Contract-year players to watch in 2008

Money talks.

Don't believe it? Ask Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, Torii Hunter, Aaron Rowand and Mike Lowell, who parlayed big 2007s into huge winter paydays; they netted a combined $514.9 million in contract dollars this winter. To a lesser extent, guys like Kaz Matsui and Troy Percival cashed in, too; their deals totaled $24.5 million.

It's not only the 2007-08 free-agent class that demonstrates the lure of what we in the fantasy realm like to call the "contract-year player." History is littered with players who stepped up their performances en route to huge winter paydays (reference Javy Lopez's 2003, Bret Boone's 2001 and Darryl Kile's 1997).

Not that every contract-year player is destined for greatness. Andruw Jones and Freddy Garcia proved that in 2007. Granted, Jones coaxed a sweet deal out of the Dodgers despite his down year, but Garcia remains on the free-agent market as he recovers from shoulder surgery that limited him to 11 starts a year ago.

Now, I'll admit, I'm not one to treat blanket statements like "all contract-year players excel" as gospel; there's an exception to every such rule. But there's enough evidence that pending free agency elicits added effort out of a player, so when you're making those tough calls between similar players, it's absolutely something to consider.

You might not think baseball players are capable of stepping up their efforts -- I've heard that counterclaim before -- but it's amazing what adrenaline can do sometimes. Think of it this way: If you knew a standout year in your profession might lead to a huge payday come review time, wouldn't you try to muster some extra effort?

To help guide you, I've broken down the 2008-09 free-agent class by group:

Contract-year best bets: My best value choices for 2008.
The studs: The big boys set to hit the open market.
Affordable team options: Players with cost-effective options for 2009.
Motivated healers: Injury risks who could bounce back in 2008.
Might retire: This one's pretty self-explanatory.
Best of the rest: Anyone else of fantasy significance.

Contract-year best bets

The 11 names below offer the most appealing combination of ability, opportunity and motivation, key traits of the contract-year standout. Not that I'm saying that these 11 will earn the most fantasy dollars of the 2008 contract-year class; I'm saying that these 11 should be the best value selections of the year's crop.

Milton Bradley, OF, Rangers: To give you a sense of what he could do if healthy: In his last 150 games, Bradley batted .291 with 27 homers, 86 RBIs, 14 steals and an .874 OPS. He expects to be ready as a DH at the very least by Opening Day, and the Rangers boast a hitter-friendly home ballpark. There's big-time upside here.

A.J. Burnett, SP, Blue Jays: He can opt out of the final two years of his contract next winter, and at $12 million each in 2009 and 2010, Burnett is probably a (relative) bargain. Toss in the fact that in July, his own general manager publicly questioned his desire to pitch through pain, and it's looking likely the right-hander will test the free-agent waters. Burnett's 2007 numbers, by the way, don't do justice to how well he pitched.

Pat Burrell, OF, Phillies: Speaking of players oft-criticized in their home towns, Burrell has been the subject of cat calls for years in Philly for "underperforming." However, those who stop to examine his exploits closely realize that he's an on-base percentage machine, while that ballpark should make him good for another easy 30 homers.

Mark Ellis, 2B, Athletics: One positive about the Athletics' winter fire sale was that it increased the chances Ellis will occupy a run-producing spot in the 2008 lineup. He batted .292 with 16 homers from June 1 on last year and is a serious bargain bet this season.

Rafael Furcal, SS, Dodgers: What would really help boost Furcal's fantasy stock is not necessarily his contract-year status, but a return to the leadoff spot, where he'd no longer need to worry about taking pitches to allow Juan Pierre opportunities to steal bases, and he'd get more chances to run on his own. In other words, keep tabs on Pierre's role in March, though Furcal knows this might be his last chance at a big payday.

Jon Garland, SP, Angels: Getting out of Chicago helped Garland on two fronts: (1) he'll have a stronger all-around team watching his back, and (2) he escaped one of the game's most homer-friendly parks for a fairly pitching-friendly one. I'm not a huge Garland fan because of his low strikeout total, but a return to 18 wins from both 2005 and 2006 is possible.

Kenji Johjima, C, Mariners: Despite two years' MLB service time, Johjima goes up for free agency next winter as a player who migrated from Japan. He's one of the game's better catchers and most of the others in that class are either aging, locked up long-term or candidates for a position shift. Surely, Johjima is aware that with a standout 2008, he can cash in big-time now that teams have seen he can hack it in the States.

Brad Lidge, RP, Phillies: Knee surgery puts him at slight risk to begin the season, but Lidge has plenty of critics to answer to coming off back-to-back disappointing years. He'll be primed for a quick recovery and could thrive with a fresh start for a contender.

Felipe Lopez, 2B/SS, Nationals: Sure, his 2007 was dreadful, but look at the competition in the Nationals' middle infield and ask yourself, do you really believe more in Ronnie Belliard, Cristian Guzman or -- gasp -- even Bret Boone? The team's new ballpark should help Lopez's cause, and at 28, he's in the prime of his career.

Derek Lowe, SP, Dodgers: He has been remarkably consistent in his three years in Los Angeles, deviating no further than 14 points off a 3.75 ERA or one point from a 1.26 WHIP in any season. That might have you convinced he's locked in as more of a No. 3/4-type fantasy starter, but having seen a guy like Carlos Silva command $12 million per year this winter, Lowe could easily step his efforts up a notch in 2008.

Oliver Perez, SP, Mets: Though he won his arbitration case this winter, Perez might be miffed the Mets took it that far and would be primed to prove his career-high 15 wins with a 3.56 ERA and 174 K's in 2007 weren't a fluke. Granted, he's a WHIP risk, but if he buckles down and stays focused, there's no reason he can't at least match last year's rates.

Sleepers: Michael Barrett, C, Padres; Juan Cruz, RP, Diamondbacks; Ryan Dempster, SP, Cubs; Bob Howry, RP, Cubs; Jason Jennings, SP, Rangers; Brandon Lyon, RP, Diamondbacks; Juan Rivera, OF, Angels; and Dan Wheeler, RP, Rays.

The studs

As things stand today, the following seven players represent the probable cream of the 2008-09 free-agent crop. Not that you didn't know any of these guys or weren't expecting great 2008 campaigns from them in the first place, but their status is worth keeping in mind, especially as a few might land on the midseason trade market.

Bobby Abreu, OF, Yankees
Adam Dunn, OF, Reds
Joe Nathan, RP, Twins
Manny Ramirez*, OF, Red Sox
Francisco Rodriguez, RP, Angels
C.C. Sabathia, SP, Indians
Ben Sheets, SP, Brewers
Mark Teixeira, 1B, Braves
* The Red Sox hold $20 million options on Ramirez for both the 2009 and 2010 seasons, but those could prove steep prices. That he recently switched agents to Scott Boras demonstrates he's motivated for a big payday if not re-upped.

Affordable team options

The problem with increasing your fantasy investments on players with team options is that in the event the player outperforms expectations, he's a virtual certainty to have the option picked up at season's end. So, while these names might look like appealing contract-year candidates, consider that their options are affordable (by today's standards) and the chances of them getting re-upped, barring something unforeseen, are nearly 100 percent:

Hank Blalock, 3B, Rangers: $6.2 million option, $250,000 buyout
Carl Crawford, OF, Rays: $8.25 million option, $2.5 million buyout; if it's exercised, he'll have a $10 million option for 2010 ($1.25 million buyout)
Vladimir Guerrero, OF, Angels: $15 million option, $3 million buyout
Chipper Jones, 3B, Braves: $8 million to $11 million vesting option based upon plate appearances in 2008
John Lackey, SP, Angels: $9 million option, could rise as high as $10.5 million based on 2008 Cy Young voting, $500,000 buyout
Wily Mo Pena, OF, Nationals: $5 million team option, $2 million player option
Brad Penny, SP, Dodgers: $9.25 million option, $2 million buyout
Edgar Renteria, SS, Tigers: $11 million option, $3 million buyout (the latter paid by the Red Sox as part of an earlier trade arrangement)
John Smoltz, SP, Braves: $12 million vesting option if he reaches 200 innings pitched in 2008; if it's exercised, he'll have a $13 million option for 2010 if he reaches 200 innings pitched in 2009, $12 million if he falls short

Motivated healers

Not that a player can entirely control his health, but when it comes to rehabilitation programs or playing through pain, the lure of a winter's payday could be enough to keep the following seven names motivated to remain on the field in 2008:

Rocco Baldelli, OF, Rays: Has played 127 games combined from 2005-07
Joe Crede, 3B, White Sox: A trade -- perhaps to the Giants -- would help
Eric Gagne, RP, Brewers: 16 saves, 2.16 ERA for Rangers to begin 2007
Jon Lieber, SP, Cubs: 3.62 ERA in 70 career games at Wrigley Field
Mark Prior, SP, Padres: Fantasy's biggest wild card among injured pitchers
Randy Wolf, SP, Padres: Move to Petco Park should help this fly-ball pitcher
Kerry Wood, RP, Cubs: Will be in the mix to close this spring

Might retire

Don't put too much stock in contract-year status for these nine; 2008 might be it!

