in the field.
The problem with Ramirez becoming a DH is that there are a lot of DHs available next season, including Vladimir Guerrero, David Ortiz and Jim Thome.
The available players for the LF position via free-agency in 2011-2012 is not the deepest; in fact, the best player available is Josh Willingham. That said, though, Willingham is a really talented player who can contribute for a lot of teams.
One of the bright spots for Willingham is his plate discipline; with a career .366 OBP WIllingham has shown he is not afraid to work a count and can decipher between strikes and balls.
This last season Willingham signed with the Oakland Athletics on a one year deal, which I thought was a great match. The Athletics have a young team and where in need of some offense to support their pitching staff; Willingham gives them a little power and a disciplined hitter in the middle of their lineup.
Unfortunately, Willingham doesn't have enough power to be a real LF (since most teams look for a lot of power from their corner OF positions) but, for the purposes of a team like the Athletics, he's a perfect fit.
He'll be 35 in the 2012 season and he's got issues with his knees but Carlos Beltran is still the best centerfielder available in free-agency this coming winter.
Much like Aramis Ramirez, Beltran will probably be facing an inevitable move to the DH role; especially if his future team wants to keep him healthy for as long as possible. Nonetheless, as a switch-hitter, Beltran has a lot of upside, offensively, that will help land him another job after this season.
The big question for Beltran, like a lot of guys on this list, is his health. If Beltran can prove he can play effectively and stay healthy in 2011 then he will definitely get a nice size contract for the next few years - that's a BIG if though.
David DeJesus will be 32 for the 2012 season but he's still performing really well. DeJesus, in my opinion, is really undervalued, which is probably a product of having been on the Royals for so long (a team that doesn't get much media attention).
For me, DeJesus is a great option to put in the number two spot in any lineup; much like Willingham, DeJesus has excellent plate discipline, which is evident by his career .360 OBP, and he also has a good contact percentage, which is shown by his career .289 BA.
Finally, although DeJesus isn't the fastest guy he still plays his position very well. He has a solid arm and knows how to track a flyball down in the outfield.
Much like the 2011 offseason, the 2012 offseason will have a plethora of DHs available for teams to negotiate with.
In my opinion, the best DH available will, again, be Vladimir Guerrero. Although guys like David Ortiz and Jim Thome are also free-agents, Vladimir Guerrero is the closest of them all to being the best all-around hitter.
It seems that wherever he plays Vladimir helps improve all the hitter around him and the team's offensive production immediately spikes.
C.J. Wilson will be 31 years old for the 2012 season, which puts him in a perfect position to gain a lucrative three to five year contract with a team after the season. Most likely, this team will be the Texas Rangers, his current team, because they cannot afford to lose both Cliff Lee and C.J. Wilson in two years; with those two guys gone their starting pitching staff would have lost both its aces and definitely would not be able to recover.
Wilson will not a huge contract given his few years in the big leagues, but, if he has another successful campaign in 2011, he'll certainly get himself a contract that can last the rest of his life.
From the time Cliff Lee arrived in Texas til the time he signed with the Phillies, Wilson seems to have really taken a major step in his development thanks to Lee. Wilson admits that he learned a lot from his lefty counterpart.
As the Rangers make another push for the World Series in 2011, Wilson will be a huge part of whether they succeed or not. We all know the Rangers have the offensive power to compete but the question for them will be their pitching, which is spearheaded by Wilson.
Also, we've seen players make a lot of money on how they perform in the playoffs. Cliff Lee certainly made most of his money from his success in October and Carlos Beltran did the same a few years ago when he signed with the New York Mets.
Ryan Madson, the longtime Phillies' setup man, will be 31 for the majority of the 2012 season. Of all the non-closer relievers available in free-agency this winter he is certainly the best one.
One thing teams will certainly keep in mind when considering Madson is his extensive playoff experience and the success he has had; Madson's career ERA in the playoffs is a low 2.35.
It's tough to find a consistent setup man in baseball, especially one who is not trying to transition into being a closer, so Madson will certainly gain a lot of attention from teams this winter.
It'll be interesting to see how much effort the Phillies put in to keeping Madson; with Brad Lidge being so questionable, because of his health, losing both Lidge and Madson in 2012 would make an already weak bullpen even weaker. Can they really afford not to have a guy like Madson?
The 2012 free-agent class has some quality closing pitchers available for teams to bid on, including Heath Bell and Jonathan Papelbon.
Normally I would have said Papelbon is the better choice because he is younger and has more playoff experience but with Papelbon's numbers consistently on the rise, I think he'll be too much of a long-term risk.
That said, however, Bell is going to be 34 in 2012. Nonetheless, for a contract that will only be for a few years at most, Bell is the best closer available (if he isn't traded and given an extension before the season ends).
Bell has gotten at least 40 saves in the last two years while maintaing a K/9 above 10 in each of those two seasons.
At the end of a game opponents don't like to see Bell come into the game because of how tough he is on hitters.