It's a pretty safe bet that any time the topic arises of who the best is in any sport, a spirited and lively debate will ensue.
For years, football fans have fought over whether Peyton Manning is better than Tom Brady. NBA fans will argue ad nauseam over Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
In baseball, the talent pool is considerably larger, and you could find 10 different fans passionately discussing the merits of 10 different players.
The 2012 MLB regular season has now officially concluded, so let the debates begin!
Here is my list of the top 50 players this season.
Chicago Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano has been the subject of trade speculation for the better part of two seasons.
Considering the rapid-fire changes going on around him on the North Side, it would have almost been understandable to see him playing with a degree of apathy.
Instead, Soriano turned in his best season in a Cubs uniform, hitting .262 with 32 HR and 108 RBI. It was the first time Soriano reached the 30 HR/100 RBI plateau since 2005 with the Texas Rangers.
Soriano didn't even hit his first home run until May 15 and was one of the majors' top long-ball hitters from that point on.
Throughout his career with the New York Yankees, CC Sabathia has been the unquestioned ace of the staff. That remains unchanged following his 2012 season.
Sabathia reached the 200-inning mark for the sixth straight season despite making only 28 starts. A 15-6 record, a 3.38 ERA and just under one strikeout per inning again established Sabathia as the go-to guy in the Bronx.
Signed to a two-year, $26 million contract this past winter, St. Louis Cardinals right fielder Carlos Beltran was brought in to help offset the offense lost with the departure of Albert Pujols.
To that end, Beltran delivered.
While his second-half numbers dropped off, Beltran still hit 32 HR with 97 RBI, doing his part to put the Cardinals at or near the top of most offensive statistics in the National League.
The Washington Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman has long been considered one of the top third basemen in the National League.
This year, he reinforced that belief.
Providing stellar play in the field and at the plate, Zimmerman hit .282 with 25 HR and 95 RBI, helping to lead his Nationals to their first-ever NL East Division title and bringing postseason baseball to the nation's capital for the first time in 79 years.
With the second half put together by Atlanta Braves starter Kris Medlen, he has emerged as one of the bright young pitchers in the National League.
The Braves brought Medlen along slowly this year after he underwent Tommy John surgery in August 2010. The Braves monitored Medlen's progress by working him out of the bullpen before inserting him into the starting rotation on July 31.
The results were staggering—Medlen was 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA in 12 starts, and he and the Braves set an all-time MLB record by registering wins in his last 23 starts dating back to 2010.
Medlen will start for the Braves in Friday's Wild Card Game with the St. Louis Cardinals, and he will be counted on in the playoffs if he can continue his torrid pace on Friday.
The beginning of the 2012 season certainly didn't provide the kind of start originally envisioned by Milwaukee Brewers starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo.
However, he rebounded quite nicely.
Gallardo bounced back from a horrible April (1-2, 6.08 ERA) to put together another solid season, posting a 16-9 record, 3.66 ERA, 9.0 K/9 rate and over 200 innings for the second consecutive season.
Gallardo took hold of the reins as the ace of the Brewers staff following the trade of Zack Greinke, posting a 5-0 record and 2.02 ERA in the month of August.
The way the 2012 season started for St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Allen Craig, it looked as though it might be one of disappointment and despair.
After missing the first four weeks of the season following November knee surgery, Craig was hitting .373 through his first 13 games before a hamstring injury put him back on the disabled list.
Craig returned again on June 1 and never let his foot off the gas, finishing the season with a .307 batting average, 22 HR, 92 RBI and an .876 OPS.
Craig has emerged from under the radar as a star.
The 2011 Chicago White Sox finished a disappointing 79-83 and saw subpar seasons from three key players—Jake Peavy, Adam Dunn and Alex Rios.
Rios hit only .227 with 13 HR and 44 RBI, and fans across the South Side railed against GM Kenny Williams for giving Rios a contract extension worth eight figures per season.
