Contending in a contract year: When big bucks and pennant races collide

— -- After spending much of his career in vagabond/survivor mode, Brandon Moss has embraced a more prominent role this season as a main cog for the St. Louis Cardinals. Despite being in the throes of a 1-for-30 slump, Moss is still second on the team to Jedd Gyorko with 25 home runs and has a chance to play a pivotal role in the Cardinals' push for a postseason berth.

With each home run trot, Moss is also looking at life-changing financial security. Before his recent free-fall, several industry observers said a contract in the three-year, $36 million range is a realistic possibility when Moss hits the free-agent market this winter. That's head-spinning stuff for a 33-year-old outfielder-first baseman whose closest career comparable on is Dan Pasqua.?

From an outside perspective, Moss' twin objectives seem incongruous. How can a player in a pennant race maintain the calm and focus necessary to perform while simultaneously knowing his production will help drive the biggest contract of his life? This is the challenge for players who've reached the intersection of commerce, performance and human nature known as the "walk year."

"To be honest, it hasn't entered my mind very often, because you're caught up in the middle of the season," Moss said. "It could end up being the best year you've ever had, and that will be exciting. At the same time, you have a game to play every day. It doesn't really matter until the season is done and you can reflect on it."

Among the 100-plus players on the cusp of free agency, some have a lot more at stake than Moss. Toronto sluggers Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista entered the season competing for the honor of most desirable power hitter on the 2016-2017 free-agent market.

Bautista, who turns 36 in October, has been on the disabled list twice this season and is hitting .228 in 346 at-bats. It would benefit him greatly to close with a flourish and help his agents pitch a more upbeat storyline in a "what have you done for me lately?" world. Encarnacion, 33, has burnished his credentials by putting up strong number (37 homers, 112 RBIs and a .267/.358/.543 slash line). At an All-Star Game news conference, Boston's David Ortiz made waves -- and flirted with a tampering violation -- by lobbying the Red Sox to sign Encarnacion as their next designated hitter.

Carlos Gomez, Andrew Cashner, Brett Anderson and Colby Rasmus are among big leaguers whose financial aspirations have taken a hit with disappointing walk-year numbers this summer. Conversely, Washington catcher Wilson Ramos has raised his stock by posting career-best numbers at age 29, and Baltimore outfielder Mark Trumbo can expect to cash in on his 40-plus homer bonanza.

And it's anybody's guess what October will bring. The 2015 postseason made a big difference for Daniel Murphy, who parlayed a homer-happy October with the New York Mets into a three-year, $37.5 million contract with the Washington Nationals in December.

As a rule, players in their walk years -- or "platform" years -- take pains to say all the right things. They'll insist their agent is doing the heavy lifting and that they're focused exclusively on baseball. But as several players who've gone through the process can attest, they're either fibbing or trying to talk themselves into an alternate reality.

"Players are human,'' Cardinals manager and former big league catcher Mike Matheny?said. "You'd be the same way. If your contract was coming up and you'd have to produce, it would make you extremely rare for it not to be on your mind.

"Everybody is different. I have a couple of friends who just loved the business of baseball. They would know their on-base percentage from the previous at-bat by the time they got back to the dugout. If that's how you're wired, that's fine. But it's going to wear on you mentally, physically and psychologically."

Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth, who signed a seven-year, $126 million deal in December 2010, knows from experience that the pressure of playing for a once-in-a-lifetime contract can put a player on edge. The tension is even higher for players on contending clubs.

"Everything is magnified, whether you like it or not," Werth said. "If you play good, you have a chance to set up your children's children. It's the kind of generational wealth that doesn't come along. Most people don't get chances at that type of wealth. It can definitely mess with your head."

Challenges abound

The carrot of a big contract is a reward for surviving the war of attrition. Most players spend several years in the minors before reaching the big leagues. Then they play three years in the majors before becoming eligible for salary arbitration, and three more after that before hitting the open market. So with the rare exception of a Mike Trout, who signed a $144 million extension with the Los Angeles Angels at 22, most big leaguers have to be patient to hit paydirt.

"It's a mental test," Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer?said. "Everybody is aware of it. You've worked so hard for so long to put yourself in this position. How many guys make it five years in the big leagues? Not many, so even to give yourself an opportunity to get to free agency is an accomplishment.''

Is there such a thing as a "walk year" effect? A 2014 study published by the Society for American Baseball Research determined that the adjusted OPS for players in their contract year increases by 6.7 percent. But the list of breakouts, flops and players who perform to their career norms suggests that pending free agents are subject to the same variables as everyone else in the game.

Injuries are an occupational hazard. Players have family problems, sick kids at home and other daily stresses just like the general population. Ballplayers on contending teams often play before bigger crowds than those who are plugging away for sub-.500 clubs. And luck is always part of the equation. A walk year is the absolute worst time to plummet to the ranks of the BABIP dregs.

Amid those challenges, free-agents-in-waiting have an additional hurdle to overcome: They're bombarded with questions and speculation that their peers don't encounter in a non-contract year. Agent Scott Boras refers to the specter of free agency as the "elephant in the ballpark."

"The stimulus the athlete is given in the walk year is different from any other time in his career," Boras said. "You can't avoid it, because people walk up and ask you the question. You have your fellow players, outside players, the fans, the media and your loved ones. And then you have your interpersonal stress. You have the funk of the season. Players go through normal slumps, and everyone will say, 'He's responding to the stress of free agency.' OK. Can you find me the slumpless season? No one has one."

