11 Contract-Year Players (2020 Fantasy Baseball)
If you were in line for a promotion at your day job — including all the perks, like a pay raise — how would you approach your work? You’d be on your best behavior, and you’d work to the maximum of your abilities to show that you deserve the promotion (and that raise that comes along with it) that your boss has you considered for.
That’s kind of the discussion that’s had around contract-year players in fantasy baseball circles. The idea is that the player is in the last year of their deal, and in hopes of maximizing their value on the open market, they look to perform at the highest possible level to make themselves more attractive to the 30 teams in the league.
But is it that simple?
As with many stats or findings in the fantasy community, anything can be presented in a way to make it fit the narrative that supports our approach. The same is true with contract-year players. For every Patrick Corbin, there’s an Ian Desmond. It all depends on how far you go back, and what you determine to be a big year for a guy reaching the end of his contract.
If you are going to factor in a contract-year in a draft, that’s totally fine, but don’t make it anything more than a tiebreaker. What you have to remember is that the players who typically qualify as a contract-year player are players who are at or near their prime as a baseball player, so they are performing at or near the top of their potential.
Most of the players who are going to stand out in their contract year are already early-round players for fantasy. Are you really surprised at the seasons that Gerrit Cole and Anthony Rendon had in 2019 as they were getting ready to hit the open market? Both have been mainstays in the early rounds, so it should come as no surprise that they put up elite-level numbers.
Before we take a look at some of the players to keep an eye on heading into a contract year in 2020, let’s briefly discuss how to go about targeting the guys who are coming off of a big season. Rick Wolf and Glenn Colton (Colton and the Wolfman show on Sirius XM) are widely known for avoiding players — specifically pitchers — after they sign a big contract as a free agent. There are thoughts about the pressure of a new city with a new team that could cause them to be a disappointment.
The idea is right, but the reasoning is a little different. If the player is coming off of a career year or even an outlier breakout year in their contract year, there’s little reason to think that they won’t regress slightly — or in a big way for the outlier — based on the previous year’s numbers. It’s like when people discuss the home run derby curse.
If a player participates in the home run derby and then they struggle in the second half of the season or see their home runs go down, the question is asked whether or not the event threw off their timing.
This is a preposterous question and excuse for many, many reasons. First off, you’re arguing that swinging at 100 balls in the event and warm-up for the event would throw them off their rhythm from the 1,000s of pitches they see throughout the season, while daily batting practice doesn’t have the same impact. Second off, the reason that players get picked for the derby is that they’ve had a huge first half with power with a standout number of home runs. It’s only logical that if a guy is hitting 30 home runs in the first half, his pace is going to slow down in the second half.
We’re going to take a look at some of the players who are going to be free agents heading into the 2021 season, but we’ll need to get rid of the players who are already going inside of the top 100 of NFBC drafts because we’re expecting great to good numbers from all of them already.
That means we are getting rid of:
- Mookie Betts (OF – LAD)
- J.T. Realmuto (C – PHI)
- DJ LeMahieu (1B/2B/3B – NYY)
- Trevor Bauer (SP – CIN)
- Marcus Semien (SS – OAK)
- George Springer (OF – HOU)
- James Paxton (SP – NYY)
What is going to be interesting, though, is seeing how guys like LeMahieu and Semien, who had huge breakout seasons in 2019, and Bauer, who reverted to his pre-2019 ways, will perform. The former two will have to show that 2019 wasn’t a lucky season for them in terms of production, while Bauer, who has stated that he wants to only sign one-year deals moving forward to maximize his value, will look to bounce back to his Cy Young candidate ways of 2019, despite being a mediocre pitcher for most of his career.
MLB.com put together a list of 26 of the biggest free agents for the 2021 season. Of those 26, only four of them will enter that season under age 30. Again, these are guys who will be on the statistical downswing of their careers (a player’s peek season is their aged 26 and 27 season).
Players who could improve their 2021 fantasy stock in a contract year*:
*We aren’t including those with a player or team options
Joc Pederson (OF – LAD)
At this point, we kind of know who Pederson is. He’s a guy that’s great to have in a daily lineups league, but in a weekly lineup league, he’s tough to roster.
Marcell Ozuna (OF – ATL)
Ozuna turned down a three-year offer from the Reds for a one-year deal with the Braves to bet on himself. We’ve seen this work before (Desmond in his second contract year with the Rangers, Mike Moustakas with the Brewers), and Ozuna underperformed his xwOBA for the second straight season. He’s in a great ballpark with a great lineup. He could cash in big.
Jurickson Profar (2B – SD)
He was really, really good in 2018 with the Rangers. He was really, really bad with the A’s in 2019. I think he lands somewhere in between in 2020. He has no competition at second with the deal that sent Luis Urias away. The former No. 1 prospect feels like a prime candidate to put up big numbers in his contract year.
Marcus Stroman (SP – NYM)
Stroman is out of the AL East and in the NL East, but his issue is that he doesn’t miss any bats, and that’s what front offices want more than ever now. He’s a groundball pitcher who needs a good defense behind him to maximize his value, and he’s a points league option through-and-through.
Robbie Ray (SP – ARI)
Robbie Lamet, er mean Dinelson Ray, I mean Robbie Ray, is like the Pederson of pitching. You know what you’re getting with him. Not a ton of quality starts. A ton of strikeouts. Overall numbers that will be top 50.
Michael Brantley (OF – HOU)
I’d say that Brantley could elevate his stock, but he’ll be 33 entering the 2021 season, and despite being a great fantasy option the past couple of years, he is available after pick 100 each year.
Didi Gregorius (SS – PHI)
Gregorius missed half of the 2019 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, and the Yankees just have a wealth of options in the infield, so they had no reason to re-sign him. He’s moving from Yankee Stadium to Citizens Bank Park, and while it’s a downgrade, it’s still a great park. If he can translate the power he showed with the Yankees, despite his low hard-hit rate, he could net himself a three-year deal heading into 2021.
Jonathan Schoop (2B – DET)
Schoop’s 2017 season seems to be long forgotten. It is, however, the outlier to his career, where he hit .293 and 32 homers. He hasn’t sniffed either of those numbers the past two seasons, and you shouldn’t expect him to this year, either. But if he can go .270 with 28 homers, he is a fantasy-viable player as a middle infielder and could hang around the league a little bit longer.
Tommy La Stella (3B/2B – LAA)
Similar to Schoop, La Stella had an out-of-nowhere season last year, as Schoop did in 2017. If last year was a contract year for La Stella, he would have nicely cashed in for this year. Now, he’s in the position where he’s in a crowded lineup and has to repeat the numbers in 450 or fewer at-bats.
Garrett Richards (SP – SD)
The Padres signed Richards to a two-year deal at the beginning of 2019, knowing that he would miss the season with Tommy John surgery. Now, they get one year of their investment, and they are going to allow him to throw as many innings as his arm can possibly handle. There’s huge upside here for some fantasy value, with injury being the main risk.
C.J. Cron (1B – DET)
Cron is a Statcast darling, but of course, for a guy who crushes the ball and makes his money off his power, he’s stuck in Detroit in that huge ballpark. There’s still 28-35 homer upside here.