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#pounditThursday, August 6, 2020

5 MLB contract year players looking to cash in

The mythical contract year can be either a boon or a drag on an athlete. Some respond well, knowing that with a strong season, they can enter free agency as a hot commodity and really make a lot of money on the open market. Others feel the pressure and drag their value down as they struggle to handle it.

While every player entering a contract year will be hoping to gain the attention of franchises across the league, these five in particular could become free agents after the 2017 season and stand to gain a lot if they can put together a strong year.

5) Alex Cobb, SP, Tampa Bay Rays

Cobb once looked like baseball’s next ace, but as it has done to many a pitcher, Tommy John surgery hindered that.

The right-hander missed the entire 2015 season and didn’t make his 2016 debut until September, where he struggled to re-acclimate himself to the majors. Cobb’s stock is way down right now, but that’s what makes him such an intriguing option.

Cobb will be just 30 when he hits the open market at the end of 2017, and the numbers he was putting up before his surgery are worth remembering.

In 2013 and 2014, he started 49 games and posted a 2.82 ERA in a difficult AL East, striking out 8.2 batters per nine innings and keeping his walks low at 2.7 per nine. At the time, it looked like he was primed to become one of baseball’s most reliable pitchers. His injury robbed him of that, but if he can demonstrate in 2017 that he’s healthy and can pitch effectively, he may get a nice free agent deal, be it from Tampa Bay or elsewhere. Tommy John, after all, has a pretty good recovery rate, and teams are always looking for pitching.

4) Mike Moustakas, 3B, Kansas City Royals

Moustakas’ career has been filled with ups and downs. He was once a top prospect expected to be a part of the Royals’ renaissance. He did end up being a part of it, but he hit just .212 with underwhelming power when Kansas City went to the World Series in 2014, at one point being sent to the minors early in the season. He completely reversed that in 2015, hitting .284 with 22 home runs and being named to his first All-Star team.

Moustakas was just entering his physical prime in 2016, and people dared to dream that he was about to fulfill the potential that he had when Kansas City made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 draft. It didn’t happen, but not by any fault of his own. Moustakas tore his ACL in late May after a collision with Alex Gordon, ending his season after just 27 games.

That’s what makes Moustakas’s 2017 so important.

There will be a market for him no matter what; he’ll be a 29-year-old third baseman who plays solid defense, which will always get you looks, but a strong offensive season could make him one of the hottest players available. His offense over the first four seasons of his career was underwhelming, as he hit just .236 with a .379 slugging percentage, particularly mediocre for a guy who’s stereotyped as a power hitter. His 2015 looked like it might be the beginning of an offensive reinvention.

Moustakas will be healthy and ready to go for 2017, and with the Royals facing a lot of big decisions, he seems more likely than not to be available after the season. If the offensive numbers he puts up mirror his early-career struggles, he’ll simply be an intriguing free agent option. If he can put up numbers like he did in his All-Star 2015, you’re talking about one of the most coveted guys on the open market.

3) Jake Arrieta, SP, Chicago Cubs

Arrieta’s stock has fallen a bit since 2015, when he was the NL Cy Young Award winner. He certainly isn’t bad, but the rest of his numbers took what was probably an inevitable step back. His ERA rose from 1.77 to 3.10, his walks jumped from 1.9 per nine to 3.5, and his strikeouts dropped slightly from 9.3 per nine to 8.7. He also threw significantly fewer innings in 2016, failing to crack the 200 innings pitched mark after throwing 229 during the previous regular season. None of this is necessarily bad, but Arrieta was simply very good in 2016 as opposed to incredible.

What does that mean for his free agent stock? It’s hard to tell.

Arrieta would still get a pile of money if he hit the open market today, but another elite season could ensure that he gets the Max Scherzer-type contract he is reportedly seeking. Some teams may be reluctant to give him a deal in the seven-year range, however.

He’ll turn 32 prior to the 2018 season, and if Arrieta seems to be holding steady or regressing slightly, he may be offered shorter pacts. This is probably the last chance he will get to sign a big, long-term deal, so Arrieta has a lot to pitch for on a personal level in 2017.

2) Justin Upton, LF, Detroit Tigers

Upton is a unique case. He’s not technically a free agent, as he signed a six-year deal with the Tigers prior to the 2016 season. However, that contract contains an opt-out clause after year two. Upton’s choices, then, will be to play out the remaining four years and approximately $88 million remaining on his current deal, or bolt and hope he gets more on the open market. It’s a similar arrangement to what Yoenis Cespedes used to ultimately get $110 million over four years from the New York Mets.

Upton may have his eyes on a similar deal, which would get him $20-$30 million more than he currently stands to earn. He’ll need a big season to make it happen. Upton’s 2016 simply wasn’t good despite his 31 home runs, as his .246 average simply did not justify his high price tag.

There are signs that Upton will offer much more in 2017. He hit .292 in September with a remarkable 13 home runs in 27 games. Obviously, it’s unrealistic to expect such a pace to keep up over a full season, but Upton approaching .300 with power would mean he could probably opt out and gamble on himself. He needs a great season, but he’s had great seasons before, and is definitely one to watch.

1) Yu Darvish, SP, Texas Rangers

Like Cobb, Darvish really only has to prove his health.

He’s made just 39 starts over the previous three seasons, missing all of 2015 due to Tommy John. When he’s healthy, he’s one of the most dynamic pitchers in the sport, routinely striking out 11 batters per nine for the last two seasons. His last fully healthy season was 2013, and he put up an ERA of 2.83 with 277 strikeouts, all while pitching in a hitter’s haven in Arlington. Unlike Cobb, he looked very much like himself after returning from the surgery in 2016, striking out 132 batters in 100.1 innings and putting up a 3.41 ERA.

There are rumblings that Texas is prepared to let Darvish hit the open market, where he’d probably be in line for $150 million at the very least. A fully healthy season that looks like 2013 might get him even more. He’ll be 31 in August, and with this likely being his one shot at a long-term deal, there’s a lot of incentive for him to put up big numbers and prove to teams that his elbow issues are a thing of the past.

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