While the hype surrounding Major League Baseball’s free agency period tends to focus on well-known and high-profile players, smaller signings are often just as important.

In a way, low-profile signings can be the difference between a championship team and one that is out of any race before September. 

There are two things in common among the players included on this list.  First, they are not exactly the biggest targets in 2014.  Second, they may be the big difference makers each team needs to have success over the course of a full year.

Whether they provide adequate depth, round out a rotation or even just provide an unsung upgrade at a position, the teams that end up employing their services next season will be better off in 2014.

Chad Gaudin

Position: Relief Pitcher

2013 Team: San Francisco Giants

Right-handed reliever Chad Gaudin is an interesting commodity when it comes to free agency.  The 31-year-old reliever-turned-starter had a nice season filling in for San Francisco’s injured starter Ryan Vogelsong.

He is capable of both long relief and spot starting, which can help almost any rotation.  His 2013 contract of $750,000 makes him affordable as well.

Do the Giants want him back?  Probably, as tweeted by Larry Krueger of their flagship station KNBR in San Francisco.

Yet there are plenty of other teams that could be interested.  The New York Yankees, Los Angeles Angels and Philadelphia Phillies could use a versatile starter.  The Boston Red Sox need bullpen help.  Gaudin can provide both. 

Gaudin earned his keep in San Francisco and is likely to stay there, but the deep pockets of teams like Boston, New York and Philadelphia could lure his services back east.


Carlos Ruiz

Position: Catcher

2013 Team: Philadelphia Phillies

Veteran catcher Carlos Ruiz will be 35 years old when the 2014 season starts.  At that age, it is likely  that his best days are behind him.  Yet he can still provide good offensive prowess.

The other question is whether or not Ruiz returns to Philadelphia—the team he has spent his entire career with. 

The Phillies do need to get younger and more athletic.  Do they plan on keeping Ruiz in their equation, or do they look more to the future?  As of now, Philadelphia does not have an in-house option to replace Ruiz and the market for catchers is pretty thin.

Ruiz would also like to stay, but will a deal be made before he hits the open market at a thin position?  He probably won’t make as much compared to his previous contract, which makes him more attractive as a commodity.

In all likelihood Ruiz will remain in Philadelphia, but there is a good chance he could land with another squad looking for catching help.  The Tampa Bay Rays could use an offensive upgrade over the aging Jose Molina.  The White Sox and Tigers may also be looking for upgrades. 

This market is very thin and if Philadelphia does not lock up Ruiz soon, he may take a contract elsewhere.


Nate McLouth

Position: Outfield

2013 Team: Baltimore Orioles

There is a lot of upside to outfielder Nate McLouth.  The nine-year veteran has a lot of attributes that teams will be looking for during the offseason.  He has a good on-base percentage, hits right-handed pitching well and he can steal bases.

While he is nowhere close to a splashy free agent, his 2013 base salary of $2 million would mean the 31 year old would be a cheap option for a team looking to add depth or find an upgrade in the outfield.

Tim Dierkes of MLBTradeRumors.com breaks down what will happen if McLouth leaves the Orioles and emphasizes what he can provide for another team that is interested.  He writes:

The Orioles aren’t brimming with alternatives to replace McLouth, and will have to turn to the free agent and trade markets if they don’t re-sign him.  Since McLouth could assume more of an above-average, oft-used fourth outfielder role, he could boost the depth of many clubs. 

The Seattle Mariners and Pittsburgh Pirates—where McLouth started his professional career—may be looking for help in the outfield.

It would not be surprising to see McLouth land with either squad if it does not work out in Baltimore.  Both of those teams need the help and McLouth can provide it.


Stephen Drew

Position: Shortstop

2013 Team: Boston Red Sox

If you forget 2007 and 2012, shortstop Stephen Drew is actually a nice option at the position.

Playing on a talented Red Sox team helps his numbers quite a bit, but there is a potential that he could move on to somewhere else. 

Will he command the contract he got with Boston in 2013?  Probably not, even though his agent is Scott Boras.  Will he provide good defense with above-average numbers at the plate?  Absolutely.

So, which teams would be interested? 

The shortstop market is both relatively old and thin. 

With that in mind, there are a number of teams looking to add something at the position.  The New York Mets are a possible candidate as tweeted by Andrew Vazzano of SNY.tv.

Of course, Boston will look to entertain his return to the Red Sox.  Considering some of his extra-base hitting prowess displayed during the year, Boston would be smart to at least try an offer.

Other possibilities include the Pittsburgh Pirates, who could lose Clint Barmes via free agency, as well as the Tampa Bay Rays with Yunel Escobar.  Both clubs have good prospects waiting for their chance, but Drew could be the bridge in the meantime until their respective prospects are ready.

Yet the favorite here has to be Boston.  The Mets could lure him away if they want to overpay.  If contract negotiations become a problem, perhaps a short-term option becomes reality.

While none of these free agents are likely considered “high priority” by teams around the league, each offers a unique set of skills that could prove to be the difference heading forward into 2014.

In Gaudin‘s case, it is his versatility on the mound either as a starter or reliever.  Think how valuable that is to a rotation and/or bullpen late in the season.  With Ruiz, veteran catchers who can provide some offensive thump are a bonus to any lineup.  Ruiz’s ability to work with elite pitchers also makes his signing a bonus.

McClouth is a solid, if not stellar, outfielder.  There are plenty of teams that need corner outfielders and McClouth provides that.  He has good defense, enough offensive prowess and would add depth in a worst-case scenario.  At best, he could be a cheaper staple of a good offense.

Drew is also a likable option for teams needing good defense at shortstop.  He has some pop in his bat as well.  Those are both great assets considering the position. 

None of these signings will likely command the media attention given to players like Robinson Cano or Carlos Beltran.  Yet these free agents are no less important to helping teams win. 

After all, it is not necessarily the best players that help a team win—it is the right ones.


Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report.  Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.

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