By Cliff Corcoran
This year's free agent market was thin, but there are still several compelling players remaining on the market. Here's a look at the five most impactful ones and where they could -- or should -- land. Ages listed below are each individual's 2017 playing age. (Honorable mentions include Mark Trumbo, Mike Napoli, Joe Blanton and Sergio Romo, who just miss the cut for our Top 5 here, but are still unsigned as of this writing and will provide plenty of value for whichever team snatches them up.)
5. Jason Hammel, 34, RHP
Best fit: Pirates
A reliable league-average innings-eater who has posted a 105 ERA+ over the past three seasons, Hammel is clearly the best starting pitcher remaining on the market. However, thus far, teams have been hesitant to make more than a one-year offer to Hammel, who turned 34 in September, missed his last start of the season due to elbow tightness and saw all of his peripherals headed in the wrong direction, masked somewhat by the quality of the Cubs' defense. Still, Hammel, who switched agents in December, projects as a quality back-end arm that could give needed depth to almost any Major League rotation. The Mariners, Marlins, Padres, Rockies and Royals would all benefit from adding Hammel for the coming season, with Seattle perhaps having an inside track given that Hammel went to high school in nearby Port Orchard. But the best fit would be the Pirates, who still fancy themselves contenders and could use the depth given potential workload restrictions on youngsters Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow in the coming season, and have a history of getting strong performances out of veteran sinkerballers such as Hammel.
4. Colby Rasmus, 30, CF
Best fit: Tigers
Rasmus is an erratic player, but he's also the youngest on this list and an athletic fielder with significant left-handed power. From 2013 to 2015, his isolated power (slugging minus batting average) was .228, 16th-best in the Majors among players with 1,000 or more plate appearances over those three seasons, and two of the men ahead of him on that list have since retired. A competent center fielder who becomes above average when shifted into a corner, Rasmus retains some value even when his lousy plate approach undermines his production at the plate. When he's hot, he's a significant threat, as he was down the stretch and into the postseason in 2015. The Orioles and Blue Jays are among the teams that would benefit from adding Rasmus, who is poised for a rebound from his poor 2016 season after a pair of October surgeries to repair his left hip labrum and a core muscle. However, his ideal fit is a team with a hole in center field and a heavily right-handed lineup. That describes the Tigers, who have been quiet since trading incumbent center fielder Cameron Maybin in early November, perfectly.
3. Matt Wieters, 31, C
Best fit: Indians
Wieters' June 2014 Tommy John surgery scuttled what was likely to be a handsome payday for the then-Orioles catcher via either an extension or his post-2015 free agency. After missing the first two months of the 2015 season, Wieters accepted the Orioles' qualifying offer that November in the hope of putting together an impressive walk year in 2016. However, his numbers weren't as eye-catching as he had hoped, and his once-excellent pitch framing hasn't been above average since 2012. Still, he remains a competent defensive catcher with a strong arm who offers power at the plate, can switch-hit and has been named to four All-Star teams, including last year's American League squad. Given how thin catching is around the league, it's surprising that Wieters is still available. Recent reports have the Nationals, Braves and D-backs expressing interest. His best fit, however, would be with the defending AL champion Indians, whose catchers combined to hit .185/.244/.320 last year and were 2.9 wins below replacement, per Baseball Reference, dead last in the Majors among catching corps.
2. Luis Valbuena, 31, 3B
Best fit: Red Sox
Over the past three seasons, Valbuena has hit .243/.334/.442 (114 OPS+) while playing a capable hot corner and spotting at first and second base. Having just turned 31 in November, he projects as a solid, every-day corner infielder with 20-homer power and respectable on-base skills. The catch is that the game is flush with quality third basemen, and top prospect Alex Bregman took Valbuena's old job in Houston when Valbuena suffered a season-ending hamstring strain in late July. Still, Valbuena would be a compelling addition for the Braves, who are looking to build on a strong finish to the 2016 season as they open their new ballpark. The best fit, however, would be the Red Sox, whose third basemen hit a combined .242/.306/.380 last year, and who traded Travis Shaw to the Brewers and top infield prospect Yoan Moncada to the White Sox. Never mind Pablo Sandoval's latest comeback attempt. Boston should let Brock Holt serve in his ideal role as a utility man/injury replacement and sign Valbuena, who would significantly upgrade its lineup at third base.
1. Jose Bautista, 36, RF
Best fit: Rangers
The latest rumors have the Blue Jays in active negotiations to bring back Bautista. From an offense standpoint, a reunion would make sense, given that the Jays lost Edwin Encarnacion to Cleveland and have not brought back fellow free agent outfielder Michael Saunders, who remains unsigned. Defensively, it's a bit trickier due to the three-year, $33 million deal Toronto gave to Kendrys Morales in late November. At 36, Bautista has declined significantly in the field and seems destined to become a full-time designated hitter in the very near future, both because of the quality of his fielding and his health (he has played in 120 or more games in just two of the last five seasons). As a former third baseman, Bautista might be able to find a home at first base, but he has made just 16 starts there in his 13 Major League seasons. Given the presence of Morales, a first baseman who is also better off as a designated hitter, Bautista would seem to be a much better fit for the Rangers, who can make him their primary designated hitter now while still giving him opportunities at first base and in right field, given the similar age and injury concerns surrounding Shin-Soo Choo. However, given the antagonistic history between Bautista and the Rangers dating back to his bat flip in the 2015 AL Championship Series, those two parties appears far less likely to be interested in joining forces than they should be.
Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.