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Tuesday 23rd Jan 2018

On the sixth day following the conclusion of the World Series, (next Tuesday at the latest), something important will happen. On that day, impending free agents will become free agents. Fantasy owners will be keeping a close eye on all of the free agency developments throughout the Hot Stove season, as a change of uniforms can often affect a player's fantasy outlook and expected draft day price. But, the 2017-18 free agent pool is not the focus of this article.

The "contract year" theory has been around for as long as I've been playing fantasy baseball. The theory suggests that a player entering the final year of his contract could be on the verge of a career-best season since he will have extra motivation in his quest to secure a big payday the following winter. Maybe he will train better during the off-season. Maybe he will do a better job of staying focused from April through September. Some fantasy owners pay a lot of attention to the contract year factor while others ignore it entirely. I fall somewhere in the middle, often using it as a tiebreaker if I'm having trouble deciding between two players when devising my pre-draft rankings.

A quick study of this year's free agent class reveals that most of the fantasy relevant players either maintained or improved their stock in 2017. J.D. Martinez, Mike Moustakas, Logan Morrison and Andrew Cashner are the most notable examples on the positive side. On the other hand, we have Jonathan Lucroy, who has plummeted from a top-3 catcher to a questionable top-10 option.

OK, enough about this year. Let's take a look at a handful of names that will be accompanied by a contract year asterisk on my cheat sheet in March.

Wilson Ramos - The Rays took a chance by signing Ramos to a two-year deal last winter despite knowing that he would likely miss half of the 2017 season as he rehabbed from a serious knee injury. Now it's time for the club to be rewarded, as the 30-year-old backstop will enter 2018 with a clean bill of health, this after posting a .260-11-35 line in just 64 games following his late-June return. Ramos, who enjoyed a career-best season in 2016, figures to be undervalued in drafts and offers plenty of upside as a potential 20-plus home run catcher. I'm a big believer in this guy.

Brian Dozier - I avoided drafting Dozier this year, unwilling to pay a premium for a player who was fresh off a 2016 season in which he posted career-highs in home runs (42), RBI (99) and OPS (.886). Well, after slugging 34 homers to go along with 93 RBI, 106 runs scored, 16 steals and a .853 OPS, including 21 homers, 52 RBI and a .301 batting average in the second half, I'm now convinced. The 30-year-old is a legitimate fantasy star deserving of a hefty draft day price.

A.J. Pollock - Only two years ago, Pollock was a solid first-round pick. Now he can be drafted outside of the top-50. Injuries have limited Pollock to just 124 games since the start of 2016, but the Diamondbacks centerfielder did manage to record 14 homers and 20 swipes in only 112 games this past season. He remains somewhat of a health risk, but considering Pollock's five-category production and the discounted price, I'd be willing to take the risk.

Drew Pomeranz - Chris Sale wasn't the only Red Sox starting pitcher who excelled this season. After struggling down the stretch in 2016, Pomeranz notched 17 wins across 32 starts while registering a 3.32 ERA and whiffing more than a batter per inning. Although his walk rate (3.6 BB/9 in '17) could certainly use some improvement, don't be surprised if the 28-year-old southpaw again rewards his fantasy owners with a positive return on investment.

Garrett Richards - It was surely déjà vu for Richards in 2017, as a biceps strain caused him to miss all but six starts, this after he made only six starts in 2016 due to a torn UCL. The good news is that the Angels righty was dominant in September, pitching to a 2.74 ERA and a 0.94 WHIP over five starts while striking out a batter per inning. In his last fully healthy season, Richards posted a 3.65 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP en route to 15 wins, so he clearly has the talent to serve as a quality mid-rotation fantasy hurler. Whether or not he can avoid the DL in 2018 is the question. It's worth a late-round pick to find out.

Zach Steinhorn is the 2016 Mixed Auction Tout Wars champion. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMLB

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