Rios silenced those critics this year.
A definite candidate for AL Comeback Player of the Year, Rios bounced back in big way, hitting .304 with 25 HR, 91 RBI and 23 stolen bases.
Those are numbers more worthy of eight figures.
Kansas City Royals designated hitter Billy Butler continues to develop as a hitter each year, and this year he could have some hardware to add to his mantel as a result.
Butler hit .313 with 29 HR and 107 RBI and could well earn this year's Silver Slugger Award along with the first All-Star selection earned earlier in the year.
The Washington Nationals first baseman toughed it out through 43 games last year before finally ending his season with surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder.
Now, LaRoche could well be the National League's Comeback Player of the Year.
LaRoche proved that when healthy, he can still be an offensive force. He hit .271 with 33 HR and 100 RBI, missing only eight games all season.
With the Nationals losing Michael Morse, Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond for significant portions of the season, LaRoche was a constant and steady presence in the middle of the order.
When New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera went down for the season with a torn ACL on May 3, reliever Rafael Soriano came to the rescue.
It's not like Soriano didn't know what he was getting himself into—he led the majors with 45 saves in 2010 while with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Soriano solidified the back end following Rivera's injury, posting 42 saves and a 2.26 ERA. Yankees fans came to look forward to Soriano ripping the jersey out his pants after each save.
The St. Louis Cardinals entered the 2012 regular season with question marks regarding their starting rotation.
Veteran Adam Wainwright was returning from Tommy John surgery the previous spring, and Chris Carpenter was shut down with weakness in his right shoulder that led to surgery in July.
Kyle Lohse stepped up and asserted himself.
Lohse put together a 16-3 record, and his 2.86 ERA and 1.09 WHIP were the lowest of his career.
Lohse may not be a member of the Cardinals after this season, but he certainly didn't hurt his free-agent status.
The man known as the Cuban Missile put an extra bit of jet fuel into his mix this season. Opposing hitters flailed aimlessly all year long.
Cincinnati Reds reliever Aroldis Chapman took hold of the closer role this season and threw nothing but gas. He struck out an amazing 122 batters in just 71.2 innings.
Chapman struck out 44.2 percent of batters faced (second to Craig Kimbrel), and opposing batters hit just .141 against him.
Just goes to show what a 100-105 mph fastball can do.
New York Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson struggled at the plate at times this season, registering just a .232 batting average and .319 OBP.
Yet he still managed to lead a potent Yankee offense with 43 HR and 106 RBI. Granderson fell just short of tying Miguel Cabrera for the league lead in home runs, hitting two more on Wednesday night against the Boston Red Sox.
The Detroit Tigers offense featured a pretty decent pair of sluggers in Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabera. However, the contributions of center fielder Austin Jackson at the top of the order can't be understated.
Jackson was terrific all season long, hitting an even .300 with 16 HR, 66 RBI, a league-leading 10 triples and an .856 OPS.
At 25 years of age, Jackson is becoming a solid all-around leadoff hitter, and the Tigers will be counting on his table-setting skills during the upcoming postseason.
When the Oakland Athletics signed Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year, $36 million contract, they really weren't sure what they were ready to receive in return.
Cespedes had never played professional baseball and had only been seen playing for Cuba in the World Baseball Classic and in workouts in the Dominican Republic.
It's safe to say the A's have received a good return on their investment thus far.
Cespedes shined in his first season, hitting .292 with 23 HR, 82 RBI, 16 stolen bases and an .861 OPS.
Once Cespedes and Coco Crisp traded places in the outfield, the A's completely gelled as a unit; Crisp started hitting much better at the top of the lineup, and Cespedes thrived in the middle.
Considering he was just 18 months removed from Tommy John surgery, Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg put together a pretty special season.
Strasburg posted a 15-6 record and 3.18 ERA in 28 starts with a 1.155 WHIP and 11.1 K/9 rate, and he held opposing batters to a .230 average.
