Note: This is Part V of our pre-draft series on sleepers and breakouts. We have already dealt with the 27-year-olds, third-year starting pitchers, top 25 rookies/top 100 prospects and overlooked sophomores.
If there is one list a Fantasy Baseball drafter cannot wait to get his hands on, it is annually those who are in a contract year. They seem to love to pick guys motivated by the almighty dollar.
But, before we gush about how great some of these guys can be because of their contract status, we have to warn you: It tends to be overrated.
Baseball is a different beast -- and not just because of the specific skills it requires to excel at each position. To be a free agent usually means you are older and sometimes well past your prime. For instance, Richie Sexson has already been a free agent once, scoring a $50-plus million deal. He can hope all he wants he rebounds with another huge "walk" year, but age and declining skills likely just won't allow him to do so.
Also, there are the players whose contracts are expiring along with their careers entirely, the Jeff Kent's, Moises Alou's and Randy Johnson's of the world. There is no guessing they even want another contract, much less how much they might be motivated to earn one.
Players in contract years, like Carlos Zambrano a season ago, could also sign an extension after your Draft Day. That creates an interesting dynamic, where you have to ask yourself, "Is he going to take his foot off the gas pedal now? Will he get complacent?"
Baseball's structure requires players to have three years of minimum contracts before a three-year arbitration period. So, after six years in the league, you can finally become a full free agent. If a player didn't reach the big leagues before his 25th birthday, they won't be free-agent eligible until after they are 30.
By then, we might have already seen the best of a player. And, if we have seen the best of him, then chances are it will be hard for him to outperform his draft position. Name recognition is sometimes a Fantasy Baseballer's No. 1 scouting tool, we are sorry to say.
Our series on sleepers and breakouts has endlessly stressed how important it is to find players who haven't peaked. You don't want picks to do less than what you expect, and chances are the team that wins your league will have the most players who exceed general expectations.
Players playing for a new contract could qualify, so here is our top 10 free-agents-to-be. We rank them on their potential to show us their best yet because they are on the verge of a huge payday.
1. Mark Teixeira, 1B, ATL
Current Draft Average: 22nd overall | Potential for '09 draft: Top 10 overall
|* denotes team holds $20M option|
Big Tex is a player we have gotten used to seeing among the top five Fantasy first basemen on Draft Day. But, since his 43-homer, 144-RBI, 112-run year in 2005 (all career highs, with a .301 average, to boot), he really hasn't put together a full season. He has been great in second halves, hitting .309 with 18 homers, 64 RBI and 45 runs after the break last year and even more amazingly .291-24-61-51 post-break '06. Perhaps with Scott Boras ready to get him a $150 million mega-deal we will finally see Teixeira perform like a first-round talent he is capable of being. Only Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, Alfonso Soriano and Alex Rodriguez have more extra-base hits in the past three years. That is some company. And Tex's talent should be available to you as a late second- or early third-round pick.
2. Oliver Perez, SP, NYM
Current Draft Average: 39th starting pitcher | Potential for '09 draft: Top 20 SP
Perez is going to be 27 years old this season, and you know how much we like that age as the start of one's prime. He is also coming off a 15-win season for a Mets team that didn't have an ace and failed to win 90 games. The Mets could eclipse 100 wins this year with Johan Santana on board, Pedro Martinez back (another FA-to-be, by the way) and Perez slotting as a No. 4 starter. Perez might be the best No. 4 starter in baseball ... on one of the best teams in the league. Pitching coach Rick Peterson's pet project is developing consistency by the day. Left-handers, because of the natural break on their pitches which strains command, are notoriously late-bloomers. We have seen glimpses of greatness from Perez, but not a full season's worth.
3. Ben Sheets, SP, MIL
Current Draft Average: 25th starting pitcher | Potential for '09 draft: No. 1 SP
Since having a career year in 2004 with bests across the Rotisserie board in wins (12), ERA (2.70), strikeouts (264) and WHIP (0.983), Sheets hasn't reached even 160 innings. In a stretch from 2002-04, Sheets went 216 2/3, 220 2/3 and 237 innings as one of baseball's top workhorses. It apparently took a lot out of him. Now on the verge of another contract -- and with the Brewers a top contender -- Sheets is poised to have another huge year ... if he can only stay healthy. The injury risk has him being picked as the 25th-best starting pitcher, but we would have thought he could have been a No. 1 overall candidate by now.
4. Adam Dunn, OF, CIN
Current Draft Average: 16th outfielder | Potential for '09 draft: Top five OF
Dunn is a guy we always seem to hype. Last year it was because he was entering his prime years at age 27. He responded with arguably the best season of his career. This year it is because he is swinging for a blockbuster contract. The behemoth slugger, who already has four consecutive 40-homer seasons, is capable of a .265-50-120-100-10 campaign and what better time to see those numbers than the year before he hits the market for the first time. If Teixeira re-ups with Atlanta, Dunn has the chance to draw the richest contract next winter. He is still just 28 and on the front end of his prime years.
5. Pat Burrell, OF, PHI
Current Draft Average: 37th outfielder | Potential for '09 draft: Top 20 OF
Burrell is an annually frustrating player for Fantasy owners, looking like a 40-homer, 120-RBI star at times. And then (because of wild strikeout totals) he goes into long, long slumps -- much like the first half of last year (.215-11-37-32). Well, we saw what he is capable of in a great hitter's park and potent lineup in the second half: .295-19-60-45. Six months of baseball from perhaps his last big contract, you have reason to hope for a career year out of the free-swinging slugger.
