With a whole new year just days away, Major League Baseball’s winter market is about as well-stocked as your friendly neighborhood toy store. Due to the demands of the season, there’s not much left.

For teams that have already done their shopping, this isn’t a problem. But for would-be winners that still have shopping to do, it is an obstacle. When 2014 turns into 2015, they’re not going to have many options for building a winner.

But here comes the good news: “Many” is not the same thing as “any.”

Though the offseason market has definitely been drained of talent, it’s not empty just yet. Teams still on the lookout for quality players have the obvious targets to choose from, and there are also ways to locate more subtle talent.


Obvious Targets Are Obvious

Thanks to an early run on bats and a more recent run on arms, there’s not a lot of impact talent left on the free-agent market. Heck, there’s very little of it.

But hey, Max Scherzer and James Shields are still out there.

There’s a decent chance Shields will still be available come January. Knowing what we know about Scott “Mr. JanuaryBoras, the odds of Scherzer still being available are around 1-1. And though the two will be expensive, there’s no question they can help teams that plan on winning in the short term. Compared to other available starters, they really are that good.

If we remove Hiroki Kuroda from the equation—even if he decides to keep pitching in 2015, he’s really only an option for one team—and use FanGraphs‘ runs-allowed WAR for perspective, we find that Scherzer and Shields compare to other free-agent starting pitchers like so:

So, yup, Scherzer and Shields are pretty good. They belong on the radars of teams that mean to win. At least the ones that have money, anyway.

It’s a shame we can’t really say that about any of the hitters left on the market, but there are guys who at least pass muster as useful cogs.

There’s Nori Aoki, whose extreme ability to make contact and decent speed make him a solid addition to any lineup. There’s also Asdrubal Cabrera, who’s a rare switch-hitting middle infielder with good power. And though Colby Rasmus can’t be counted on for an OBP over .300, he’ll hit you 20 or so homers while playing defense in center field that FanGraphs‘ Mike Petriello argued really wasn’t so terrible in 2014.

Meanwhile, there’s also always the trade market. It never closes, you know, and there’s no shortage of available talent on it.

The sheer number of teams that appear to be going for it in 2015 means there’s a shortage of sellers out there, but we know there’s one in Philadelphia. The Phillies are rebuilding now, and signs point toward left-handed ace Cole Hamels, slugging right fielder Marlon Byrd, veteran closer Jonathan Papelbon and maybe even speedy center fielder Ben Revere being available, per Todd Zolecki of MLB.com and Jim Salisbury of CSN Philly.

Elsewhere, Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com says the Colorado Rockies are listening on Troy Tulowitzki. Jon Morosi of FoxSports.com reports the Tampa Bay Rays could trade Ben Zobrist. Right-handed aces Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann have been surfacing in trade rumors all winter. And so on.

Aside from the free-agent and trade markets, another place for teams to turn is the international scene. Not all of Mike Rosenbaum’s top 10 international free agents are spoken for, with the most intriguing of the bunch being Cuban second baseman Jose “The Other One” Fernandez.

As soon as Fernandez is officially declared a free agent, he’s sure to draw interest. Ben Badler of Baseball America (subscription required) ranked him as the No. 3 player in Cuba back in August, writing:

…Fernandez is one of the top OBP threats on the island thanks to his plate coverage and pitch recognition. His contact rate seems like a misprint, with just 10 strikeouts in 314 plate appearances last season along with a .482 OBP that ranked second in the league. Heading into his prime years, Fernandez is talented enough to step into a major league lineup immediately.

Yoenis Cespedes is one example of a Cuban stud signing after January and stepping right into a major league lineup. Fernandez could follow his fine example.

Compared to November and December, no, we’re not going to see many impact players change teams in January. But would-be winners aren’t completely out of options when it comes to impact talent.

Mind you, it’s not just the obvious impact players teams will be looking at in January. They’ll be looking for more subtle talent as well, and there might just be some hidden gems.


Finding Diamonds in the Rough

Though it may not seem like there’s much on the offseason market once you get past the clear impact guys, there are ways teams can zero in on potential bargain buys.

For example, clubs can play the “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” game by looking for guys who were trending upward at last check.

As now-Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi told me last year: “I think you’re seeing a little bit more of that now, where a team will take a guy and maybe cut up his season into more than just looking what he did over the whole year. Instead, they’ll look at what he did in the second half of the season, what he did in the last month of the season.”

If we look at the second half of 2014, a couple possible bargain buys stand out. Albeit in limited playing time, Rickie Weeks was far and away the best second-half hitter among remaining free agents. Hiding among the best second-half pitchers is Carlos Villanueva, whom I’ve already written about as a good buy-low option thanks to the adjustments that made his hot second half possible.

Moving on, teams can also pinpoint potentially useful players by hunting for platoon specialists. That’s not exactly a sexy job description, to be sure, but it’s an important one at a time when the platoon advantage is heavily influencing bullpen use and lineup construction.

To the latter end, the likes of Ryan Ludwick, Jonny Gomes, Gaby Sanchez, Jeff Baker and Chris Denorfia are right-handed hitters who have crushed left-handed pitching in recent seasons. Andy Dirks and Juan Francisco are left-handed batters who have handled right-handed pitching well.

There are also some solid specialists to be found among the free-agent relief corps. Joe Beimel and Josh Outman are lefty killers who are still available. Though they each have limited experience, Buddy Carlyle and Blaine Boyer look like potential righty killers.

Next to the guys who can help with the platoon advantage are guys who have more specific skills that could come in handy.

Burke Badenhop and Ronald Belisario are ground-ball magnets. Eric Young Jr. and Everth Cabrera are reclamation projects first and foremost, but they’re also speed demons who could be handy in a pinch. Emilio Bonifacio can not only run but can also play just about any position on the diamond.

Lastly, there’s the Moneyball method of free-agent bargain hunting. That means looking for guys who can exploit a market inefficiency.

On that front, one idea involves looking for pitchers who can take advantage of how baseball’s strike zone expansion has changed things. At a time when everyone is aiming down in the strike zone, it actually makes sense to target guys who pitch up in the zone.

If you happened to catch wind of Mike Trout’s problems with pitches up in the zone, know that it wasn’t just him. Per BaseballSavant.com, the league’s batting average on pitches in the upper third of the zone was .260. That’s compared to .292 at the bottom third of the zone, where the league’s batting average has remained relatively steady even as more and more pitchers have assaulted that area.

On this note, here’s a list of free agents who were among the most frequent visitors to the top of the strike zone in 2014:

None of these names really jumps off the page. But if major league hitters get even worse against pitches up in the zone in 2015, these guys could prove to be valuable pickups.

All told, the offseason market won’t be about just Scherzer and Shields when January rolls around. There are plenty of potential bargain buys to choose from as well, and you never know when one of those is going to loom large later on.

So fear not that the baseball news cycle will become boring in January. There are still teams with needs to fill, and how they fill them could definitely make a difference.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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