MLB Predictions: 15 Players in Contract Years Poised for Big Seasons
As Albert Pujols embarks upon one of the most memorable contract years in baseball history, a common debate in the baseball world has resurfaced: Do major leaguers tend to perform at a higher level in these so-called walk years?
Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer to that question. A couple studies in recent years have found this is not the case, while others have concluded that there is a correlation between contract years and increased performance.
The debate frequently focuses on one player in particular: Adrian Beltre. Beltre is a .275 career hitter but hit .334 and .321 in his 2004 and 2010 contract years, respectively.
In addition to being the only seasons in which Beltre hit above .290, 2004 and 2010 were also the only two times he has surpassed 26 HRs or 99 RBI. As you may recall, he nearly doubled that home-run mark in 2004.
Cameron argued that those who cite Beltre's 2004 and 2010 seasons conveniently ignore the fact that Beltre actually "had five seasons in which he was playing under an expiring contract" and "[m]ore often than not, he’s performed worse, not better." According to Cameron, a better explanation for Beltre's career years in 2004 and 2010 is that those were "the last two seasons in which he was not spending half of his games hitting in Safeco Field," one of baseball's most difficult parks for "a right-handed pull power hitter."
Cameron makes some interesting points, and there is no question that playing at Safeco took a major toll on Beltre's numbers. But the case is not as open-and-shut as Cameron suggests.
For one thing, Beltre's massive 2004 season was with the Los Angeles Dodgers, meaning he played half his games in Chavez Ravine, which has frequently ranked as one of the top pitcher's parks in baseball.
Moreover, two of the five seasons Cameron counted as years Beltre was playing for a new contract—2002 and 2003—were years in which Beltre was eligible for arbitration, not free agency. This means far less money was at stake than when Beltre was about to head onto the open market looking for a multi-year deal.
The other year besides 2004 and 2010 that Cameron included was 2009, a walk year in which Beltre put up a disappointing .265-8-54-44 season that forced him to sign a one-year contract rather than land a lucrative multi-year deal.
Beltre famously missed much of the 2009 season with a severely contused testicle (groan), but the injury that best explains his poor performance was a shoulder injury that bothered him all year. The Seattle Times reported at the time that Beltre said his shoulder "never was 100 percent" all season and that it felt "like someone stabbed you in the shoulder" every time he lifted it.
So what are we to make of all this? Well, let's just say it's hard to know exactly what impact playing out a contract will have on any given player. It seems safe to assume that based on their mental makeup, some players will perform better in a contract year, some worse and some it won't impact at all.
What we know for sure, though, is that players who step up in contract years are handsomely rewarded. So without further ado, here is the list of the top 15 players who could be in for big seasons in 2011—and big paydays in 2012.
15. Kelly Johnson, 2B, Arizona Diamondbacks
Johnson is coming off a career-defining year in which he hit .284 with a career high in runs (93), home runs (26), RBI (71) and stolen bases (13). Offensive second basemen of that magnitude are hard to come by. Having just turned 29 years old this week, Johnson is also in the prime of his career.
If he can come close to replicating last year's numbers, Johnson could be in line for a deal approaching the five-year, $62 million contract Dan Uggla recently inked with Johnson's former team, the Braves.
14. Rafael Furcal, SS, Los Angeles Dodgers
At 33 years old, Furcal is no spring chicken and he has also consistently struggled with injuries. But it has been quite some time since there have been so few offensive shortstops in baseball, and Furcal—a .286 career hitter who is still a threat on the basepaths—remains one of the best bets for production at the position when he is in the lineup.
The Dodgers hold a $12-million team option for Furcal for 2012, so he may not get the opportunity to test free-agent waters if he does have a big season.
That said, the No. 1 prospect in the Dodgers farm system, Dee Gordon, is also a shortstop, so L.A. may feel it is time to invest in the future regardless of how Furcal performs in 2011.
13. Derrek Lee, 1B, Baltimore Orioles
Lee is no youngster, but he is just one year removed from an impressive .306-91-35-111 line and may be able to prove he has plenty of life left in his bat.
After spending years at Wrigley Field, Lee will be moving to another friendly hitter's park, Camden Yards.