Strasburg will be a cheerleader this postseason due to a team-imposed innings limit, but he certainly made the most of what was given to him.
Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel won the National League Rookie of the Year Award by a unanimous decision last season, putting a cap on a tremendous freshman year.
He may have just outdone himself in his sophomore year, however.
If Kimbrel was considered close to unhittable last year, he was even more so this year. He notched 42 saves, a 1.01 ERA and a 0.654 WHIP and struck out an incredible 50.2 percent of the batters he faced.
That shattered the record held by former Los Angeles Dodgers closer Eric Gagne (44.8 percent, 2003).
Oh, and batters only hit .126 against him, lending even more credence to his absolute dominance.
First baseman Albert Pujols will probably end up taking his share of flak for not delivering the Los Angeles Angels to the postseason in his first year with the team.
Considering his $240 million contract, it's slightly understandable.
However, Pujols did put together a pretty solid season after a very rough start. The three-time MVP was hitting just .197 with one homer and 12 RBI on May 14. Pujols rebounded to hit .285 with 30 HR and 105 RBI.
He also collected 50 doubles, becoming only the third player in MLB history with three 50-double seasons and the first player ever to reach 500 doubles within his first 12 seasons.
That won't soothe the disappointment of Angels fans, but it does make for some pretty heady stats.
It may have been a lost season for the Philadelphia Phillies, but for starting pitcher Cole Hamels, it was both rewarding and successful.
Hamels signed a six-year, $144 million contract in late July, the second-richest contract ever signed by a pitcher.
Hamels was pretty good on the field as well, posting a 17-6 record and 3.05 ERA, striking out 216 batters in 215.1 innings. His 24.9 strikeout percentage was fourth in the league behind Stephen Strasburg, Clayton Kershaw and Gio Gonzalez.
The Toronto Blue Jays stumbled through a 73-89 season in 2012, suffering major injuries to Brandon Morrow, Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek, Sergio Santos and star slugger Jose Bautista.
But Blue Jays fans did see an offensive explosion from designated hitter/first baseman Edwin Encarnacion.
Encarnacion caught fire this year, hitting .280 with 42 HR, 110 RBI and a .941 OPS. For his efforts, the Jays signed him to a three-year, $27 million extension in July.
Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw's 14-9 record doesn't accurately reflect the dominance he displayed once again in 2012.
Kershaw posted league bests in ERA (2.53), WHIP (1.023) and hits per nine innings (6.7) and was second in BAA (.204).
Kershaw didn't even allow an aching hip to slow him down, shutting down the San Francisco Giants on the final day of the regular season, allowing only one run on three hits with eight strikeouts in eight innings.
The Chicago White Sox fell short in their effort to win the American League Central Division title this year, but it wasn't for a lack of effort from starting pitcher Chris Sale.
Converted from the bullpen at the beginning of the season, Sale posted a 17-8 record, a 3.05 ERA, a 9.0 K/9 rate, a .235 BAA and a 24.9 strikeout percentage.
Pretty darn impressive for his first year in the rotation. While the White Sox may have fallen short of their goal, they likely found a new ace in the process.
Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Johnny Cueto may have failed in his attempt to reach 20 wins in his final start of the season, but the 2012 season overall certainly wasn't a failure in any way.
Cueto ended up with a 19-9 record, a 2.78 ERA and an NL-leading ERA+ of 151. Cueto led a rotation that saw each starter log at least 30 starts—a pretty remarkable feat in today's day and age.
New York Mets third baseman David Wright suffered a stress fracture in his back last season that limited him to just 102 games. He also endured season-long questions about the Mets' financial problems and whether he would be signed long-term.
Wright dealt with those questions this year as well, but with a healthy back, he excelled on the field.
He hit .306 on the season with 21 HR, 93 RBI, an .883 OPS and stellar defense at third base that could earn him a third Gold Glove Award.
