Hot Stove season’s already fired up, and we know that the big-name guys are going to get top dollar. However, the vast majority of players aren’t going to get contracts longer than a year or year plus an option, and when the arbitration-eligible players who get non-tendered hit the market later this month, GMs will have an even wider selection of free agents. That expanded supply of free agents won’t help the mid-market talents in their quest for security in terms of contract length and top dollar.
With that in mind, here are five players from baseball’s expanding “middle class” of free agents who will be interesting to follow -- with reasons why -- in the weeks and months to come as the market shapes up.
1. Javier Vazquez, starter. When the top starters on the market include Edwin Jackson, C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle, you understand why those with the deepest pockets are interested in Yu Darvish. Beyond them, the market features a huge group of veterans in various states of repair or recovery; Roy Oswalt and Erik Bedard represent the high end in terms of upside.
And then there’s the sporadically ace-worthy but often exasperating Vazquez. Two Bronx blowups and a lot of Windy City frustration suggest he’s not a great fit for homer-happy bandboxes, the DH league in general, and perhaps the AL East in particular. Limiting his market further still, he’s famously unwilling to go to teams out west. But for teams in the NL East or Central looking to get bang for their bucks, it’s worth remembering that over his past 24 starts in 2011, Vazquez posted a 2.70 ERA while holding opponents to .222/.257/.366 and striking out 24 percent of all batters. The tension between his track record for high-profile failure, his geographical wish list, and the shortage of starters on the market make his destination -- for how long and how much -- my most interesting plot to follow this winter.
2. Francisco Rodriguez, closer. The relief market’s packed with alternatives, so single-season saves record or no, K-Rod’s not likely to garner the same attention he got when the Mets handed him a three-year, $37 million deal. Add in his complaints about not closing as a Brewer or the incidents in New York that got him into legal trouble, and there will be some organizations who figure a poor citizenship grade’s going to keep him off their shopping list. But between the opportunity to make a fresh start, still-useful stuff, and his relative youth -- he turns 30 in January -- where he goes and for how much makes him particularly worth following. Much will depend on his willingness to settle sooner rather than later in a market where the best opportunities to rack up saves could dry up fast after Jonathan Papelbon and Heath Bell make their decisions.
3. Jim Thome, DH. Papi’s the big name in the DH free-agent market, and there are just four clearly open DH jobs out there: The job in Boston he’s potentially leaving, plus the Yankees’, Twins’ and Athletics’ DH gigs. The Blue Jays, Mariners, Orioles and Rays might all be in the market, but they don’t have to be if they don’t want to be, creating a very short list of possible venues for veteran batsmen like Vladimir Guerrero, Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada. For several guys, the specter of unwilling retirement or a spin in Japan or the Atlantic League looms, but Thome’s choices are limited to one of the very few DH gigs available or getting his clock for Cooperstown ticking.
4. Alex Gonzalez, SS. Say you’re one of the teams who doesn’t get Jose Reyes, Rafael Furcal or Jimmy Rollins. That trio’s already priced out of many teams’ reach, leaving you with… antacid tablets, a review of your farm system’s ability to crank out an alternative, and short-term patches. Gonzalez isn’t going to be this winter’s Marco Scutaro, but if you were looking for a short-term patch to provide defense -- Gonzalez led major league shortstops in Defensive Runs Saved -- and modest sock from the bottom of the order, you could do worse. (Yuniesky Betancourt, anyone?)
5. Grady Sizemore, OF. It wasn’t that long ago that Sizemore was anticipated to be as big a factor in this winter’s market as people named Prince or Pujols. The Indians chucked him into the free-agent pool after deciding that his $9 million option was a bad risk, but the opportunity to see what he could do as a corner outfielder and playing with a creative deal built around his availability to play makes him a fascinating risk to run. The potential that he far outperforms that $9 million valuation is awfully tempting, but everyone knows that -- how far they’re willing to go on guaranteed money, vesting options, or across multiple seasons is what will make Sizemore’s spread of offers perhaps the most variegated of any free agent’s this winter.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.