If this winter’s free agents were on the open market five years ago, George Steinbrenner would have soiled himself with glee. Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, Frank Thomas, Roger Clemens, Bernie Williams. Five years ago, all of these guys would have commanded a minimum of $15 million per year. But with the exception of Clemens, most of these fading stars will be lucky to find a starting job in 2006.

Instead of eagerly lining up for the annual free agent buffet with wallets open, general managers across major league baseball will be scrounging for a bunch of leftovers. The two best free agents on the market are not even available — if Roger Clemens returns, it will almost certainly be as an Astro, and there is no way the Yankees will let Hideki Matsui walk.

So effectively, this year’s upper tier of free agents consists of a bunch of second-tier players. The best hitter, Paul Konerko, may be a World Series hero, but he’s not even one of the top five first basemen in the game. The second-best hitter, outfielder Brian Giles, hit just 15 home runs in 2005, which just tied for the most in his family — his brother Marcus also hit 15 for the Braves. After those two, America’s favorite “idiot,” Johnny Damon, will hit the market with Scott Boras behind him. Nomar Garciaparra, another aging star who might have something left in the tank, could command close to $8 million per year. Jacque Jones, Reggie Sanders, Carl Everett, Juan Encarnacion, Bengie Molina and Carlos Hernandez round out the list of decent hitters on the market.

In the starting pitching department, neither of the two best free agents had a winning record last year. Kevin Millwood (9-11) and A.J. Burnett (12-12) are both extremely talented, but equally inconsistent. Millwood’s 2.86 ERA led the American League in 2005, but followed ERAs of 4.01 and 4.86 in 2003 and 2004. Burnett sported ERAs of 4.70 and 3.68 before this year’s 3.44. Matt Morris, Jarrod Washburn, Jeff Weaver and Kenny “Mr. Congeniality” Rogers are the mid-rotation options.

The lone solid spot for the Class of 2005 is relief pitching. Heading the impressive list of firemen are Billy Wagner, Trevor Hoffman and B.J. Ryan. Flamethrower Kyle Farnsworth could help somebody, and Tom Gordon is rumored to be looking for a closing gig, as is the resurgent Todd Jones.

Even though this year’s free agent pool is one of the shallower ones in recent history, there are enough useful players out there to have a major impact on next year’s pennant races. Improving teams such as the Angels, Indians and Cardinals could be one player away from a championship and figure to be big spenders, as do perennial giants like the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers. The Mariners, Orioles and Blue Jays also appear ready to open up their pocketbooks.

So where will everybody end up? I’d be surprised if the White Sox don’t resign Konerko, but Arte Moreno and the Angels want him badly, so expect to see him in Chicago or Los Angeles next spring. The Red Sox can’t afford to lose Johnny Damon, and although they can afford to keep him, it will probably cost them close to $10 million per year. But after being burned last year by the loss of another Boston icon, Pedro Martinez, Larry Lucchino and company will find a way to keep him around.

Giles could be the missing piece for the Cardinals, but you can bet that Brian Cashman would love to see a starting outfield of Giles, Matsui and Sheffield in the Bronx next April. The darkhorse candidate in the Giles sweepstakes is Cleveland, who would be thrilled to replace Casey Blake and his .308 on-base percentage with Giles, whose OBP has been over .400 in six of the past seven seasons. A starting lineup of Crisp, Peralta, Giles, Hafner, Sizemore, Martinez, Belliard, Broussard and Boone would give Cleveland one of the best offenses in the game.

The Indians will try to keep Millwood, but look for the Orioles to get into the bidding and offer the righty a chance to be reunited with his old pitching coach Leo Mazzone. Burnett has been heavily courted by just about every team in the bigs, with Toronto, Texas, Seattle and Detroit being some of the most eager clubs. Don’t count out the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox, but Toronto seems to have the edge here.

Look for the Padres to find a way to hold on to Trevor Hoffman. But I am guessing that Wagner and Ryan will part ways with their current clubs and end up with the Mets and the Red Sox, both of whom were devastated by inconsistency at the backs of their bullpens. Ugueth Urbina, who was recently charged with attempted murder in Venezuela, is still an excellent pitcher and could be a real bargain for some team if he is acquitted.

The only two decent catchers on the market are Bengie Molina and Ramon Hernandez. Even though both are just that — decent — they will get All-Star money from some team in dire need of a catcher. Molina has drawn a great deal of interest from the Mets. Rumors have also started to swirl that the Yankees may want the catcher, and will either trade the declining Jorge Posada or move him to first base in order to avoid triggering his $12 million option for 2007, which would kick in if he catches 63 more games in 2006.

As for our former All-Stars, expect to see Bernie Williams suit up in pinstripes one more time, as a backup. Likewise, the White Sox will probably bring Frank Thomas back in a reduced role. Piazza is no longer considered a starting catcher by most scouts, so he’ll probably end up on an AL team like the Angels where he can DH and catch the occasional game. As for Sosa, the only teams that have expressed major interest are from Japan. Where he’ll end up is anyone’s guess.

Zack O’Malley Greenburg is a junior in Calhoun College.