The Orioles were very busy over the winter, adding Lee, Mark Reynolds, Vladimir Guerrero and J.J. Hardy to a lineup that already featured Nick Markakis, Brian Roberts and Matt Wieters, among others. That means Lee should have better lineup protection than he had in Chicago or Atlanta last season.
If Lee is able to rebound to anything close to a .300-30-100 season, he could be able to cash in with one final multi-year deal from a club badly in need of a middle-of-the-order-type hitter.
12. C.J. Wilson, SP, Texas Rangers
Wilson, who saved games for the Rangers from 2007-2009, had a very smooth transition to the starting rotation in 2010, finishing with a 15-8 record, 3.35 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 170 Ks.
At 30 years old, Wilson is about to get what could be his only chance for a big-time free agent contract. If Wilson can prove that he can sustain last year's success, he should be able to fetch a contract approaching $10 million annually to serve as a strong No. 2 or No. 3 starter for a contending team, whether it's the Rangers or someone else.
11. Javier Vazquez, SP, Florida Marlins
Coming off a poor season in the Bronx, Vazquez could greatly benefit from a return to the National League. Vazquez has posted an ERA below 4.00 in four of the last five seasons he's spent in the Senior Circuit, whereas he's accomplished that feat just once in five seasons in the American League.
Vazquez should also have some piece of mind now that he's escaped the spotlight of New York in favor of a new home that is just a short flight from his family in Puerto Rico.
But in order to fully take advantage of his return to the NL, Vazquez will need to regain the velocity he lost last season, something he says he is focused on addressing through better conditioning. At age 34, that's no sure thing.
However, if his enhanced conditioning does prove to be a success, there's no reason Vazquez can't toss another 200 quality innings in South Florida, setting him up to once again earn $10 million or more on his next contract.
10. Matt Thornton, RP, Chicago White Sox
Thornton is the strong favorite to open the 2011 season as the White Sox' new closer, a transition that—if successful—could greatly enhance the market for his services heading into free agency.
Thornton, who at age 34 has never earned more than $3 million in a season, has three straight seasons of excellent setup work on his résumé, as well as a 2010 All-Star selection. If he proves he can consistently handle the ninth with similar effectiveness, countless teams should be willing to offer him a hefty pay raise.
Because Thornton is 34 and because the White Sox have top prospect Chris Sale as their closer of the future, Thornton could very well play elsewhere in 2012. But don't expect Sale to fully inherit the ninth inning this year unless the White Sox fall well out of the playoff picture.
9. Aramis Ramirez, 3B, Chicago Cubs
Like Furcal, Ramirez has struggled to stay on the field in recent years but he has been plenty useful when he has managed to be out there.
Ramirez is already one of the highest-paid third basemen in baseball, but because of injuries and a severe first-half slump in 2010, Aramis needs a big year if he hopes to avoid a major pay cut in 2012. If he is able to stay healthy, the chances are good that he has at least one more .280-30-100 season in him.
The Cubs hold a $16-million team option on Ramirez for next season, but even if he does deliver in his walk year, the team may opt to let him go and instead put those resources towards a certain St. Louis Cardinals first baseman...
8. Jose Lopez, 2B, Colorado Rockies
Coming off the worst season of his career, Lopez is very happy to be trading in 81 games at pitcher-friendly Safeco Field for 81 games at Coors Field.
Lopez may be off the radar for a lot of people right now, but he is just 27 years old, he already has an All-Star appearance on his résumé and he is only one year removed from a season in which he had 25 HR and 96 RBI.
Lopez has hit 30 points higher away from Safeco for his career, and 17 of the 25 homers he hit in 2009 were on the road, so he could be in for a career year provided he sees regular at-bats in a crowded Rockies infield.
If Lopez can put it all together, he will be very much in demand come next winter. A slugging middle infielder just entering his prime is sure to be a highly-attractive free agent.
7. Jimmy Rollins, SS, Philadelphia Phillies
Rollins has struggled to stay healthy and reach base the last two seasons, but he still possesses a power-speed combo that is very rare among middle infielders.
Despite a résumé that includes an MVP award and multiple All-Star and Gold Glove selections, Rollins has been paid less than inferior shortstops like Julio Lugo, Cristian Guzman and Edgar Renteria. At 32 years old, this could be Rollins' last chance to cash in on a deal that would make him one of the league's best-paid players at the position.
