Contract-year players to watch in 2009

Money-money-money-money, muhhhhh-nay!

Even in these troubling economic times, the almighty dollar sure has a way of motivating players to take that extra step, go that extra mile, give that extra effort. Just ask Milton Bradley, A.J. Burnett, Ryan Dempster, Manny Ramirez and CC Sabathia, who parlayed huge 2008 campaigns into solid -- if not as monstrous as in winters past -- free-agent paydays. Every one of them scored a contract of $30-plus million; talk about a bailout!

In the fantasy realm, these are the guys we call "contract-year players," an extensive list of career-year performers that includes such monumental seasons as Adrian Beltre's 2004, Bret Boone's 2001 and Javy Lopez's 2003. Now, I'm not one to make such a blanket statement as "contract-year players always excel" -- there's always an exception -- but the evidence that there's a little truth to the idea is substantial.

To put it in terms anyone could understand, if you knew that a standout year in your profession might lead to a huge payday come review time, wouldn't you put forth a little extra effort? That's just what I'd expect some of the names below to do in 2009.

To help guide you, I've broken down 2009's free-agent class by group:

Contract-year best bets: My best value choices for 2009.
The studs: The big boys set to hit the open market.
Affordable team options: Players with cost-effective options for 2010.
Motivated healers: Injury risks who could bounce back in 2009.
Might retire: This one is pretty self-explanatory.
Best of the rest: Anyone else of fantasy significance.

Contract-year best bets

The 12 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 12 will earn the most fantasy dollars of the 2009 contract-year class; I'm saying that these 12 should be the best value selections of the year's crop.

Rick Ankiel, OF, Cardinals: He's a Scott Boras client, and Boras' clients have a heck of a track record generating massive contract years and earning the big bucks on the free-agent market (Manny Ramirez most recently). Ankiel, entering only his second full major league season as a hitter, could really stand a repeat or step forward to prove to teams that he's a legitimate power source. Encouraging: He has 31 homers in his past 150 games.

Erik Bedard, SP, Mariners: Teams that seek his services come next winter will wonder which is the real Bedard: the Cy Young candidate of 2007 or the brittle pitcher who made only 15 starts in 2008? His command might be shaky so far this spring -- he has nine walks and a hit batsman in 11 1/3 innings -- but he'll want to do everything possible to prove he's not a one-year wonder.

Adrian Beltre, 3B, Mariners: The last time he was a contract-year player, in 2004, he batted .334 with 48 home runs and 121 RBIs in a season for the ages, one that made him a poster boy for lists like these. Now he's due for free agency again at season's end, and he's coming off a three-year span in which he batted .270 and averaged 25 home runs, 88 RBIs, 11 stolen bases and 83 runs scored. Plus, he'll turn just 30 years old on April 7.

Johnny Damon, OF, Yankees: The difference between the Damon of 2005, his last contract year, and 2009 is that he's no longer capable of manning center field on a regular basis. As a left fielder, he can be a valuable asset if he continues to get on base at a .350-plus clip and hit 15-20 homers, but anything less and he'll be in danger of having to settle for a substantial pay cut. A repeat of his 2008 would do wonders for his free-agent value.

Jermaine Dye, OF, White Sox: If the White Sox were serious about trading him straight up for Homer Bailey this winter, take it as a sign they plan to decline his $12 million option for 2010, making him a free agent at season's end. This is probably Dye's last chance at a big payday, and he'll play his contract year in a ballpark perfect for inflating power numbers. He has averaged 34 homers and 95 RBIs the past four seasons.

Chone Figgins, 3B, Angels: Though his stolen-base total has declined in each of the past three seasons, Figgins remains one of the better performers in the category the past decade. And if there's any category in which added motivation might pay huge dividends, it's stolen bases. He'll surely be begging for a green light more often.

Khalil Greene, SS, Cardinals: He must be thrilled to have escaped Petco Park before his contract-year season, because in his career he's a .225 hitter with a .658 OPS there, compared to .270 and .802 everywhere else. Now Greene actually stands a chance at a productive walk year, and the fact he's batting .413 with a .556 slugging percentage in the spring helps build the case for him to rebound.

Kevin Gregg, RP, Cubs: Gee, I can't figure out why he wanted to close. Might it be the price tag a hefty saves total can earn a pitcher on the free-agent market? (Case in point: Compare the 2008 ERA, WHIP and save totals of Brandon Lyon and Juan Cruz, and tell me how their contract differential makes sense.) Well, now Gregg has his chance, and in addition to walk-year motivation, he'll be fighting daily to hold off one of the most talented set-up men in the game, Carlos Marmol, from stealing his job.

Rich Harden, SP, Cubs: Bad chicken salad isn't going to keep him off the mound during the regular season. Harden might be as much of a health risk as anyone, but the lure of a big free-agent contract will probably convince him to press through minor ailments. I'm a little less worried about him this year, and a little more next year, as a result.

