Less than a month from the opening of spring training, more than 50 players remain available in the major-league free-agent market. Earier this month, Jim Baker took a look at the field from a couple of angles, but with the reporting dates for pitchers and catchers drawing close, the possibility that some of the game’s biggest names could have nowhere to go next month is growing.

This winter, January’s bargain bin has as mich star value as it’s ever had. Five Hall of Famers find themselves without contracts in the new year, some by choice, some by circumstance, some for no apparent reason. All five are aging, to be sure, and a couple might well be done, but that doesn’t make seeing them all available on January 18 any less startling.

The easiest situation to explain is that of Roger Clemens, who was the best pitcher in baseball last year on a per-inning basis, and who isn’t sure what he wants to do in 2006, other than pitch in the World Baseball Classic. He can’t return to the Astros before May 1, although that seems to be what many, myself included, think he’ll do. Even with Clemens, the Astros aren’t likely to repeat last season’s success; they’re going to be just as bad, maybe worse, offensively, and hoping that they again have the best top-three starters in baseball history is overly optimistic. Regardless, Clemens will be a free agent until he decides what he wants.

Four free-agent hitters have combined for 2001 home runs, three MVPs and dozens of All-Star appearances. Unlike Clemens, though, none has the recent performance or health record that enables them to call their own shots. Rafael Palmeiro, of course, hits the market coming off of not only his worst on-field performance in a decade, but with the mark of a steroid suspension and, perhaps worse, his apparent fingering of teammate Miguel Tejada during the investigation into his offense. Cheating is something that can be forgiven in baseball, but tattling is a hanging offense. I would be surprised to see Palmeiro play another major-league game.

Palmeiro’s 2005 teammate, Sammy Sosa, may also have a hard time finding employment. His mild decline turned into a plummet last year, with a .221/.295/.376 line in 102 games that made him one of the least productive corner outfielder/DHs in baseball. At 37 years old, he has been reduced to an all-or-nothing slugger with little speed or defensive value, and right-handed batters with that skill set can be found who carry much less baggage than Sosa does. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that Sosa could bounce back to be a .260/.330/.530 hitter, but all of his value is going to be in those numbers. The Mets might take a run at him, but I think it’s more likely he ends up on a bad team that’s looking to leverage the name value into some revenue.

Unlike Palmeiro and Sosa, Frank Thomas has sustained much of his offensive value leading up to free agency. His injury-shortened ’04 and ’05 seasons combine for a .245/.400/.571 line, with 30 homers and 80 walks in 435 plate appearances. That last number, of course, is the problem: Thomas missed huge chunks of the last two seasons with a broken left ankle in ’04 and a broken left foot in ’05. When healthy, he’s still a tremendous hitter, albeit one who has little value outside of the batter’s box and whose lack of speed makes his great OBP slightly less valuable than it looks. If you’re looking to sign Thomas, you can be confident that he’ll either be good or unavailable; he’s not likely to be an unproductive player for you. To me, that makes him a more attractive buy than someone like, say, Jacque Jones, who might play in 150 games and drag you down towards 77 wins.

There hasn’t been much buzz on Thomas since December, when most people thought the A’s would sign him. Their acquisition of Milton Bradley quieted that talk. Bad reports on the condition of Thomas’ ankle haven’t helped his cause, and are the primary reason for his still being available. If healthy, even for half a season, he’d be an asset for almost every team in the American League. He’ll eventually sign an incentive-laden deal and be a big part of a contender’s offense, if perhaps only for 300 at-bats.

Of these unemployed immortals, the one with the best combination of recent performance and health is probably Mike Piazza. Piazza’s EqA has declined for five consecutive seasons, but his established level was so high that he’s still an above-average hitting catcher, with a .251/.326/.452 line and a .268 EqA in ’05. His defense is still below-average, although in fairness, most of that is due to his poor throwing. He does everything else fairly well, and you don’t hear complaints about him from his pitchers the way you do about other catchers. He’s 37, and has averaged just 103 games a year from 2003 through 2005, so you can’t sign him expecting him to be Jason Kendall.

As a part-time catcher, rest-of-time DH, he’d be a perfect fit on any number of AL teams. I argued last month that he’d be ideal for the Angels, instantly becoming their third-best hitter and providing some much-needed right-handed power, and nothing’s changed that assessment. Released from Shea Stadium, and allowed to catch less, Piazza is going to have a couple of late-career seasons from the Carlton Fisk playbook, and that would be enough to push a number of AL teams over the top. Bengie Molina appears to be getting most of the attention, but it’s Piazza who has the potential to make the difference in a 2006 race. Some smart team is one signing away from taking a huge step forward.

He’s not in any danger of ending up in Cooperstown, but the best remaining free agent by far is right-hander Jeff Weaver. Unable to reach an agreement with the Dodgers last month, Weaver hit the market at a time when league-average starters are getting three-year deals, or better, simply on the hope that they’ll be healthy and effective. Consider the five starting pitchers who have signed the biggest contracts this offseason, listed here with their 2003-05 records:

                  Age   W-L     ERA    IP    BB   SO   HR  SNLVAR  WARP
A.J. Burnett       28  12-12   3.61  352.0  135  332   23     8.2   9.1
Kevin Millwood     32  32-29   3.83  555.0  171  440   53    12.8  13.1
Jarrod Washburn    31  29-31   4.08  534.0  145  298   73    13.0  14.5
Matt Morris        31  40-28   4.22  567.0  132  368   77    10.5   9.9
Esteban Loaiza     34  43-26   4.02  626.1  182  497   67    14.9  18.9

Jeff Weaver        29  34-33   4.61  603.1  157  403   70    10.4  12.1

Weaver has the worst single-season performance in this crowd, his awful ’03 for the Yankees, and that drives up his overall ERA. Looking at everything else, though, you can see he stands firmly in the middle of the crowd in Support-Neutral and WARP terms, in peripherals, and he’s been second only to Loaiza in durability. (This chart, by the way, reinforces the notion that Loaiza’s contract is a bargain.) If you’d looked at these six pitchers just one year ago, you might well have concluded that Weaver was the best of the bunch, as he led the six in SNLVAR in 2004.

Weaver should get the kind of money that’s been doled out to Jarrod Washburn and Matt Morris, because he’s been just as good a pitcher. If a team can bring him into the fold for less, and especially if they can limit their commitment to two years, they will have picked up a significant edge on the teams that have paid mid-rotation starters like aces all winter long. Look for Weaver to be the 2006 version of Millwood or Loaiza, the late signing, the forgotten one, who has a significant impact on the season and makes big money next winter.