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Players in Contract Years (2023 Fantasy Baseball)

Players in Contract Years (2023 Fantasy Baseball)
cameraPlayers in Contract Years (2023 Fantasy Baseball)

For a professional athlete, a contract year is monumental. Many players get one opportunity in their career to cash in to earn generational money on a large free-agent deal and much of that earning power depends on how you perform in the season prior to hitting the open market.

There’s little doubt that a contract year adds additional pressure. Some undoubtedly feel it more than others and not every situation is the same. Player A may have a lengthy history of elite production that will secure a big bag regardless of contract-year performance while Player B might need a strong bounce-back season whether it be due to injury or performance leading up to the contract year.

You don’t have to look far to see just how much a contract year can affect a free-agent contract. The New York Yankees offered Aaron Judge a seven-year, $213.5 million contract extension prior to the 2022 season, compensating the outfielder for his work prior to his contract year. Judge not only balked at the offer but went on to set an AL record with 62 home runs in 2023. The end result was a nine-year, $360 million deal once Judge hit free agency. He added $146.5 million on his next deal.

However, it can also go the other way. Slugger Joey Gallo entered a contract year in 2022 and flopped to a .160 average and just 19 home runs on the season. He still managed a solid one-year, $11 million deal with the Twins, but what if Gallo hit 38-plus homers as he did in three of the previous four full seasons? After all, he’s an excellent defender with a cannon for an arm, but his contract-year work at the dish was putrid.

While there’s motivation to produce in a contract year, that notion is largely irrelevant when it comes to fantasy baseball. Every player has the motivation to perform or risk losing their job. Of course, this doesn’t just apply to professional athletes.

However, if you’re bullish on contract-year players, let’s take a look at some names you should target on draft day. We’ll leave the Shohei Ohtanis and Clayton Kershaws of the world out of the equation as those are the types of players that are locks to get a big deal or are already financially secure.

Let’s dial in on some names that are looking for their first big contract heading into the 2024 season.

*This list does not include those with mutual or club options in their contracts for 2024.

Fantasy Baseball Draft Kit

Contract-Year Players to Buy in 2023

Rhys Hoskins (1B – PHI)

Rhys Hoskins has already delivered plenty of value for the Phillies as he wasn’t drafted until the fifth round in 2014 but has hit for a wealth of power in his six years with the club.

Hoskins has hit at least 27 home runs in each of the last four full MLB seasons and at least 30 in two of those four campaigns. Since he entered the league in 2017, Hoskins’ 148 home runs rank 23rd in baseball while his .250 isolated power in that time checks in at 17th, this time among qualified hitters. For good measure, his 13.5% BB% is tied for 18th among qualified hitters.

In the real world, Hoskins’ next free-agent deal will be capped by the fact he has zero defensive versatility and is a poor overall defender. Of course, that’s irrelevant in fantasy as Hoskins will certainly get everyday at-bats when healthy between first base and designated hitter for the Phillies in 2023.

His ADP is hovering around 120 as the ninth first baseman off the board in NFBC leagues, right in between Nathaniel Lowe and C.J. Cron. He interestingly collected just 79 RBI despite launching 30 long balls in 2022, but he remains a key cog in a productive Phillies offense.

I like the upside with Hoskins and I think his ADP is undervalued given his raw power and consistent production throughout his big-league career.

Julio Urias (SP – LAD)

Here’s a guy that could secure a massive bag if he can produce anywhere close to his 2022 campaign.

It feels like Julio Urias has been around forever, and indeed he’s pitched in parts of seven MLB seasons with the Dodgers after debuting at just 19 years of age in 2016. After injuries hampered him earlier in his career, he’s put it together in a major way over the last three seasons.

Let’s take a look at where the now 26-year-old ranks among his qualified peers since the 2020 season.

ERA: 2.68 (T-2nd)
Starts: 73 (T-9th)
IP: 409.2 (14th)
BB%: 5.8% (7th)
AVG: .210 (4th)

Remember, Urias is technically just entering his prime MLB seasons at 26 years of age. While injuries certainly aren’t a positive, one thing they’ve done for Urias is limit the innings on his arm as he’s thrown just 599.2 regular-season frames in parts of seven seasons. However, with 63 starts and 360 2/3 innings pitched over the last two seasons, he’s proving he can be a front-line workhorse.