If he can play at least 150 games, Rollins stands a good shot of returning to 20-plus home runs and 30-plus stolen bases, numbers that will make him a very appealing asset even if he again bats .250. If Rollins is able to get his batting average back up to his .272 career mark, he'll be even more desirable on the free-agent market.
6. Jonathan Broxton, RP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Broxton was well on his way to another excellent season in 2010, but things completely fell apart for him in the second half. It may well have been a case of fatigue; after a 48-pitch effort against the Yankees on June 27, Broxton just wasn't the same pitcher in July, August or September.
Broxton is just 26 years old and his performances in 2009 and the first half of 2010 were among the best of any closer in baseball. If he can return to form in 2011 (an ERA in the low twos, a WHIP near 1.00 and well more than a strikeout per inning), he will be a hot commodity.
5. Jonathan Papelbon, RP, Boston Red Sox
Like the other Jonathan closing in L.A., Papelbon had a forgettable 2010 campaign.
Papelbon did not have one particular moment in which his season went south, but he did struggle mightily in the season's final month. Heading into a September 5 matchup with the White Sox, Papelbon's ERA stood at 2.81; by the time the season was over, it had jumped to 3.90.
Prior to 2010, Papelbon had registered an ERA below 2.00 and a WHIP below 1.00 in three of four seasons, and there's really no reason why, at 30 years old, he can't bounce back to those past levels of performance.
That kind of season, combined with his high profile and marketability, should make Papelbon a top target for teams in need of a dominating end-game option.
4. Heath Bell, RP, San Diego Padres
Bell has compiled two consecutive dominant seasons as the closer in San Diego, and a third straight should be on the way, barring a midseason trade.
At 33 years old, Bell will be looking for a major increase in salary, something the small-market Padres are unlikely to provide. Expect him to match last season's performance and receive a hefty multi-year offer next winter to play elsewhere.
3. Jose Reyes, SS, New York Mets
Reyes is an incredible talent, but he's also an enigma.
During his time in New York, Reyes has been selected for three All-Star games, led the league in stolen bases and triples three times each and led the league in hits in 2008.
But he's also missed time with a myriad of injuries, from his calf to his hamstring to his oblique. He was even diagnosed with a hyperactive thyroid gland at this time last year.
If Reyes can play another full season and run even half as much as he used to run, he will be in position to receive a massive contract in free agency. Impact table-setters like Reyes who play in major markets don't frequently become available, but the Mets are in rocky financial waters and have no immediate plans to talk with Reyes about a contract extension.
The Mets can only hope that Reyes doesn't look to Troy Tulowitzki's deal as a starting point for negotiations.
2. Prince Fielder, 1B, Milwaukee Brewers
In 2010, Fielder had a very disappointing year by his lofty standards. While he led the league in walks, he had his fewest home runs (32) and RBI (83) since 2006 and he hit a career-worst .261.
Don't expect that to happen again in a contract year.
Through his first five seasons, Fielder has saved his best performances for odd-numbered years. While it's probably silly to expect that trend to continue throughout his career, it would not be surprising to see Fielder again top 40 homers and 115 RBI, as he did in 2007 and 2009.
Even if he has another season resembling 2010, Fielder is just entering his prime and he is sure to receive a massive offer next winter.
1. Albert Pujols, 1B, St. Louis Cardinals
How could anyone else possibly top this list?
Pujols is indisputably the best player in the game and the baseball world is still abuzz over the news that he will play out the final year of his contract with the Cardinals.
The Cardinals reportedly offered Pujols "more than $200 million over nine or 10 years" and even an ownership stake in the team, but it just wasn't enough.
He may not show it on the outside, but Pujols has to be motivated to show the world that he has every right to ask for the largest contract in baseball. On a rational level, he surely understands the economics of the situation from a team standpoint, but that doesn't mean he won't also feel slighted on an emotional level.
Pujols will be under an intense media spotlight all season long, but he's proven that he possesses the class, professionalism and maturity to thrive under such circumstances. It'd be foolish to bet that he'll have an off year, and a true career year—with numbers not seen since the end of the steroid era—is certainly possible.
(For more on Pujols' short and long-term outlook, see this piece I wrote last week.)