With the start of spring training just weeks away, Major League Baseball teams are looking for small pieces to upgrade their roster heading into the season.
There are plenty of big names still available in the free-agent market, including Ubaldo Jimenez, Fernando Rodney, Nelson Cruz, Stephen Drew and many more. However, teams have shown an unwillingness to give out multiyear deals or big money for these types of players.
Instead, front offices have been looking at smaller moves and trades that could add a few extra wins over the course of the season. These unheralded players could end up paying huge dividends in 2014 if they are moved.
Jose Lobaton, C, Tampa Bay Rays
A year after Jose Lobaton played the most games at catcher for the Tampa Bay Rays, he appears to be the odd man out behind the plate.
The 29-year-old veteran played 100 games last season and posted a solid .320 on-base percentage in 311 plate appearances. He was also solid defensively and helped the rotation become one of the most consistent in the American League.
Unfortunately for him, Jose Molina appears healthy to start the year, and the team also acquired Ryan Hanigan this offseason in a trade with the Cincinnati Reds.
Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times notes that settling the position is one of the final moves for the Rays before the start of the year:
With pitchers and catchers reporting Feb. 14, the Rays don't have much else to do. They are still having talks about trading C Jose Lobaton, but bringing him to camp, though somewhat awkward, isn't the worst idea: protection if either Ryan Hanigan (already working out at the Trop catching bullpen sessions) or Jose Molina gets hurt, and opportunity if another team has to react to an injury.
While Lobaton was solid last season, Roger Mooney of The Tampa Tribune points out why he would be the one to go:
Lobaton appears to be the odd man out because he makes the least and would be easier to trade. ... With Lobaton out of options, he would have to clear waivers to remain with the organization. The Rays likely would lose him in that case.
As a result, it would be smart to move him whenever they can find a suitor. Considering good catching has been tough to find in recent years, there should be plenty of organizations looking for a veteran presence like Lobaton to add to the lineup.
Will Middlebrooks, 3B, Boston Red Sox
Although Will Middlebrooks has shown flashes of brilliance in his short career with the Red Sox, his inconsistency has made him expendable.
The third baseman hit 15 home runs in only 75 games as a rookie before slugging six more in April 2013. Unfortunately, he hit only 11 more the rest of the year as his batting average continued to fluctuate.
Middlebrooks ended up losing his starting job to Xander Bogaerts in the playoffs when he went 4-for-20 in the postseason. With his future in Boston uncertain, a number of teams are looking to make a deal, according to Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe:
Teams ask about Middlebrooks, but the Red Sox haven’t pulled the trigger, feeling Middlebooks has power and they’d hate to lose that. The Marlins have asked a lot about Middlebrooks, but there’s no clear match unless it’s part of a Giancarlo Stanton deal, which isn’t happening. The Red Sox believe they could move Xander Bogaerts to third and still give Middlebrooks enough at-bats to make his power work by alternating him between the corners.
The reality is that the Marlins have little to offer the Red Sox besides young prospects, something they do not need. Boston wants players who can help compete right now and try to get back to the playoffs and win another World Series title.
That being said, there are plenty of teams who should be interested in adding Middlebrooks. Despite his inconsistency, he has shown plenty of raw power and could potentially be a 30-home run player at this level.
If the Red Sox are willing to part with him, this might be a worthwhile gamble for a contender.
Jason Castro, C, Houston Astros
This is the most high-profile player on this list as Jason Castro was named an All-Star last season as part of a breakout year. The catcher finished with a .276 batting average and 18 home runs as a rare bright spot on the depressing Astros.
However, Houston could look to deal him if it cannot lock him in for the long term, according to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports:
The Astros' Jason Castro, a first-time arbitration eligible, is another catcher who could become a trade candidate, depending upon the development of Max Stassi.
Rival teams have inquired on Castro, according to major league sources. If the Astros cannot sign him to an extension, he could become the team's best trade chip. The 'Stros also could move him to first base.
Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reported that the two sides agreed to a deal to avoid arbitration this year:
Still, that price is just going to keep going up in the coming years as he keeps putting up big numbers. Considering Houston wants to keep its costs down, trading when the value is high might be a good strategy.
Plenty of teams around the league would love to bring in a 26-year-old catcher with a proven track record, but one can imagine the Astros will be looking for a lot in return in a potential trade.
Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for the latest breaking news and analysis.