The D-Train's Coming Through! Contract Year Gems for Fantasy Baseball

Oh, the allure of the almighty contract year. Players looking to make more money in the off-season are guaranteed to dominate the MLB more than they ever have before, or at least that’s what you’re told. This is not always true. Players don’t always dominate in a contract year, in fact – some suck; look at Adrian Beltre, or Vladimir Guerrero, or Brett Myers. They were all pretty terrible and may have killed your 2009 fantasy season if you bought into contract year hype. Then again, when this is true you look like a genius for beating your league-mates to the punch (and reading Venuing Voices, of course).

Take Matt Holliday for instance; if you held onto him all year he almost certainly helped you dominate the second half. The trick is finding the Matt Hollidays of the world instead of jumping the gun on Carlos Delgado in the final year of his contract. There are a huge number of “to be” free agents this season that could potentially win your league for you based on what you had to pay for them. Here are the top five.

5) Aaron Harang – Cincinnati Reds (SP)
I should’ve included him in my big second half article, found here. The truth is, he’s more than just a half year play. Harang is a solid player and the best pitcher on a young and potentially underrated ball club. He’s starting to rely on his curveball and changeup a little more later in his career, and if he can improve on those pitches, we should see better numbers than last year’s 4.21 ERA and 1.41 WHIP. His FIP (ERA adjusted for things like ballpark and defense) was a solid 4.14 and the NL Central is pretty awful, save for the Cubs Pirates Cardinals, so he won’t have terribly tough opponents. This is the last contract of his career and he probably wants a few options and the ability to go to a winner, so he’ll turn it up a notch.
Prediction: 12-15 wins, an ERA around 4.00 and 150 strikeouts. Not great, but he can definitely help a fantasy team somewhere. He’ll also be solid in the second half, pending no emergency appendectomies this year.

Truth. Also, fantasy relevant!

4) Carlos Pena – Tampa Bay Devil Rays (1B)
I love Carlos Pena this year. Couldn’t love him more. (Unless his name was Carlos Gonzalez or Brett Anderson… or Carlett Anderzalez.) His .227 average was due almost entirely to an incredibly low BABIP of .250, 50 points below the league average and 38 points below his career number. That Tampa lineup is awesome (and fellow Ray Carl Crawford is also in a contract year), so that’ll help him see better pitches. If you waited on a first baseman like I told you to, you’d already own him (or you’d be me and miss out on him despite trying to take your own advice). Either way, he’ll be looking for the big contract a power hitting first baseman deserves. Expect him to play like it.
Prediction: .250 or .260 average, 40 homers and 120 RBI. Those are huge numbers for a 9th round pick, which is where he went in drafts.

3) Jorge Cantu – Florida Marlins (1B/3B)
Remember that time he hit 29 home runs at age 26? How about when he had 100 RBI and hit .310 at age 27? Well, now he’s 28 and entrenched in the beginning of his prime. There’s a lot to love about Cantu, aside from those pretty impressive numbers. His walk rate took a jump of almost a full 2% last year, showing added patience at the plate. On top of that, his strikeout rate has been trending down his whole career, from 22.6% in ’07, to 17.7% in ’08 to 13.8% last year. These two together tell me one thing, the man is learning how to hit. He’s shown the power before and he can hit for average. To top that all off, the contract a player gets before or during his prime is often the biggest, so Cantu will be aiming for that 4 year/$36 million type deal this off-season. I’ve said it repeatedly this year, third base is very difficult to fill. I have Michael Young in two leagues, and I’m not terribly happy about it. Cantu can fill third base and, given what it’ll take to get him, is a bargain. Also, he’s young, so he’s got extra value in keeper leagues (always a crowd pleaser).

Prediction: .285 25 homers 100 RBI and a solid contract for Cantu in his prime.

2) Victor Martinez – Boston Red Sox (Catcher)
I’ve talked about my love for Victor Martinez here but there’s more here than just him being a better buy than Joe Mauer. He’s hitting third in the mighty Red Sox lineup ahead of Kevin Youkilis and behind Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia, which has a number of different implications. He’ll have a lot more chances to drive in runs with Chief Fast Like Your First Time and Pedroia replacing Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner in front of him in the order, while scoring some more runs with “Jewk” replacing the likes of Jhonny Peralta and Kelly Shoppach. Teams will be afraid to walk him, so he should see some better pitches too.
Prediction: A career high in homers (his is 25) or at least a rise in batting average to around .310 or .320 with 20 homers and 90-100 RBI. Martinez can make around $10 million on the open market, especially as a catcher. Expect him to press for an extension with great play.

1) Dontrelle Willis – Detroit Tigers (SP)
Dontrelle Willis will rebound this year. There, I said it. He’s got the ability and will be great.

… Gotcha! Really? Dontrelle Willis? Don’t you dare!
Prediction: He’ll be a solid number 5 starter for the Wilmington Blue Rocks. Then he’ll get moved to long relief.

Real 1) Jorge De La Rosa – Colorado Rockies (SP)
George Of The Rose had a lot more value last year than most people thought. Sure, his 16 wins propelled him into a 2nd or 3rd starter on a good fantasy team, but you can’t forget about his other stats. His 193 strikeouts ranked 16th in all of baseball and led to an FIP below 4.00, a solid number. Sure, he plays in Coors Field, but he’s a groundball pitcher (44.1% of batted balls for his career), so the thin air doesn’t affect him as much. His strikeouts per walk (K/BB) are trending up, showing a ton of improvement. Better hope whoever owns him didn’t take notice of his last start (7 IP 1 hit 1 BB 9 K’s).
Prediction: 15 or so wins, an ERA closer to his FIP and 200 strikeouts. Solid numbers for a potential second starting pitcher.

Roses for my Jorge.

Get these contract year players and you’ll be in good shape to win your league. Just make sure to avoid guys like Ty Wigginton, Nick Punto, and Austin Kearns (all of whom have expiring contracts). Remember, do your research and see if a guy has any chance of actually improving, this doesn’t just magically happen when a contract is up for grabs (unless you’re Adrian Beltre).

As always, keep the bat on your shoulders.
-Backwards K

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