Myth Of The Contract-Year

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HacheMan

hacheman@therx.com
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Pujols and the contract-year myth

Contrary to popular belief, impending free agency doesn't really help player


Dave Cameron
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In 2010, Adrian Beltre had the second truly great season of his career, and over the winter, his agent parlayed that performance into a $96 million contract with the Texas Rangers. Beltre's first amazing season came in 2004, which was also a year immediately preceding free agency. A breakout season in his final year with the Dodgers landed him a $65 million contract in Seattle, so while Beltre has had only two MVP caliber seasons, they've come at fortuitous times for his bank account.


Oftentimes, when a player has an abnormally good season just prior to being eligible for free agency, the chance to become insanely rich is offered up as the motivation that caused the performance to begin with. Whether it was extra offseason workouts, more time spent watching tape or taking batting practice, or just fewer nights out on the town after a game, the presumption is that the "walk-year player" is doing things that he hadn't done in prior seasons because of the financial payoff that awaits him at year's end.


There's just one problem with this theory -- it doesn't really stand up when you begin to look beyond just a few high-profile cases. In fact, the crop of free agents that are looking to cash in this winter are apparently trying to single-handedly disprove the entire theory in one fell swoop.
<OFFER>The big free-agent target this winter? Albert Pujols, the consensus best player in baseball headed into the season. Rumors swirled in spring training that he was looking for a contract in the range of $300 million over 10 years, and based on his prior performances, you could make a decent case that he would be worth the money. However, Pujols has accumulated nearly 200 plate appearances in 2011 and he's hit just .269/.337/.415. He has grounded into more double plays than he has extra-base hits. While there is still a lot of season left, Pujols' poor start means that he's almost certainly going to finish the year with the worst numbers of his career.


The St. Louis first baseman isn't the only guy struggling badly in his walk year. Oakland traded for outfielders David DeJesus and Josh Willingham hoping that the pair would provide some much needed punch to the offense. Instead, they have combined for minus-0.2 wins above replacement. Yes, they've actually been worse than what the A's could have expected had they just trolled the waiver wire for a league-minimum player as they have done in prior years.


The struggles aren't limited to position players, either. Edwin Jackson is making it very difficult for agent Scott Boras by posting yet another disappointing season in which the results don't match the stuff. After his dominating run with the White Sox down the stretch last year, many expected Jackson to put it all together this year and land a lucrative contract that would pay him like a front-line starter. Instead, it's just been more frustration (4.53 ERA), and Jackson looks headed toward the market with the underachiever label firmly intact.


Looking up and down the list of prospective free agents, it's hard to find a guy who is playing at a level that he hasn't previously reached. Prince Fielder is having a nice enough year, but he's basically just being Prince Fielder. Jose Reyes looks healthy, but hasn't added anything to his game that we haven't seen from him before. There just aren't any examples of guys in their walk year doing things that we would consider all that surprising. At least, not positively surprising anyway.


Instead, the guys who are putting up unexpectedly good performances are all guys who don't stand to make any real money off their success. Jose Bautista has gotten even better after his breakout 2010 season, but he signed away the next six years of his career before the season ever got started. Curtis Granderson has apparently finally figured out how to hit left-handed pitching, but the Yankees have him under team control for two more seasons after this one.


If either Bautista or Granderson was a free agent at the end of the season, their success would be immediately linked to their impending free agency. However, in each case they worked hard to improve areas of their games even though there wasn't a big payday waiting for them at season's end. Apparently, they are motivated by something other than the almighty dollar.


The contract-year phenomenon is a convenient explanation, but in reality, there's just not much evidence that players actually do receive much of a performance boost in the final year of their contract. I'm sure some players do put in a little extra effort when they see free agency coming, but the guys who are actually too lazy to live up to their potential don't usually last long enough in the big leagues to make it a full six years in the league anyway.


Major League Baseball has a way of weeding out those who aren't committed to their craft early on. The next time you see a guy having a big season in the final year of his contract, don't assume that he could have been doing this all along if he had just worked harder. As this free-agent class is working hard to show us, it's not as simple as flipping a switch when money is on the line.
 

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