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March 26, 2013

Overthinking It

Five Make-or-Break Contract Years

by Ben Lindbergh

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Before last season, no one would have predicted that fragile White Sox starter Jake Peavy would earn a bigger contract at the end of the year than Angels workhorse Dan Haren. Peavy, entering his age-31 season, was coming off three injury-plagued and ineffective seasons in which he’d thrown a combined 320 1/3 innings with an above-league average ERA; Haren, also entering his age-31 season, was coming off his seventh consecutive 200-plus-inning campaign, having led the AL in starts and strikeout-to-walk ratio and finished seventh in Cy Young voting the season before.

But 2012 proved pivotal in determining the size of the contract that each impending free agent could command. Peavy picked the perfect time to find his form, avoiding the DL, topping 200 innings, and making the All-Star team for the first time since 2007. Haren had back problems and saw his sinker lose speed and his stats decline across the board. As a reward for his resurgence, Peavy got a two-year, $29 million extension from the Sox, while Haren had to settle for a one-year deal with the Nats at a slightly lower annual value.

Performance in a player’s walk year isn’t everything, but it’s the last thing potential suitors see, and thus the freshest in their minds. No player wants to make a negative impression right before the bidding begins. The following five players entering the final year of their contracts in 2013 are balanced on the border between “about to be rich” and “about to be richer.” If they can turn in strong seasons, they’ll command big-time contracts, but any missteps could cost them some serious cash.

Jacoby Ellsbury, CF, Red Sox
In the last three years, Ellsbury has sandwiched a season in which he was one of the five best players in baseball between two in which he was roughly replacement level and often absent from the field. A collision with Reid Brignac on the basepaths last April dislocated Ellsbury’s shoulder, keeping him out for the first half of the season and sapping his power upon his return. He won’t turn 30 until September, so if his shoulder is healthy and he gets back to driving the ball, he and his agent Scott Boras will be perfectly positioned to land a long-term deal this winter. But if Ellsbury suffers another serious injury, no team will want to commit to paying for past promise.

Josh Johnson, RHP, Blue Jays
Two strange things happened last season: Josh Johnson stayed healthy, and he didn’t pitch particularly well. The oft-injured starter posted his highest innings total since 2009, but it came with pretty pedestrian peripherals. For the second straight year, Johnson surrendered a full mile per hour from his four-seamer, and his fastball whiff rate suffered, forcing him to compensate by mixing in more breaking balls.  As a result, he posted his lowest strikeout rate and highest walk rate since his first full season. Johnson’s diminished stuff is likely a consequence of the shoulder inflammation that ended his 2010 and 2011 seasons, so teams that are interested in signing him will be wondering if his high-90s heaters are gone for good. How he looks in Toronto—his first exposure to the DH league and a hitter’s park—will decide whether he gets paid like an ace or merely a solid starter.

Brian McCann, C, Braves
McCann was one of the best hitting backstops in baseball over his first six seasons, but last year he was one of the worst: his .245 True Average was the lowest among catchers who made at least 400 plate appearances. His Isolated Power fell to its lowest level since his rookie year, and his batting average cratered to .230, driven by a BABIP nearly 60 points below his career norm. McCann’s line drive rate held steady, and it’s possible that he was hitting some balls to the wrong part of the park, but he was also hampered by right shoulder discomfort that led to offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum. Completing his rehab could cost him most of April, so he’ll have to play catch-up without permitting himself to press. Catchers get old early, and McCann will turn 30 before he gets into a game in 2014, so he’ll be watched closely this season for any further indications that his body (and his bat) are breaking down.

Phil Hughes, RHP, Yankees
Hughes is the least-accomplished player on this list, but his youth makes him more attractive than his stats might suggest. The right-hander will hit the open market at age 26, making him a refreshing rarity in the land of over-30 free agents. Hughes was a league-average starter last year, which is nothing to sneeze at, and his former prospect pedigree and improving control indicate that he might have another small step forward still in him. However, he’ll be hard-pressed to take it as long as he’s pitching in his current park. Hughes had the highest fly ball rate of any qualified pitcher last season, which made him a terrible fit for Yankee Stadium, where he gave up 22 of his 35 home runs. If he can put together another solid season, he’ll start to look pretty tantalizing to a team that plays in a better park for a pitcher with his profile. Like McCann, Hughes will likely start the season on the disabled list, in his case due to a bulging disk in his back that slowed him early this spring.

Tim Lincecum, RHP, Giants
At this point, Lincecum isn’t so much pitching for a raise as he is pitching to avoid a pay cut. The two-time Cy Young winner’s disappointing 2012 culminated in his being bumped to the bullpen while Barry Zito made postseason starts, a sequence of events that would have been almost unimaginable last spring. His average four-seamer fell from 93 mph in 2011 to 91 in 2012, and he left too many balls out over the plate to succeed without the velo to get away with mistakes. He may have missed his chance for a massive contract, but better conditioning could restore some of his stuff. If it doesn’t, he’ll have to learn to get by with more guile, and his 10.97 ERA this spring suggests that class is still in session. Lincecum will make $22 million this season, so if he doesn’t bounce back, the extension that bought out his last two arbitration years will prove to be his biggest score, instead of a stepping stone to even larger paychecks.

Also on the big-money bubble: Matt Garza, RHP, Cubs; Curtis Granderson, LF, Yankees; Mike Morse, LF, Mariners; Shin-Soo Choo, CF, Reds

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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