The Miami Marlins added close to $200 million to their payroll coffers this offseason with the signings of Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes and Heath Bell.
The additions made didn't help, as the Marlins suffered through a 69-93 campaign. However, they have to be buoyed by the continuing development and promise of 22-year-old Giancarlo Stanton.
Stanton led the National League with a .608 slugging percentage, hitting .290 with 37 HR and 86 RBI.
Arthroscopic knee surgery robbed Stanton of a month of playing time. Imagine what those numbers could have been.
The Baltimore Orioles bullpen was one of the best in the American League in 2012 with a 3.00 ERA. Only the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A's were better.
The back end of the bullpen was anchored by Jim Johnson, who prior to this season only had 21 saves to his credit in six seasons.
Johnson showed how much of a savior he can be.
Johnson led the majors with 51 saves, helping to lead his Orioles to the postseason for the first time in 15 years.
Johnson is not a flame-thrower, only registering a 5.4 K/9 rate, but he sure missed a lot of bats all season.
Ordinarily, a guy who misses two months of the season due to injury might not necessarily warrant a spot on this list. But in the case of Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto, one has to make an exception.
Votto underwent arthroscopic surgery in mid-July to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, putting him out of the lineup for over six weeks.
Votto still managed to lead the National League in walks (94) and led the majors in on-base percentage (.474), accumulating a 1.041 OPS along the way. Votto also hit 44 doubles despite missing 51 games.
Much of the focus in Detroit these days is on Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera and his Triple Crown achievement—and deservedly so.
However, the first season in Detroit for first baseman Prince Fielder wasn't too shabby either.
Fielder hit .313—a career high—with 30 HR and 108 RBI. It was the fifth time in six seasons that Fielder has reached the 30 HR/100 RBI plateau. His 182 hits was a career high as well and the third season in the past four that Fielder has played every single game.
The Seattle Mariners starting pitcher may not end up winning the American League Cy Young Award, but he certainly made a case for it throughout much of the season.
Felix Hernandez finished the year with a 13-9 record, 3.06 ERA and 223 strikeouts in 232.0 innings. Hernandez faded to an 0-4 finish and 6.62 ERA in September and October, likely taking him out of the Cy Young conversation.
Los Angeles Angels starter Jered Weaver certainly gave his all in trying to get his team to the postseason.
Despite a 20-5 record, a 2.81 ERA and a league-leading 1.018 WHIP and 7.0 hits per nine innings, Weaver fell short of his ultimate goal.
That doesn't take away from a stellar season, and it doesn't take away from his consideration for the AL Cy Young Award either.
When it comes to the Cy Young Award conversation in the American League, the name of Fernando Rodney will definitely be a hot topic of conversation.
After two lost seasons with the Los Angeles Angels, Rodney reinvented himself this year with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Rodney was about as automatic as one can be—48 saves, a 0.60 ERA, only five earned runs given up in 76 appearances, a 0.777 WHIP, a 5.2 H/9 rate and a 5.07 K/BB rate.
David Price, Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver all warrant consideration for the Cy Young, but Rodney's name should absolutely be included in that conversation as well.
Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer was relatively healthy throughout the entire season—and the results showed.
The Twins brought in free-agent catcher Ryan Doumit to help give Mauer a break behind the plate, and he spent time at designated hitter and at first base along with 72 games starts at catcher.
Mauer finished the season with a .319 average, fourth-highest in the American League. His .416 on-base percentage was tops in the AL, and he actually stole eight bases, his highest total since 2006.
For several seasons, San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Matt Cain played second fiddle in the rotation to Tim Lincecum.
Now, the tables have turned.
Cain put together the best season of his career, posting a 16-5 record, a 2.79 ERA and 1.040 WHIP, and became the go-to guy in the rotation while Lincecum faltered.
A perfect game certainly added some pizazz to his stellar season as well.
There will certainly be much discussion in the National League regarding who is worthy of receiving the Cy Young Award. Gio Gonzalez's name will be right in the middle of that conversation.
