Contract year. Walk year. Opt-out year. Whatever the year, we have it covered for anybody having trouble keeping score at home. Some really big name players may very well be playing their final seasons with their respective teams, and you just might find that information useful. If you happen to play in a keeper league (or 6), then you may find that information especially useful when thinking long term. Here is a list of 10 players who are potentially just months away from free agency.
- Cole Hamels – Hamels just turned 28, and he is coming off of arguably his best season ever (2.79 ERA and 0.986 WHIP). While most sources in the rumor mill have Hamels staying put in Philadelphia, just the thought of him moving to a team that does not win 90+ games every season may be a concern for some fantasy players. Then again, there are some who are already penalizing Hamels for the loss of Ryan Howard at 1B. Seems like a terrible way to run a railroad, but it is not my railroad.
- Daisuke Matsuzaka – If Dice is completely healthy and has all of his pitches, then he could be both a comeback story and a late round pickup with a lot of upside. The problem with this scenario could be that Dice has not a top shelf guy since 2008. Maybe a contract year will motivate him enough to do all the little things that some people previously stated that he was disinterested in doing. At 31, he could certainly have a few good years left.
- Jose Valverde – Imagine having a top 10 closer in the final year of a 3 year deal that pays him $9M for 2012. Then imagine that your closer will turn 34 shortly before the season starts, and he could reasonable ask for a $10M/season deal after 2012. If the Tigers fail to sign him, then you can bet that someone will. Then again, Valverde seems like pretty much the same guy whether he cashes huge paychecks or relatively small ones.
- Yadier Molina – Molina has reportedly set the asking price at 5 years / $50M which seems expensive, unless he and one of his brothers are offering some 2-for-1 special on Molinas. On the other hand, Molina did explode offensively last year (by Molina standards) for a 3.9 WAR year. A couple more years like 2011 would certainly make him worth the asking price. What are the odds that he has another 3.0+ WAR season? Hard to say, but he has shown up at spring training dropping the “BSOML” line on everybody within shouting distance. That “BSOML” stands for “best shape of my life”.
- Brandon Phillips – Phillips is just about to start the final year of a contract that pays him $38M over 5 years, and this final year is worth $12M. Consider the extension that Rickie Weeks signed with the Brewers as a starting point for Phillips. To earn that kind of deal, he may have to duplicate his 2011 numbers at the plate. With something like $10M+ per season as potential motivation, I cannot imagine that Tony Plush won’t at least try to deliver an encore performance in 2012.
- Matt Cain – The Giants are built around great pitching and the hope that Barry Zito‘s contract expires eventually. Cain is an integral part of that plan, but imagine his open market value in free agency. At age 27, Cain has compiled a career ERA of 3.35 and a 1.196 WHIP while pitching 200 or more innings every season for the last 5 years. For 2012, Cain is playing out the back end of a 3 yr / $27.25M contract that was back loaded with a $15M salary for 2012. Unless Cain falters, that might be the starting point in discussions for a guy who may command a 6-7 year deal.
- Ubaldo Jimenez – Tricky situation. If Ubaldo returns to his old form, his $5.275M option for 2013 is a no brainer. If he doesn’t look good, then the $1M buyout would be money well spent. Here is the catch, though. Jimenez should be motivated both in 2012 and 2013 to see that option exercised and to possibly see his $8M option for 2014 picked up as well. Will the additional motivation of job and contract security be enough to get him back to the dominant force he once was. Maybe. Keep in mind that he’s only a few years removed from being a top 3 Cy Young candidate.
- Zach Greinke – Greinke posted a ridiculous 10.5 strikeouts per 9 innings rate in 2011. If any of his other numbers improve to that level, he will be able to basically hold a press conference, show his stat line, and drop the mic as he walks off the stage. The problem is that his ERA+ for the past 2 years is 102 and 100 respectively. Greinke held his WHIP to 1.200 in 2011, but that is actually lower than his career WHIP. The issue is not about how good Greinke can be. The issue is whether or not he can catch lightning in a bottle again.
- Shaun Marcum – If somebody told you that Shaun Marcum had outpitched Greinke for the past 2 years, would you believe them. Well, you are being told right now. Marcum 2010 numbers (115 ERA+, 1.147 WHIP, 3.84 SO/BB) and 2011 numbers (110 ERA+, 1.156 WHIP, 2.77 SO/BB) compare favorably to Greinke’s numbers over the same time period. Greinke’s 2010 numbers (100 ERA+, 1.245 WHIP, 3.29 SO/BB) and 2011 numbers (102 ERA+, 1.200 WHIP, 4.47 SO/BB) are obviously not quite as good. While I may be guilt of cherry picking the stats here a bit, I am fairly confident that you will not find too many counting stats that make Greinke look like the winner of this match race. If you are not convinced, then maybe the 6.9 WAR to 4.0 WAR advantage for 2010-11 held by Marcum will convince you. Marcum really is good, and he deserves to be paid like the solid front line starter that he is.
- Josh Hamilton – Hamilton may not break the bank with his next deal due to concerns about his age and ability to stay on the field, but he is not likely to be an afterthought, either. Hamilton once posted a 1.536 OPS against the Yankees (2010 ALCS). That alone might be enough reason to keep him in Texas, although the 20.2 WAR in 5 seasons does not hurt, either.
Obviously, not every player on this list will have a “career year”, but at least most will be motivated to have a great season right out of the gate. You could say that is the case for all players, but we already know that is not exactly true.