For stars, contract-related uncertainty can suck up all the oxygen in the room during the winter caravan. Agent Paul Kinzer served notice during MLB's winter meetings that Encarnacion wanted his contract situation resolved by opening day or he would end talks and test free agency. Encarnacion's season proceeded without resolution.

Bautista arrived in Dunedin, Florida, in February and made news when he said he would not give the Blue Jays a "hometown discount,'' because his current four-year, $65 million deal already fit that description. Bautista reportedly was seeking a $150 million contract before this season.

"Everything I said was honest and straight to the point," Bautista told earlier this season. "It was coming from a very honest and educated place."

As players try to navigate the walk-year obstacle course, teams are similarly challenged. The Texas Rangers, American League West front-runners, have five free agents on the roster ( Ian Desmond, Mitch Moreland, Colby Lewis, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Gomez) and two other players ( Jonathan Lucroy and Derek Holland) with contract options that need to be addressed this winter.

The Rangers are mindful of maintaining equilibrium in their clubhouse as they negotiate with some of their pending free agents and table discussions with others until the offseason. But the process is more complex this year as MLB and the Players Association take part in labor talks that could result in several changes to the basic agreement.

"From our experience, even when both sides are trying to work toward the same common goal, there's a chance for negative feelings on one side or the other,'' Rangers assistant general manager Thad Levine said. "When you're putting a dollar amount to a player's value and contributions, inevitably you may have two different opinions. When that takes place, how do the player and the club react? As a club, you're always very reluctant for it to have a negative impact on the team's performance."

Worst-case scenarios

As the season progresses, the dynamics change. If players grind it out through nagging injuries and their numbers suffer, they'll win the admiration of their teammates. But will those subpar stats come back to bite them on the open market? When Alex Rios hit four home runs in 492 at-bats for the Rangers in 2014, a lot of teams were scared off by his lack of power. The Kansas City Royals thought it was a sign of character that Rios played hurt for a last-place team, and they signed him to a one-year, $11 million deal in December 2014.

Players who slump in April and May have to resist the temptation to try to make it all up in one day. The indignity of staring at a .180 batting average on the scoreboard is tough enough without seeing piles of money disappear.

Scouts generally agree that Desmond pressed after rejecting a $107 million contract offer from the Nationals in early 2014. Desmond's .233 batting average and .290 OBP in 2015 were career worsts, and reality set in when he had to wait until late February to sign a one-year, $8 million contract with Texas. Desmond has since bounced back, embracing a move to center field and making the All-Star team, and he'll have a chance at a free-agent do-over this offseason.

Pending free agents on losing teams have to block out the additional mid-summer distraction of the free-agent rumor-fest. The speculation can take all sorts of intriguing twists and turns.

"We call it contract-season occurrences," Boras said. "I have a wonderful occurrences database. It's like Halloween: How many different scary characters can you come up with?"

Keeping it amicable?

Scherzer's big "contract-season occurrence" came in March 2014, when news broke that he had turned down a $144 million offer from the Detroit Tigers. After the Detroit front office released a statement confirming that Scherzer had rejected "a substantial, long-term contract extension offer that would have placed him among the highest-paid pitchers in baseball," the atmosphere turned chilly.

"I just wanted to table it for the offseason,'' Scherzer said. "I was amicable about it. My attitude was, 'I just want to play out the season, and let's take care of this in November.' When they made everything public, I felt like they weren't being amicable about it. Once everybody knew the numbers we were discussing, it made it difficult with my friends and family. I constantly felt like it was in my face.

"I just figured, 'This is what it is. This is the bed I made. I know what I'm doing. I'm confident in my decision.' I looked through all the numbers, and I knew, 'I'm not getting worse as a pitcher. I'm getting better.'"

Scherzer gained some peace of mind when Boras took out an insurance policy as a safeguard against injury, and he did mental gymnastics to make sure his priorities were in order. Each night before bed, Scherzer reminded himself that his sole focus should be on winning games rather than making money. He went 18-5 with a 3.15 ERA and finished fifth in AL Cy Young award balloting in 2014. He signed a seven-year, $210 million contract (with half the money deferred) with Washington the following winter.

"When you're in your free-agent year, everybody has this notion that it's the first time you're playing for a contract," Scherzer said. "Well guess what? I had to do it my junior year of college, and then I did it three times in arbitration. I guarantee you, it's a bigger deal when you have zero in your bank account than when you already have a decent size bank account. My thinking was, 'I've already done this four times. What's gonna change?' Nothing."

Moss, a career role player, is in a different realm from the Bautistas, Encarnacions, Werths and Scherzers of the baseball fraternity. He has played for six teams and been traded and released multiple times, and he knows how it feels to have to fret over winning a roster spot. With roughly $12.6 million in career earnings to this point, he can't afford to let his attention stray from the wild-card race to the more substantial windfall that awaits him.

"If you're like me, you've always been on a one-year deal anyway," Moss said. "Up until now, I've always been fighting not to be a free agent."

Moss and his fellow free agents, at all points in the spectrum, will get a better idea of where they stand soon enough. Halloween is coming fast. But they'll have to wait until December and January for trick-or-treating.