Gonzalez was spectacular in his first season in Washington, posting a 21-8 record, a 2.89 ERA and 207 strikeouts in 199.1 innings.
Gonzalez will be the man the Nationals look towards to lead them as they bring postseason baseball to Washington for the first time since 1933.
The 2012 season will become known as the season of maturity for San Diego Padres third baseman Chase Headley.
Headley has been the subject of trade speculation for the better part of two seasons. The Padres may now be looking to lock him up long-term after the year he turned in.
Headley was a force at the plate this season, hitting .286 with 31 HR and 115 RBI. Both production numbers were easily career highs, and his RBI total led the National League.
Prospect Jedd Gyorko was reportedly the man to take over at third base if Headley were in fact traded. However, Gyorko may now be the man to take over at second base eventually. Headley may just be too good to go anywhere.
Throughout his first 17 years with the New York Yankees, shortstop Derek Jeter set records, played with class and dignity and won five World Series rings.
At 38 years old, Jeter has clearly shown he's not quite finished just yet.
His manager, Joe Girardi, said that Jeter exceeded all expectations in the 2012 season.
"I think exceeding everyone's expectations, his leadership, his ability to play hurt," Girardi said. "A guy 38 (years old) is not supposed to get 700 plate appearances. It is not supposed to happen, except for maybe a DH.
"And he played shortstop every day and he played hurt. It is truly remarkable. For me, it is one of the greatest seasons I have ever seen, considering all the factors."
Jeter's 216 hits led the majors, and he surpassed the 200-hit mark for the eighth time in his career, tying a franchise mark held by Lou Gehrig.
Girardi had planned in spring training to schedule regular days off for Jeter during the season.
I'm guessing he's glad that plan was scrapped.
In the manner that Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton started out this season, one would have thought that record books might have to be rewritten.
Hamilton was absolutely on fire for the first two months of the season, hitting .368 with 21 HR and 57 RBI by the end of May.
The summer months may have sizzled, but Hamilton's bat cooled. He would end the season with more than respectable numbers (.285, 43 HR, 128 RBI), but certainly a disappointment considering the hot start.
Still, the numbers still put him among the elite hitters in the majors.
Often, teams can actually take on the characteristics of their on-field leader. In the case of the Baltimore Orioles, they transformed into a team that feeds off its leader—center fielder Adam Jones.
Jones continues to put his stamp on the Orioles, hitting .287 with 32 HR and 82 RBI and making highlight-reel defensive plays in center.
The Orioles have had a cavalcade of stars that left their mark on the franchise, such as Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer and Cal Ripken Jr. Jones' mark on the Orioles is not only being left; it's rubbing off on his teammates too.
Before the 2012 season started, everyone knew that the Tampa Bay Rays' David Price was becoming one of the elite left-handed starters in the majors.
The word "becoming" can now be taken out of that phrase—he's already there.
Price was terrific, posting a 20-5 record, an American League-leading 2.56 ERA, a 1.100 WHIP and 205 strikeouts in 211 innings.
Price may not be appearing in the playoffs this season, but he could well end up walking away with some hardware at the end of the year.
In just his fourth season, Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen is being discussed as a potential MVP, and it likely won't be the last time either.
The 25-year-old star put together an even better season than last year, leading the National League with 194 hits and falling just short of the National League batting title with a .327 average.
McCutchen is a player worth building around. The Pirates apparently think so too, inking him to a six-year, $51.5 million contract.
Speaking of MVP candidates...
It's hard to overlook the performance of Yadier Molina this season for the St. Louis Cardinals. He was sensational, putting up career highs in hits (159), home runs (22), RBI (76), batting average (.315) and OPS (.874).
Molina is definitely a candidate to win his fifth straight Gold Glove Award and will be called upon to continue his outstanding play as the Cardinals try to defend their World Series championship.
Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander may not have been quite as dominant as last year in winning both the Cy Young Award and MVP Award, but he was certainly no slouch in 2012.
Verlander finished the season 17-8 with a 2.64 ERA, leading the league in innings pitched (238.1) and ERA+ (158).
When the Tigers needed him to come up big, Verlander delivered. He was 5-1 with a 1.93 ERA in September, helping the Tigers capture their second straight AL Central title.
R.A. Dickey for president!
Well, I won't even get into the happenings of the current presidential campaign, but for knuckleball enthusiasts, New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey should be winning at least one campaign.
The one for the National League Cy Young Award.
Dickey's numbers are certainly worthy of the award for sure—a 20-6 record with a 2.73 ERA, a league-leading 230 strikeouts on top of a league-leading 233.2 innings and a 1.053 WHIP.
It's the last number that impresses me the most. Think about it—a knuckleball has absolutely no spin at all, meaning that its flight to the plate can be changed in the blink of an eye by air currents. Yet Dickey managed to walk only 54 batters all season long.
Being able to control a pitch that's in many ways uncontrollable is indeed striking.
New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano isn't just making a case for greatness; he's putting together a Hall of Fame career.
Cano again excelled in 2012, hitting .313 with 33 HR, 94 RBI and a .929 OPS, the highest of his career.
During the last week of the season, with his Yankees battling the Orioles for the AL East Division title, Cano was absolutely at his best.
He hit .615 (24-for-39) in his team's final nine games with three HR and 14 RBI, including two homers and six RBI in the final game of the year to clinch the title.
When Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton got cold in the summer, third baseman Adrian Beltre was there to pick him up.
Beltre was excellent in the first half, hitting .326 with 15 HR and 54 RBI. He was just as hot in the second half with even more power, hitting 21 HR with 48 RBI.
Beltre's final season numbers (.321, 36 HR, 102 RBI, .921 OPS) and outstanding defense at third base were key factors in the Rangers' drive for their third straight postseason appearance.
Not since Ernie Lombardi of the Boston Braves in 1942 had a catcher won a batting title in the National League.
Until this year, that is.
San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey capped off an outstanding second half by becoming the first NL catcher in 70 years to lead the league in batting.
Posey hit .336 with 24 HR and 103 RBI, leading his Giants to their second NL West title in three seasons.
Posey will be in the running for the NL MVP Award as well and will be looking to collect his second World Series ring when all is said and done.
Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun put up some pretty darn good numbers last year in winning the National League MVP Award last season.
He upped the ante this season.
Braun hit .319 with 41 HR, 112 RBI, a .987 OPS and 356 total bases. All except batting average and OPS were higher than his MVP season.
Whether Braun repeats as NL MVP remains to be seen. The numbers are there; the sentiment may not be.
Twenty years from now, Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout will look back upon his rookie year and say to himself, "Wow! I did pretty good!"
Trout will no doubt be the unanimous winner of AL Rookie of the Year Award and will likely be in a fight with Miguel Cabrera for the MVP Award as well.
A .326 average, 30 HR, 83 RBI, 129 runs scored, 49 stolen bases, a .963 OPS and an OPS+ of 171. The numbers are stratospheric, and his WAR of 10.7 rivals that of some of the greatest single seasons in history.
Is it enough to beat a Triple Crown winner for MVP, however?
Sorry, but for me, nothing trumps a Triple Crown.
Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera became the first player since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 to achieve the rare feat, hitting .330 with 44 HR and 139 RBI.
Despite others in the media who will attempt to downplay the significance of a Triple Crown, it hasn't been achieved in 45 years.
With all of the bashing going on in the 1990s and despite several players coming close (most recently Albert Pujols, 2009), it's an achievement even more rare than a perfect game, more rare than hitting four home runs in a single game.
It's even more rare than an unassisted triple play.
For me, that trumps everything.
Doug Mead is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. His work has been featured on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, CBS Sports, the Los Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle.