Fantasy baseball 2013 draft preview: Contract-year players
Fantasy owners love players motivated by impending free agency, and there are quite a few this season.
While analyzing contract-year players is not our favorite way to find sleepers and breakouts, many of these players do tend to outperform their draft position. Often, these players aren't necessarily under the radar, but rather established veterans who come with certain expectations and lofty draft positions. Josh Hamilton was the most high-profile case last season. He posted a career-best 43 homers and 103 runs last season, but he disappeared for long stretches before scoring that huge deal with the Angels this offseason.
But forget last year: This is one of the most loaded groups of pending free agents in quite a while. Here's a look at the top 10 for fantasy purposes.
1. SP Adam Wainwright (31 years old), St. Louis Cardinals
Wainwright didn't do enough in his return from Tommy John surgery last year to earn a mega-contract, but the likely loss of Chris Carpenter for the season puts the ace tag squarely on Waino again. He is fully capable of pitching like a Cy Young winner, and he's capable of being a 230-inning, 215-strikeout workhorse. But he's not being drafted as such, since he performed closer to a fantasy No. 2 (14-11, 3.94) last season. Assuming the Cardinals don't extend him before the season, he's headed for a year that can carry fantasy teams.
2. SP Tim Lincecum (28), San Francisco Giants
Speaking of coming off disappointing years, Lincecum didn't go anywhere last season, save for the postseason bullpen. Still, he might wind up being the comeback player of the year. The best news came this spring, when he clocked in the 92-94 mph range after sitting mostly around 90 last season. Despite the awful 2012 ERA and WHIP by his lofty standards, Lincecum still struck out better than a batter per inning. He is capable of smashing his current MockDraftCentral.com Average Draft Position (198th overall and 48th among starting pitchers).
3. OF Jacoby Ellsbury (29), Boston Red Sox
This one is almost too obvious: Ellsbury is not only an injury-risk sleeper coming off a terrible year, but he is also a client of Scott Boras. How often does a Boras guy blow up in a walk year? There's a reason Boras is the most famous agent in baseball. The Red Sox should be healthier all around this season, which can help make Ellsbury an elite outfielder again.
4. 1B Kendrys Morales (29), Seattle Mariners
We already chronicled Morales in the injury-risk sleepers file, but his contract status is another reason why we can see him return to being a .300/30/100/100 fantasy beast. Sure, that Mariners lineup doesn't look like much, but Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley and Mike Morse are set for solid seasons, especially now that Seattle's fences have been moved in. These Mariners stand to surprise people offensively, even if they don't truly compete.
5. 1B Justin Morneau (31), Minnesota Twins
This former slugger, further removed from post-concussion syndrome, says he's healthier than he's been in years. In the second half of last season, he showed enough improvement to look closer to his old levels. Years of modest numbers at the deep first base position makes him a bargain, or at least a fallback option with some upside. Despite a solid WBC and a good start this spring, Morneau's ADP has not improved.
6. 2B Chase Utley (34), Philadelphia Phillies
He's beyond the age of breakdown for a middle infielder and is dealing with chronic knee woes that will certainly require days off, if not a DL stint. But Utley's ADP is merely No. 203 on MockDraftCentral, and he plays one of the thinnest positions in fantasy. As he enters a walk year in advance of what could be his last contract, Utley will be a must-have fantasy second baseman -- when he plays. Few other players who have that elite potential will fall out of the Top 200.
7. 2B Robinson Cano (30), New York Yankees
Cano is about all that remains from the crumbles of the geriatric Yankees. The Yankees would like to extend him, but with so much money already tied up in brutally old and dangerous players, how can they? This seems to be the perfect storm for Cano to prove worthy of a ridiculous contract he won't be able to perform up to in a few years. The problem is that Cano is the lone sure thing at a position devoid of them. He'd be a first-round pick even without the motivation of a contract year.
8. C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (27), Boston Red Sox
Salty is already coming off a career year in his first year in Boston, but that second year tends to be when a player truly becomes comfortable. Salty incredulously hit 25 homers but drove in only 59 runs because Bobby Valentine was playing mostly a Triple-A lineup around him. Boston's players are undervalued across the board, so if Salty performs even at 2012 levels, he'll be a great pick after the elite catchers go on draft day.
9. C Mike Napoli (31), Boston Red Sox
Noticing a theme? The third Boston player on this list should have already landed his big contract this winter, but a degenerative hip issue found in his physical forced him to restructure to a one-year deal. This will be great news for Napoli, who looks like the perfect fit to attack the Green Monster. Best of all, this is a catcher-eligible fantasy player who will be playing the lower-impact position of first base. He is out to show he is healthy and worth his pay.
10. OF Chris Young (29), Oakland Athletics
Billy Beane loves finding inefficiency in the marketplace, and if Young has been anything in his career, it has been inefficient. He is under contract for $11 million in 2014, but Beane and the A's hold a $1.5 million option here. Young could become one of the best buys in the late rounds, or headed for the dreaded career bust label, but we believe he will prove to be more of the former. Don't plan your draft hoping for a Young revival, but if you are looking for upside late, he is a great option.
• Jon Lester* (29), Boston Red Sox: He has just a $250,000 club-held option, which will be voided if he finishes first or second in the Cy Young vote or is traded. Now that his former pitching coach is back as manager, Lester could have a huge rebound year.
• Phil Hughes (26), New York Yankees: This injury-risk sleeper turns 27 this season, and he's pitching for a contract (if you're keeping track, that's three of our six favorite ways to unearth hidden value). He can be his best yet.
• Brian McCann (29), Atlanta Braves: A potential DL stint to start the year after offseason shoulder surgery is dragging down his value. Don't sleep on him in a contract year.
