Make Or Break Contract Years

What’s the most fun part of any baseball offseason? Free-agent signings, of course. How much longer and colder would this winter have felt if we couldn’t have bandied around theories and predictions for where Robinson CanoShin-Soo Choo, and Jacoby Ellsbury would end up, then judge the impact they’ll have after they signed?

Of course, those players are only interesting now because they’re coming off big seasons, since a poorly timed down season can kill a free agent’s value. For example, a season ago, Chris Perezwas coming off his second consecutive All-Star Game appearance and a career-high 39 saves. Yet after a 2013 that saw him post career worsts in ERA, FIP, and WAR –while losing his closer’s job in September — he was forced to settle for a mere $2.3 million guaranteed to work in middle relief for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

With no-doubter stars like Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez no longer a part of next winter’s market due to contract extensions, we’re going to be seeing a lot of second-level guys who need to make a huge splash in 2014 if they hope to land huge contracts. Here’s a look at four players who need to excel to avoid being the next Perez.

Chase Headley, 3B | San Diego Padres

In 2011, Headley had a perfectly fine season, contributing 2.3 WAR to the Padres but doing so with only four homers. In 2012, he exploded, crushing 31 homers while playing good defense and ranking behind only David Wright among all third basemen with 7.2 WAR. Then, in 2013, slowed by a broken thumb and a sore knee that eventually required surgery, he put up a .250/.347/.400 line that was his worst of the previous three seasons.

As Headley enters his age-30 season, he’s going to have to do more than ignore the never-ending trade scenarios that swirl around him. He’s going to have to prove he can stay healthy and be consistent, because, at the moment, anyone interested in him can’t be sure which Headley they’re going to get.

Fortunately for Headley, the market should work in his favor. At the moment, the only third baseman under the age of 35 who is even remotely as talented as Headley and headed for free agency next winter is Pablo Sandoval, and there’s more than a few contenders with needs at the position. The Angels and Yankees might be looking for upgrades during or following the season, and the Dodgers, Pirates, and Nationals could all come calling if their current options fail or are moved across the diamond to first base. Now it’s up to Headley to build the demand.

Colby Rasmus, CF | Toronto Blue Jays

Rasmus has had a distinct career to this point, because, after a breakout 2010 season — .276/.361/.498, 4.0 WAR — he was brutal in 2011-12, combining for just 1.6 WAR and a poor .224/.293/.396 line amid conflicts with St. Louis management and a trade to Toronto. He then bounced back to have one of the quietest great years in the big leagues last season, hitting .276/.338/.501 with 23 homers and 4.8 WAR despite playing in just 118 games thanks to an oblique strain and a freak throw to the face.

Rasmus doesn’t turn 28 until August, meaning that he’ll reach free agency in his prime, and a center fielder who can field the position and add offense is a very valuable asset, as Jacoby Ellsbury just showed. But in addition to his up-and-down past, Rasmus is going to have to prove that 2013 wasn’t just a well-timed fluke: His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was a high .356, or about what it was in his only other good season of 2010. That’s about 100 points higher than in his down seasons, although BABIP isn’t solely a function of good luck — a career-high 22 percent line drive rate lends some credence to the idea that he was making better contact, thus leading to more hits.

Either way, his 2014 performance could easily make a difference on the scale of tens of millions of dollars on the market.

Asdrubal Cabrera, SS | Cleveland Indians

A case of peaking too early? In 2011, a 25-year-old Cabrera made himself into a star by hitting 25 homers while stealing 17 bags and scoring 87 times, to go with a .273/.332/.460 line. In two seasons since, he’s had 30 homers total, and he managed just a .299 OBP last season along with less-than-impressive defense, making him barely better than a replacement-level player.

Due to the name value he built up in 2011, he’ll drive interest on the market, but there are a wide range of possible outcomes, particularly if a team decides he no longer has the range for shortstop.

Step one for Cabrera is merely getting the bat on the ball, since his contact rate fell below 80 percent last season and his strikeout rate increased in kind. That will happen when you offer at five percent more pitches outside of the strike zone than the season before, and a return to simple plate discipline could do wonders, though it’s difficult to see 2011 happening again.

As with Headley, Cabrera’s stock will be improved by his ability to play a position that’s hard to fill. But in a career dating back to 2007, Cabrera has had two very good seasons (2009, 2011), one solid one (2012) and several uninspiring ones. It’s up to him to prove in 2014 that he’s worth paying for the future.

Josh Johnson, RHP | San Diego Padres

A year ago, Johnson was one of the centerpieces of the massive deal between theMiami Marlins and Toronto, expected to help the win-now Blue Jays beat out the beasts of the AL East. It didn’t work out for either side; Johnson made only 16 starts (with a 6.20 ERA) and didn’t pitch after Aug. 6 thanks to a strained right forearm. When he did pitch, he did so with limited velocity, a huge red flag for a pitcher who has now missed big chunks of both 2011 and 2013 with arm injuries, as well as most of 2007 and 2008 due to Tommy John surgery.

Johnson keeps getting a chance because of how good he can be when he’s on; over 2009-10, he was one of the 10 best pitchers in the game, and he was still solidly above average during a mostly healthy 2012. So off he goes on a one-year deal to San Diego, the traditional home for broken pitchers looking to get well again.

If Johnson can show he’s healthy and effective as a Padre in his age-30 season, then some team desperate for pitching will take an expensive chance on him after the season. If not, he might be looking at one-year deals for the rest of whatever career he has remaining.

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or
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Matthew Tobin

How did you figure Headley was more make or break than Sandoval?