Brett Myers, SP, Phillies: He couldn't have finished the 2008 season on a stronger note, having won nine of 16 starts with a 3.35 ERA (postseason included) after a midseason tune-up in the minors. Now a world champion, again in the Phillies fans' good graces and in his prime at age 28, Myers might be this year's most attractive contract-year candidate.

Xavier Nady, OF, Yankees: Another Boras client, Nady needs to continue his growth pattern of the past four seasons -- his home runs, RBIs and OPS have improved every year since 2004 -- if he wants to demonstrate he's a solid starting outfielder instead of merely an above-average one. At least he's in a lineup that will offer him a chance at a 100-RBI season; he had 40 in 59 games for the Yankees in 2008.

Jose Valverde, RP, Astros: He has paced all National Leaguers in saves in each of the past two seasons, and he's one of two relievers to have saved 40 or more games in both (new $37 million man Francisco Rodriguez is the other). With one more, Valverde would head into 2010 as the most attractive free-agent closer on the market. Doubt him if you wish, but he had 19 saves and a 0.70 ERA in his final 27 games of 2008.

Sleepers: Russell Branyan, 3B, Mariners; Marlon Byrd, OF, Rangers; Mark DeRosa, 2B/3B/OF, Indians; Mike Gonzalez, RP, Braves; Joel Pineiro, SP, Cardinals; J.J. Putz, RP, Mets ($8.6 million option, $1 million buyout); Fernando Rodney, RP, Tigers.

The studs

As things stand today, the 2009 free-agent crop appears to lack the star-caliber talent that this past winter's did, and in today's economy only the very elite seem to be certain bets for huge paydays. Nevertheless, the following five players are names you know and expect great 2009 campaigns from, but their status is worth keeping in mind, especially as a few might land on the midseason trade market.

Jason Bay, OF, Red Sox
Vladimir Guerrero, OF, Angels
Matt Holliday, OF, Athletics
John Lackey, SP, Angels

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 that they will get re-upped, barring something unforeseen, are nearly 100 percent:

Josh Beckett, SP, Red Sox: $12 million vesting option if he makes 28 starts in 2009, $2 million buyout
Carl Crawford, OF, Rays: $10 million option, $1.25 million buyout
Ramon Hernandez, C, Reds: $8.5 million option, $1 million buyout
Akinori Iwamura, 2B, Rays: $4.25 million option (can increase to $5.25 million based upon unspecified number of plate appearances), $250,000 buyout (can increase to $750,000 based upon unspecified number of plate appearances)
Cliff Lee, SP, Indians: $9 million option, $1 million buyout
Victor Martinez, C, Indians: $7 million option, $250,000 buyout
Manny Ramirez, OF, Dodgers: $20 million player option
Brandon Webb, SP, Diamondbacks: $8.5 million option, $2 million buyout (can increase to $2.5 million if he finishes in the top five in the NL Cy Young voting in 2009)

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 players motivated to remain on the field in 2009:

Rocco Baldelli, OF, Red Sox: Decent AL-only matchups play in that outfield
Hank Blalock, 1B/3B, Rangers: Last chance to capitalize on Texas bandbox?
Bartolo Colon, SP, White Sox: Could break camp as the team's No. 5 starter
Troy Glaus, 3B, Cardinals: Out until May, but no reason to be lax with rehab
Alex Gonzalez, SS, Reds: Working to earn his $6 million option for 2010
Nick Johnson, 1B, Nationals: Surprisingly healthy and productive in spring
Hideki Matsui, OF, Yankees: DH role should at least minimize the health risk
Carl Pavano, SP, Indians: Perpetually injured, but hey, you never know
Brad Penny, SP, Red Sox: If healthy, he's Boston's fifth starter
Rafael Soriano, RP, Braves: Both Braves closer hopefuls are in contract years
Chad Tracy, 1B, Diamondbacks: Should want his $7 million option picked up

The year-to-year gang

In this past winter's financial landscape, signing a one-year deal only to test the free-agent waters next winter seemed a very popular strategy. It's tough to make a case for a "contract-year" player having that approach in back-to-back seasons, but some of these players' signing strategies did suggest an approach of "let's just try this again next winter":

Bobby Abreu, OF, Angels
Garret Anderson, OF, Braves
Orlando Cabrera, SS, Athletics
Joe Crede, 3B, Twins
David Eckstein, 2B/SS, Padres
Jon Garland, SP, Diamondbacks ($10 million mutual option, $2.5 million buyout if the team declines, $1 million buyout if he declines)
Jason Giambi, 1B, Athletics ($6.5 million option, $1.25 million buyout)
Ken Griffey Jr., OF, Mariners
Jerry Hairston Jr., OF/SS, Reds
Mike Hampton, SP, Astros
Orlando Hudson, 2B, Dodgers
Braden Looper, SP, Brewers ($6 million option, $750,000 buyout; can increase to $6.5 million option, $1 million buyout if he pitches 180 innings in 2009)
Felipe Lopez, 2B, Diamondbacks
Brandon Lyon, RP, Tigers
Chan Ho Park, SP/RP, Phillies
Jason Varitek, C, Red Sox ($5 million club option, $3 million player option plus up to $2 million in incentives)
Randy Wolf, SP, Dodgers
Gregg Zaun, C, Orioles ($2 million option, $500,000 buyout)

Might retire

Don't put too much stock in contract-year status for these eight; 2009 might be it!

Tom Glavine, SP, Braves: I'm surprised he didn't retire this past winter!
Trevor Hoffman, RP, Brewers: Could oblique strain get him thinking?
Randy Johnson, SP, Giants: C'mon, he's 45, and will get to 300 wins this year.
Troy Percival, RP, Rays: He'll turn 40 in August, and is a big health risk.
Andy Pettitte, SP, Yankees: Took him awhile to decide to play this year.
Ivan Rodriguez, C, Astros: Nearly failed to find work this year.
Gary Sheffield, DH, Tigers: How much more can he have in the tank?
John Smoltz, SP, Red Sox: One-year deal signals his swan-song season.

Best of the rest

Rod Barajas, C, Blue Jays
Miguel Batista, SP/RP, Mariners
Ronnie Belliard, 1B/2B/3B, Nationals
Rafael Betancourt, RP, Indians ($5.4 million option)
Geoff Blum, 3B, Astros
Daniel Cabrera, SP, Nationals
Mike Cameron, OF, Brewers
Ramon Castro, C, Mets
Endy Chavez, OF, Mariners
Jose Contreras, SP, White Sox
Alex Cora, SS, Mets
Craig Counsell, 3B/SS, Brewers
Coco Crisp, OF, Royals ($8 million option, $500,000 buyout)
Bobby Crosby, SS, Athletics
Doug Davis, SP, Diamondbacks
Carlos Delgado, 1B, Mets
Octavio Dotel, RP, White Sox
Justin Duchscherer, SP, Athletics
Adam Eaton, SP, Orioles
Darin Erstad, OF, Astros
Kelvim Escobar, SP/RP, Angels
Adam Everett, SS, Tigers
Pedro Feliz, 3B, Phillies ($5 million option, $500,000 buyout)
Ryan Franklin, RP, Cardinals ($2.75 million option, $250,000 buyout)
Brian Giles, OF, Padres
John Grabow, RP, Pirates
Eric Hinske, OF, Pirates
Tim Hudson, SP, Braves ($12 million mutual option, $1 million buyout)
Aubrey Huff, 3B/1B, Orioles
Geoff Jenkins, OF, Phillies ($7.5 million mutual option, $1.25 million buyout)
Reed Johnson, OF, Cubs
Jorge Julio, RP, Brewers
Austin Kearns, OF, Nationals ($10 million option, $1 million buyout)
Jason Kendall, C, Brewers
Mike Lamb, 3B, Brewers
Adam LaRoche, 1B, Pirates
Jason Marquis, SP, Rockies
Kevin Millwood, SP, Rangers ($12 million vesting option if he reaches 180 innings pitched in 2009)
Brian Moehler, SP, Astros (mutual option with specifics unknown)
Bengie Molina, C, Giants
Melvin Mora, 3B, Orioles ($8 million option, $1 million buyout)
Miguel Olivo, C, Royals ($3.25 million mutual option)
Magglio Ordonez, OF, Tigers ($18 million vesting option if he reaches 126 games started or 457 plate appearances in 2009, otherwise $15 million team option with $3 million buyout; $15 million option for 2011 can also vest based on 2009 performance)
Vicente Padilla, SP, Rangers ($12 million option, $1.75 million buyout)
Wily Mo Pena, OF, Nationals
Placido Polanco, 2B, Tigers
Freddy Sanchez, 2B, Pirates ($8 million vesting option if he reaches 635 plate appearances, or 600 and makes the All-Star team, $600,000 buyout; option includes incentives based upon PAs and award/All-Star status)
Jason Schmidt, SP, Dodgers
Brian Schneider, C, Mets
Marco Scutaro, 2B/3B/SS, Blue Jays
Matt Stairs, OF, Phillies
Fernando Tatis, OF, Mets
Miguel Tejada, SS, Astros
Jim Thome, DH, White Sox
Billy Wagner, RP, Mets ($8 million option, $1 million buyout)
Tim Wakefield, SP, Red Sox (team holds perpetual $4 million option)
Jarrod Washburn, SP, Mariners
Todd Wellemeyer, SP, Cardinals
Jack Wilson, SS, Pirates ($8.4 million option, $600,000 buyout)
Randy Winn, OF, Giants
Dmitri Young, 1B, Nationals ($6 million vesting option if he reaches 500 plate appearances in 2009)

ESPN.com fantasy baseball analyst Tristan H. Cockcroft is a two-time LABR champion, most recently winning in 2008. You can e-mail him here.