• Josh Johnson (29), Toronto Blue Jays: Johnson is another injury-risk sleeper younger than 30 and on the verge of his first huge contract. A healthy Johnson can be a monster with all that run support in Toronto. The shoulder woes seem to be a thing of the past.
• Shin Soo-Choo (30), Cincinnati Reds: He heads to a great hitter's park and will play in a potent lineup. His motivation for a new contract make him a great middle-round pick.
Here's a look at the impending free agents on each team, according to the raw salary data from Baseball-Reference.com.
Note: An asterisk (*) designates those players who have a team-held, player-held or mutual option remaining on their current contract. A double asterisk (**) designates those players who are entering their final year of arbitration, which can be an important year to polish off their professional résumé as well.
• Arizona Diamondbacks: 3B Eric Chavez, OF Jason Kubel,* RP Brad Ziegler,** SS Willie Bloomquist
• Atlanta Braves: C Brian McCann, RP Eric O'Flaherty, SP Paul Maholm, SP Tim Hudson
• Baltimore Orioles: 2B Brian Roberts, 3B Wilson Betemit,* OF Nate McLouth, RP Jim Johnson,** RP Luis Ayala, SP Jason Hammel
• Boston Red Sox: C Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C (1B) Mike Napoli, OF Jacoby Ellsbury, RP Andrew Bailey,** RP Joel Hanrahan, SP Jon Lester,* SS Stephen Drew
• Chicago Cubs: C Dioner Navarro, OF David DeJesus,* RP Carlos Marmol, SP Matt Garza, SP Scott Baker, SP/RP Scott Feldman
• Chicago White Sox: 1B Paul Konerko, RP Jesse Crain, RP Matt Lindstrom,* RP Matt Thornton,* SP Gavin Floyd
• Cincinnati Reds: C Ryan Hanigan,** OF Shin-Soo Choo, SP Bronson Arroyo, SP Homer Bailey**
• Cleveland Indians: 1B Mark Reynolds, RP Joe Smith, RP (SP) Brett Myers,* SP Justin Masterson,** SP Ubaldo Jimenez*
• Colorado Rockies: RP Rafael Betancourt,* SP Jorge De La Rosa*
• Detroit Tigers: 2B Omar Infante, C Alex Avila,** RP Joaquin Benoit, RP Octavio Dotel, SP Max Scherzer,** SS Jhonny Peralta
• Houston Astros: 1B Carlos Pena, RP Jose Veras*
• Kansas City Royals: OF Jeff Francoeur, SP Bruce Chen, SP Ervin Santana, SP James Shields,* SP Luke Hochevar**
• Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: RP Ryan Madson, RP Scott Downs, SP Jason Vargas, SP Jerome Williams**
• Los Angeles Dodgers: 2B Mark Ellis,* 3B Juan Uribe, OF Jerry Hairston, OF Skip Schumaker, RP J.P. Howell, SP Aaron Harang,* SP Chris Capuano,* SP Clayton Kershaw,* SP Ted Lilly, SS Nick Punto
• Miami Marlins: 3B Placido Polanco, OF Juan Pierre, RP Jon Rauch, SP Jacob Turner,** SP Ricky Nolasco
• Milwaukee Brewers: OF Corey Hart
• Minnesota Twins: 1B Justin Morneau, SP Mike Pelfrey
• New York Mets: C John Buck, RP Frank Francisco, SP Johan Santana,* SP Shaun Marcum
• New York Yankees: 1B/3B Kevin Youkilis, 2B Robinson Cano, DH Travis Hafner, OF Curtis Granderson, RP Boone Logan, RP David Aardsma, RP Joba Chamberlain, SP Andy Pettitte, SP Hiroki Kuroda, SP Phil Hughes, SS Derek Jeter*
• Oakland Athletics: OF Chris Young,* OF Coco Crisp,* RP Grant Balfour, RP Pat Neshek,** SP Bartolo Colon, SP Brett Anderson,* SS (2B) Jed Lowrie**
• Philadelphia Phillies: 2B Chase Utley, 3B Michael Young, C Carlos Ruiz, OF Delmon Young, SP Roy Halladay*
• Pittsburgh Pirates: SP A.J. Burnett, SP Francisco Liriano,* SP Wandy Rodriguez,* SS Clint Barmes
• San Diego Padres: 3B Chase Headley,** RP Joe Thatcher,* RP Luke Gregorson,** SP Clayton Richard,** SP Edinson Volquez, SP Jason Marqui
• San Francisco Giants: OF Hunter Pence, RP Javier Lopez, SP Barry Zito,* SP Ryan Vogelsong,* SP Tim Lincecum
• Seattle Mariners: 1B Kendrys Morales, C Kelly Shoppach, OF Franklin Gutierrez,* OF Jason Bay, OF Mike Morse, RP Oliver Perez, SP Joe Saunders
• St. Louis Cardinals: OF Carlos Beltran, SP Adam Wainwright, SP Chris Carpenter, SP Jake Westbrook*
• Tampa Bay Rays: 1B James Loney, 2B Kelly Johnson, 2B/SS/OF Ben Zobrist,* DH Luke Scott, RP Fernando Rodney, RP Kyle Farnsworth, SS Yunel Escobar*
• Texas Rangers: 1B Lance Berkman,* C A.J. Pierzynski, C Geovany Soto, OF David Murphy, OF Nelson Cruz, RP Jason Frasor, RP Joe Nathan,* SP Colby Lewis
• Toronto Blue Jays: 1B Adam Lind,* OF Colby Rasmus,** OF Rajai Davis, OF (2B) Emilio Bonifacio,** RP Casey Janssen,* RP Darren Oliver, SP J.A. Happ,** SP Josh Johnson
• Washington Nationals: C Kurt Suzuki,* SP Dan Haren