Neil Walker’s 2016 season perfectly highlights the potential risks/rewards associated with contract years for players. In his 2016 “walk year”, Neil Walker was posting the best numbers of his professional career. His .282/.347/.476 slash line represents his highest ever. His 23 long balls tied a career high. Neil was stepping up his performance when it mattered most. But the news that he will have season-ending back surgery to fix a herniated disk is a reminder of how quickly the potential financial rewards for on-field performance can evaporate once injury red flags are thrown into the mix.
The walk year talk is especially relevant for the Mets when you consider their prospective roster for the 2017 season. If the Mets pick up all contract options and tender deals to their arbitration eligible players for 2017, as currently constructed, the Mets will have Jay Bruce, Asdrubal Cabrera, Lucas Duda, Curtis Granderson, Addison Reed, and Jose Reyes playing for a contract. Duda and Reed are playing for their first big payday. Reed has a chance to score a 3-4 year deal as a closer if he has a big 2017. Duda will need to return to his slugging form to show the masses that his back woes are a temporary ailment. Bruce will be a free agent for the first time.
After his poor 2016, Grandy’s 2017 play may be the difference between him scoring one more lucrative 2 or 3 year deal or him fighting to get one year contracts each season until he retires. Cabrera is a veteran in a similar spot as Grandy. The Mets have a 2018 option on Cabrera, but if he struggles they’ll just buy it out. For Jose Reyes, the truth is his off the field actions almost got him blacklisted from the sport. But if his current 2016 performance carries over into 2017 and he has a big year, he’ll probably receive another big payday from some club (not likely to be the Mets but who knows).
Despite his injury, it’s hard to ignore the uptick in Neil Walkyear’s 2016 performance. There’s no doubt that the Mets will be hoping for similar increases in production in 2017 from all the aforementioned players. The contract year phenomenon is consistently discussed and debated in the context of free agency in sports. There’s been plenty of studies conducted regarding the contract year phenomenon that indicate the impact on player performance is somewhere between overhyped to non-existent. Some research shows that the overall impact to batting stats in the contract year are negligible while the year after the contract is signed batting stats historically diminish.
There’s also plenty of examples of players raising their game with a payday on the horizon. Nelson Cruz did that in 2014 when he signed a one year 8 million dollar deal with the Orioles after his steroid suspension. He went on to hit 40 homers, drive in 108 RBIs and slash .271/.333/.525. Then he scored a 4 year 57m dollar deal with Seattle. In 2011 Matt Kemp, in the final year of a 2 year deal, went on to finish second in the MVP voting. He hit 39 home runs, drove in 126 RBIs and stole 40 bases. He slashed .324/.399/.586. He posted career highs across the board. Then he scored a 8 year 160 million dollar extension.
There have also been plenty of Mets with walk year success. In 2009 and 2010 Carlos Beltran played 81 and 64 games respectively. He was plagued by injuries. Then in 2011 before he hit free agency he played 142 games and slashed .300/.385/.525. He hit 22 homers, drove in 84 runs and was traded by the Mets at the deadline for Zack Wheeler. Then he scored a 2 year 26 million dollar deal with the Cardinals. Beltran is no stranger to the walk year explosion (see 2004: 38 homers, 104 RBIs, Mr. October run and resulting 7 year 119m dollar contract). Hell Beltran is having an incredible walk year right now at 39 years old.
Jose Reyes, Daniel Murphy, and Yoenis Cespedes are some other examples. Jose won the batting title in 2011 right before he signed his mega-deal (6 years 106m) with the Marlins. We all know Daniel Murphy is having an MVP season right now, but last season was his walk year with the Mets. And until this season, his 2015 regular season combined with his postseason home run barrage represented the best stretch of baseball in his career. Yoenis Cespedes for two years in a row now has put up big time walk year numbers (assuming he opts-out of his 3 year deal at the end of the season). In his last 162 games he’s hit 46 home runs, driven in 115 RBIs and slashed .293/.354/.592.
Sure for every walk year success story there’s probably a corresponding bust (see Denard Span 2015 injury-fest, Ian Desmond 2015 performance drop-off, and Carlos Gomez 2016 poor season). But I’ll take the extra player motivation any day of the week. The contract year certainly doesn’t guarantee anything, but as Sparky Anderson once said “Just give me 25 guys on the last year of their contracts; I’ll win a pennant every year.” Based on the current roster construction it would appear that Sandy Alderson feels the same way.