Coming off a 2.16 ERA in 31 starts while finishing third in NL Cy Young voting and even getting down-ballot MVP votes, Urias is not only a top-tier fantasy pitcher but a player that appears set for a big contract year in 2023.

Josh Hader (RP – SD)

Few saw what would come when the Padres acquired Josh Hader from the Brewers at the 2022 trade deadline.

Hader wasn’t exactly enjoying a productive season with a 4.24 ERA in 37 outings with the Brewers but face-planted to the tune of a 7.31 ERA across 19 outings with the Padres. What this simply does is make Hader one of the top bounce-back candidates in fantasy baseball this season.

Despite a 5.22 ERA in 2022, Hader owns a career 2.71 mark, the best mark among relievers with at least 300 innings pitched since he entered the league in 2017. Additionally, his 43.2% K% in that time also ranks first in baseball. In other words. he’s arguably been the most dominant reliever in baseball since he entered the league.

Hader’s ADP of 46 is seemingly undervalued. Predictably, the Guardians’ Emmanuel Clase and the Mets’ Edwin Diaz are the closers being drafted ahead of Hader, but Hader’s strikeout rates dominate those of Clase and he should be able to rack up as many if not more saves on what should be a very good Padres team.

I’d suggest waiting on Hader before jumping on either of the first two in fantasy but he’s certainly a player whose track record should net him either a large extension from the Padres or a monster deal in free agency.

Jack Flaherty (SP – STL)

The early returns on Jack Flaherty’s career seemingly put him on the brink of superstardom before injuries took their toll.

The right-hander turned in a 3.34 ERA in 28 starts at age 22 in 2018 before tossing a 2.75 ERA across a hefty 33 starts and 196 1/3 innings pitched a year later. However, Flaherty struggled to a 4.91 ERA in nine starts during the shortened 2020 season while he’s made just 26 appearances and 23 starts in two seasons since.

He pitched to a decent 4.25 ERA in 36 innings in 2022, but his metrics were solid. His 5.6% barrel rate and 30.8% hard-hit rate easily better the league average, although his monster 13.2% BB% left plenty to be desired.

Nonetheless, Flaherty is healthy and building up toward Opening Day, something that was not the case last season. His track record suggests control isn’t a big issue while he owns a career 28% K% compared to the 19.8% mark he turned in last season. His 8.8% BB% rate isn’t great but nothing to be terribly concerned about.

While he’s a risky fantasy baseball target entering the 2023 campaign, this is precisely the type of player that is pitching for his next contract. If he can show a return to his 2018-2019 form while making at least 26-28 starts, he’ll get paid. There’s no doubt that’s the type of campaign he’s working toward.

He could be a steal late in drafts if his shoulder can hold up in 2023.

Lucas Giolito (SP – CHW)

If Lucas Giolito’s contract year came after any of the 2019, 2020, or 2021 seasons, he would have made a boatload of dough. After a tough 2022 campaign, he enters a crucial contract year in 2023.

Giolito posted an ERA between 3.41 and 3.53 from 2019-2021 but slipped to a 4.90 mark in 2022 while his strikeout rate dipped, his walk rate increased, and his innings per start slipped. However, there are signs he can bounce back in a contract year.

First, the right-hander’s 4.06 FIP was well below that 4.90 ERA figure, as was his 4.23 xERA and rock-solid 3.79 SIERA. Second, Giolito’s .340 BABIP was miles above his .279 career mark. Sure, he ranked in the league’s 41st percentile in hard-hit rate and average exit velocity, but that’s some seriously poor batted-ball luck.

Finally, Giolito’s 3.66 xFIP on the season was tied for the second-best mark of his career across parts of seven big-league seasons. A mild concern is a 92.7 mph average fastball velocity versus marks of at least 94 mph in each of his previous three seasons.

Keep in mind Giolito was far from the only underperforming White Sox player in 2022 under then-manager Tony La Russa. New skipper Pedro Grifol should be able to get more out of a wildly talented ball club that finished 81-81, a dip of 12 wins from the 2021 campaign.

You’ll be able to snag Giolio up far later in drafts this season as he’s trending at a 153 ADP as the third White Sox starter off the board in 2023.

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