6. C.C. Sabathia, SP, CLE
Current Draft Average: 7th starting pitcher | Potential for '09 draft: No. 1 SP
The Indians made a mistake not signing the reigning AL Cy Young winner before Johan Santana was traded. Santana set the bar extraordinarily high for pitcher contracts and Sabathia had a better year than Santana last season and is even younger. Sabathia finally stayed healthy last year and proved to be a workhorse for Fantasy owners. The Indians, who have a number of starting pitcher prospects on the verge, cannot afford a blockbuster six- or seven-year deal Sabathia could command with another huge season. It will be tough to top a Cy Young year, but that fat carrot is dangling for big ol' C.C.
7. Francisco Rodriguez, RP, LAA
Current Draft Average: 2nd closer | Potential for '09 draft: No. 1 closer
K-Rod is already arguably on the top of his position in Fantasy, but he seems convinced the Angels won't keep him around after this year. He might be right, because he is worthy of the richest closer contract in baseball history. Previous title-holders Mariano Rivera, Billy Wagner and B.J. Ryan cannot hold a K-K-candle to the 26-year-old -- and they signed their deals after their prime. K-Rod still might only be getting started. If that is the case, look out!
8. Wily Mo Pena, OF, WAS
Current Draft Average: 75th outfielder | Potential for '09 draft: Top 25 OF
Pena is a free-swinger with a world of potential that has been unrealized for years. The scary part is he is just 26 years old. It just seems like he has been around forever. Pena's career highs (.301-26-66-45-5) are all reachable as he finally gets a full-time job to start the season with the Nationals. In fact, if the Nats new ballpark plays more fair than RFK like we expect, Pena is capable of going .280-30-100-80. Those are eye-popping numbers when you consider there will be mixed leagues in which he goes undrafted entirely. Entering free agency at age 27 will make Pena a very wealthy man, if he can put it all together.
9. Felipe Lopez, SS/2B WAS
Current Draft Average: 37th middle infielder | Potential for '09 draft: Top five middle infielder
Yet another downgraded Red-turned-National who could earn himself a king's ransom. Lopez took a huge hit in the Fantasy ranks when he moved from the bandbox-iest hitter's park in Cincy to the roomiest pitcher's park in Washington. The 27-year-old went from being a .300-25-85-100-25 player to out of the starting lineup altogether. It wasn't just his poor defense, which was atrocious, but his inability to get on base and his general lack of concentration. If he needed a reason to concentrate on a daily basis, he should just focus in on the dollar signs before his own eyes and the fact he has to earn every at-bat he gets. Lopez is a toolsy infielder capable of stealing 40-plus bases and hitting 20-plus homers. Those just don't come around too often, especially at the affordable rate Lopez will go for on Draft Day.
10. RH SP Mark Prior, SD
Current Draft Average: 120th starting pitcher | Potential for '09 draft: Top 25 SP
Of all the names on this list, Prior has the greatest potential to rise from Draft Day 2008 to 2009. You could see a 100-pick jump ... at his own position, not just overall! Prior was a free agent this winter, but he was coming off years of shoulder woes. Now that he should, er could, be healthy by May, he will have a shot at earning a big-time contract with the Padres. That's a great pitchers park to work half of his starts in at least. Also, Prior is 27 years old! He is just entering what should be his prime and unlike many his age, he actually hasn't abused his body the past few seasons -- save for all that rehabilitation.
Those players were the favorites to excel, but we have outlined 90 total players who could be playing hard for a new contract this season. You should be able to find Fantasy sleeper or breakout value with a lot more than just those above. Here they are, broken down by position and ranking:
Outfielders: Manny Ramirez*, BOS; Adam Dunn, CIN; Bobby Abreu, NYY; Raul Ibanez, SEA; Pat Burrell, PHI; Moises Alou, NYM; Garret Anderson**, LAA; Geoff Jenkins, PHI; Jim Edmonds, SD; Wily Mo Pena, WAS; Juan Rivera, LAA; Jacque Jones, DET; Kevin Mench, TEX; Craig Monroe, MIN; Ben Broussard, TEX; Jay Payton, BAL; Mark Kotsay, ATL; Rob Mackowiak, PIT; Endy Chavez, NYM.
Right-handed starting pitchers: Ben Sheets, MIL; Pedro Martinez, NYM; Derek Lowe, LAD; Jon Garland, CHW; Greg Maddux, SD; Paul Byrd, CLE; Mike Mussina, NYY; Orlando Hernandez, NYM; Braden Looper, STL; Mark Prior, SD; Bartolo Colon, BOS; Ryan Dempster, CHC; Kris Benson, PHI; Steve Trachsel, BAL.
Left-handed starting pitchers: C.C. Sabathia, CLE; Oliver Perez, NYM; Andy Pettitte, NYY; Tom Glavine, ATL; Randy Johnson, ARI; Randy Wolf, SD; Kenny Rogers, DET; Jamie Moyer, SEA; Mark Hendrickson, FLA; Horacio Ramirez, SEA.
Right-handed relief pitchers: Francisco Rodriguez, LAA; Joe Nathan, MIN; Jason Isringhausen, STL; Brad Lidge, PHI; Brandon Lyon, ARI; Bob Howry, CHC; Luis Ayala, WAS; Joaquin Benoit, TEX; Ryan Dempster, CHC; Dan Wheeler, TB; Julian Tavarez, BOS; Kyle Farnsworth, NYY; Jorge Sosa, NYM; Juan Rincon, MIN; Matt Wise, NYM.
* Denotes team holds a pair of one-year $20 million options.
** Denotes team holds a $14 million option with a $3 million buyout.
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