There's a mysticism about the walk year. Players entering free agency are supposed to develop a renewed focus and sharpening of the senses. It doesn't have to be about greed and having more than you can spend. It can be about deep-rooted nuggets in our DNA; the people or primates who performed well in the contract years of the jungle, so to speak, were more likely to pass their genes along.
Except the myth of the walk year is probably just a myth. Individuals and teams have been desperately searching for a connection between walk years and improved production. Baseball Prospectus found a possible, but slight link. The St. Louis Cardinals are convinced there isn't a link. People have devoted thousands and thousands of hours trying to figure out if the effect is real, only to find out that if it's real, it's small.
There are three pending-free-agent outfielders who don't care if it isn't real. Every time they hit a ball, it makes a cash-register sound. If I had to guess, I'd say each of their values is at least $10 million higher right now than at the start of the season. Those values might go back down as the season progresses, but right now they're making themselves wealthier and wealthier by hitting better than anyone could have guessed. The three:
Winning sure does make you forget a lot. Remember when Don Mattingly and Ethier were trading public jabs about the outfielder's knee? Or when he suggested that if he didn't play well, the Dodgers wouldn't have a problem non-tendering him?Of course not. Because the Dodgers are winning, and Ethier is hitting. One big ol' happy family.
After the knee kerfuffle last season, Ethier hit .252/.339/.333 in 159 second-half at-bats before being shut down for the season. Scary second-half production combined with a knee injury? He probably wouldn't have received more than a two-year deal if he were cut loose. Maybe three if another team was feeling froggy.
Now? The knee's fine and Ethier is rolling, hitting .333/.390/.585 with nine homers and a league-leading 44 RBI. And, say, that new Dodgers ownership is sure looking to spend some money this offseason. Good timing.
There was a time when Cabrera was a punchline. He fit with the Royals like a drugged-out semi-star and a VH1 show. When a pile of garbage meets a pile of garbage comin' thro' the rye. Ha ha, good ol' Royals. And terrible, terrible Melky. Ha! Remember this?
Oh, those wacky Royals, always selflessly giving chances to the under-talented.
Except Cabrera hit. He hit quite a bit. He was excellent for the Royals last year.
Fine, the skeptics said. Do it again. And so far this year, he has. In May, he was absolutely ridiculous.
He's not exactly in line for an Alfonso Soriano contract yet. But Cabrera is younger than you probably think -- just 27 years old. A five-year deal -- unthinkable two months ago, much less this time last year -- isn't out of the question if he comes even close to matching his production from last year. And he's off to a heckva start.
That long-term contract Hamilton wanted from the Rangers? Gone. It has to be.
Now Hamilton is the toast of baseball, hitting 21 home runs before June, and transcending what he was doing even in his MVP season. Before the first two months of the season:
Hamilton's agent: I understand that it's a complicated melange of things -- his injury history, his off-field concerns, how his swing-first approach will respond to the slowing reflexes that come with age …
Rangers: Sure, sure.
Hamilton's agent: But I think Josh is a good long-term fit for your franchise.
Hamilton's agent: We would like all of the money.
Rangers: All of it?
Hamilton's agent: All of the money.
Rangers: Would you accept most of the money?
Hamilton's agent: No.
Rangers: We don't have all of the money.
Hamilton's agent: ...
Rangers: Okay, okay. We're making some phone calls. Hold on.
There was a time -- not that long ago! -- when people were wondering if Hamilton was going to get a crazy deal. Yep. He probably will. We'll debate his value and the fit he'd have with different teams, and then the actual figure will knock the wind out of us, like the Prince Fielder deal.
There are other players who have improved their value, but none quite like Josh Hamilton. He'll get that nine-figure payday, just a few months after he probably wondered if anyone would even consider it.