Players in Contract Years to Target (2019 Fantasy Baseball)
Men lie, women lie, but numbers don’t lie. Except when they do.
What’s great about sports, and fantasy specifically, is that we all feel strongly about a particular player or facet of a game. It’s good to feel that way, but you better have some strong evidence to back it up.
For every stat presented to defend our stance on a player, there is one that can go against him. We often lean toward confirmation bias, presenting just the statistics that favor our opinion. When looking deep into the numbers, there isn’t one player in the league–outside of maybe Mike Trout–without some sort of flaw or reason they could underperform this year.
That’s why discussing contract-year players gets murky. There is no statistical evidence that backs up whether or not players truly perform better when in the final year before hitting free agency.
Sure, you can find some examples of players who did. Take, for instance, Patrick Corbin in 2018. By nearly every measure, he had the best season of his career. It came at the best time, as he was in the final year of his contract with the Diamondbacks. Prior to 2018, Corbin’s name was barely mentioned as one of the most attractive pieces for the upcoming free-agent class, but he parlayed his 2018 numbers into a six-year, $140 million deal with the Nationals.
For every Corbin, however, there’s an Ian Desmond. Desmond was a 20-20 guy with the Nationals, and following the 2013 season, they offered him an extension worth $107 million over seven years. Desmond decided he wanted to bet on himself and play the next two seasons before entering free agency.
He failed, miserably, in his contract year. Instead of cashing in on his success, he received a qualifying offer from the Nationals for around $16 million. He declined that, too, and later settled for a one-year deal worth $8 million with Texas.
For every big performance in a contract year (Demond had one in Texas to net a five-year deal with Colorado), there’s a bad performance and an average one. Everyone focuses on the big performances, which drive the narrative of contract-year breakouts.
Truth be told, the best way to value contract-year players for fantasy is to use it as a tiebreaker. If you believe a player will lay it all out there and perform better to get a great offseason deal, pick him over the equal player who is already locked up beyond 2019.
Here are some guys heading into the final year of their contract in 2019 that you should monitor. I’m dividing the fantasy-relevant players into four sections:
The Locks: Value won’t change with a good or bad year
The Fluctuators: Players who could improve or hurt their offseason with a good or bad season
Nowhere To Go But Up: Players who can only improve their stock (i.e. Corbin)
The Rest: They are what they are
Justin Verlander (SP – HOU)
Khris Davis (OF – OAK)
Xander Bogaerts (SS – BOS)
Chris Sale (SP – BOS)
Nolan Arenado (3B – COL)
Gerrit Cole (SP – HOU)
Paul Goldschmidt (1B – STL)
There are no worries about any of these guys from a fantasy perspective.
Marcell Ozuna (OF – STL)
Madison Bumgarner (SP – SF)
Nick Castellanos (OF – DET)
Yasiel Puig (OF – CIN)
Anthony Rendon (3B – WAS)
Zack Wheeler (SP – NYM)
Alex Wood (SP – CIN)
Adam Eaton (OF – WAS)
Jose Abreu (1B – CWS)
Michael Wacha (SP – STL)
Kyle Gibson (SP – MIN)
Brian Dozier (2B – WAS)
Jonathan Schoop (2B – MIN)
Collin McHugh (SP – HOU)
Josh Donaldson (3B – ATL)
Matt Kemp (OF – CIN)
Trevor Cahill (SP – LAA)
Ozuna predictably regressed in 2018 after his 2017 breakout. He needs to meet those two seasons in the middle in 2019 … Bumgarner hasn’t been right since that dirt-bike accident. His loss of velocity is alarming … Castellanos needs a trade to get away from the Tigers’ wonky Statcast readings … Puig will likely be dealt at the trade deadline, but he has 30/20 potential in Great American Ball Park … Always underappreciated, Rendon should be in for a big payday … Wood should provide sneaky value to fantasy owners as a top-60 pitcher … Wacha looks to bounce back from another injury, while Gibson and Cahill look to recapture last season’s first-half success … Eaton, Dozier, Donaldson, and Abreu look to show they aren’t over the hill and can still contribute with a new deal … Schoop has a one-year, bet-on-myself deal with Minnesota. If he tanks, he may not get another shot … Nothing is better for McHugh than a return to the rotation … Like Puig, the Reds should deal Kemp by the trade deadline. He needs to be a DH going forward.
Nowhere To Go But Up
Shelby Miller (SP – TEX)
Drew Smyly (SP – TEX)
Michael Pineda (SP – MIN)
Corey Dickerson (OF – PIT)
The landing spots aren’t great for Miller and Smyly, but both could see a career resurgence after Tommy John surgery … Pineda is a sneaky guy to add to the end of your bench this year. He’s in a great environment and could elevate his stock with a good year in Minnesota … Dickerson is just another guy, but a good year in Pittsburgh could make him a fantasy OF3 and net him a three-year deal in the offseason.
Didi Gregorius (SS – NYY)
Matt Harvey (SP – LAA)
Rick Porcello (SP – BOS)
Cole Hamels (SP – CHC)
Brian McCann (C – ATL)
Troy Tulowitzki (SS – NYY)
Rich Hill (SP – LAD)
The counting stats say Gregorius is good, but the advanced numbers aren’t so sure. He’ll have a half of a season to prove himself … Harvey wasn’t bad in Cincinnati, but he wasn’t great, either. That’s Matt Harvey in a nutshell … Porcello is an overrated fantasy option who provides most of his value in points-based leagues by eating innings. Hamels, too … McCann is a top-12 catcher by default, even in a timeshare … Tulowitzki is an end-of-the-draft dart throw in deep leagues … Hill will be 40 before the 2020 season starts. He is a left-handed pitcher, after all, so he may still get a one-year deal somewhere if he can stay healthy.