Tom Glavine, SP, Braves: Didn't add 2009 option to 2008 one-year deal
Randy Johnson, SP, Diamondbacks: Another back problem and he's done
Jeff Kent, 2B, Dodgers: Earlier rumors had him iffy to return this year
Greg Maddux, SP, Padres: Already talking as if this is his final year
Pedro Martinez, SP, Mets: Before surgery, he sounded like 2008 would be it
Jamie Moyer, SP, Phillies: Actually doesn't sound ready to retire
Mike Mussina, SP, Yankees: Pitching like a man ready for retirement
Andy Pettitte, SP, Yankees: Might he get fed up with HGH distractions?
Kenny Rogers, SP, Tigers: Keeps saying "this might be my last year"

Best of the rest

Moises Alou, OF, Mets
Rich Aurilia, 1B/3B, Giants
Garret Anderson, OF, Angels ($14 million option, $3 million buyout)
Casey Blake, 3B, Indians
Joe Borowski, RP, Indians
Paul Byrd, SP, Indians
Orlando Cabrera, SS, White Sox
Mike Cameron, OF, Brewers ($10 million option, $750,000 buyout)
Carlos Delgado, 1B, Mets ($12 million option, $4 million buyout)
Ray Durham, 2B, Giants
David Eckstein, SS, Blue Jays
Jim Edmonds, OF, Padres
Johnny Estrada, C, Nationals
Adam Everett, SS, Twins
Cliff Floyd, OF, Rays ($3 million option with incentives for up to $4.5 million, $250,000 buyout)
Josh Fogg, SP, Reds
Brian Fuentes, RP, Rockies
Nomar Garciaparra, 1B/3B, Dodgers
Jason Giambi, DH, Yankees ($22 million option, $5 million buyout)
Brian Giles, OF, Padres ($9 million option, $3 million buyout)
Luis Gonzalez, OF, Marlins
Tom Gordon, RP, Phillies
Ken Griffey Jr., OF, Reds ($16.5 million option, $4 million buyout)
Mark Grudzielanek, 2B, Royals
Eddie Guardado, RP, Rangers
Livan Hernandez, SP, Twins
Orlando Hernandez, SP, Mets
Trevor Hoffman, RP, Padres
Orlando Hudson, 2B, Diamondbacks
Raul Ibanez, OF, Mariners
Tadahito Iguchi, 2B, Padres
Jason Isringhausen, RP, Cardinals
Jacque Jones, OF, Tigers
Todd Jones, RP, Tigers
Jason Kendall, C, Brewers ($4.25 million option that vests if he starts 110 games in 2008, $4.35 million if he starts 120 and $4.6 million if he starts 130)
Mark Kotsay, OF, Braves
Paul Lo Duca, C, Nationals
Mark Loretta, IF, Astros
Kevin Millar, 1B, Orioles
Matt Morris, SP, Pirates ($9 million option, $1 million buyout)
Mark Mulder, SP, Cardinals ($11 million option, $1.5 million buyout)
Jay Payton, OF, Orioles
Ivan Rodriguez, C, Tigers
David Ross, C, Reds ($3.5 million option, $375,000 buyout)
Richie Sexson, 1B, Mariners
Frank Thomas, DH, Blue Jays ($10 million option that vests with 426 plate appearances in 2008)
Jim Thome, DH, White Sox ($13 million option that vests with 564 plate appearances in 2008, $3 million buyout)
Juan Uribe, SS, White Sox
Jason Varitek, C, Red Sox
Jose Vidro, DH, Mariners (vesting option but details unknown, $500,000 buyout)
Omar Vizquel, SS, Giants ($5.2 million option that vests with 140 games played in 2008, $300,000 buyout)
David Weathers, RP, Reds
Brad Wilkerson, OF/1B, Mariners
Woody Williams, SP, Astros ($6.5 million option, $250,000 buyout)
Gregg Zaun, C, Blue Jays (vesting option based upon unspecified number of games caught in 2008).

Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.