With less than a month to go before spring training starts in Arizona and Florida, we have a good idea of how MLB's top lineups will shake out for 2014.
Looking at the free-agent market, there are only three available players left who figure to have a shot at being in the heart of a 2014 batting order: first baseman Kendrys Morales, outfielder Nelson Cruz and shortstop Stephen Drew.
So when looking at baseball's most deadly 3-4-5 combos heading into the spring, the rosters around the league are all but set.
Now, the following list of baseball's most feared heart of the orders come with some caveats.
With new coaching staffs around MLB and players changing teams via free agency and trades, we don't know exactly how each club will pencil in its starting lineup. You won't find the Boston Red Sox on here, for example, since last year's No. 3 hitter, Dustin Pedroia, likely will move up to the No. 2 hole without Jacoby Ellsbury in 2014, and perhaps pushing up David Ortiz and Mike Napoli earlier in the lineup. This may hurt the overall strength of the team's 3-4-5 hitter combo.
With those things in mind, here's a look at the top projected 3-4-5 trios around the league heading into 2014.
No. 3: 1B Joey Votto
No. 4: 2B Brandon Phillips
No. 5: OF Jay Bruce
No. 3: OF Carlos Gonzalez
No. 4: SS Troy Tulowitzki
No. 5: OF Michael Cuddyer
No. 3: 1B/3B Miguel Cabrera
No. 4: C/DH Victor Martinez
No. 5: OF Torii Hunter
New York Yankees
No. 3: OF Carlos Beltran
No. 4: 1B Mark Teixeira
No. 5: C Brian McCann
San Francisco Giants
No. 3: 3B Pablo Sandoval
No. 4: C Buster Posey
No. 5: OF Hunter Pence
No. 3: OF Jayson Werth
No. 4: OF Bryce Harper
No. 5: 3B Ryan Zimmerman
First-year manager Matt Williams has a bunch of different options when constructing this talented lineup, but here's my best guess on how it will shake out, with leadoff man Denard Span and No. 2 hitter Ian Desmond setting the table.
Jayson Werth hit a new gear in 2013, setting or matching career highs in batting average (.318), slugging (.532), OPS (.931) and OPS+ (154) after posting 25 homers, 82 RBI and 147 hits in 129 contests. It might be unreasonable to expect Werth to hit for such a high average again, but it's an encouraging sign from the 34-year-old who has been key to the turnaround of this franchise.
Bryce Harper is just 21 years old and hasn't realized his full potential after two productive seasons to start his career. He's batted a combined .272/.353/.481 with an OPS+ of 125 and yearly averages of 26 HRs and 74 RBI. However, it will be key to keep an eye on his health, as he has some hurdles to clear after undergoing knee surgery in October.
Quietly, Ryan Zimmerman has been one of baseball's best-hitting third basemen the past few years, and he's still in his prime at age 29. Once again, the Nationals will enter the season with high expectations, due to this potent lineup and a stacked rotation that added Doug Fister in the offseason.
No. 3: OF Matt Holliday
No. 4: 1B/OF Allen Craig
No. 5: C Yadier Molina
While other MLB lineups might have more star power and upside, this Cardinals 3-4-5 combination is as reliable as they come.
Sure, Matt Holliday's production at the age of 34 is something of a question, but he's been a remarkably consistent force on offense since joining the Cardinals via a trade in 2009. I suspect Holliday will be able to match his output from the past two years, when he batted a combined .298/.384/.494 with an OPS+ of 141 and yearly averages of 24 homers, 98 RBI, 72 walks and 109 strikeouts.
With Allen Craig and Yadier Molina, St. Louis has a couple of guys who can hit for a high average and supply the lineup with some more run support. Craig (.315/.373/.457, 13 homers, 97 RBI) and Molina (.319/.359/.477, 12 HRs, 80 RBI) each put up similar numbers in 2013 that added up to identical 131 OPS+ figures for both players.
It's the consistency and quality of hitters that makes this Cardinals lineup so dangerous from top to bottom, and nowhere is that more evident than in the heart of the order.
No. 3: OF Mike Trout
No. 4: 1B Albert Pujols
No. 5: OF Josh Hamilton
Last year was supposed to be the season when this trio took the baseball world by storm. While Mike Trout did his part, Albert Pujols played on one leg for most of the year before ending his season after 99 games, the first time in his career that he didn't appear in at least 143 contests. Josh Hamilton's season-long struggles (.250/.307/.432 with 21 homers, 79 RBI and 158 strikeouts) were well-documented, but he still possesses talents as a hitter that few others can claim.
So what's in store for round two of this big lineup?
After posting a .347 OBP in 222 plate appearances in 2013, Kole Calhoun appears ready to handle leadoff duties before Erick Aybar hits second. You can never predict what type of lineup manager Mike Scioscia might pick on a given day, but it makes sense to move Trout into the No. 3 hole as the team's best hitter while dropping Pujols to the cleanup spot and putting Hamilton fifth. Trout is an otherworldly talent who can handle the slugging responsibilities of hitting third.
All things being equal, this is one of the most talented trios in baseball. It's hard to see a prolific hitter like Hamilton struggling for two straight years, while it sounds like Pujols has made a full recovery from his foot issues in 2013. That doesn't bode well for L.A. opponents in 2014.
No. 3: 1B Prince Fielder
No. 4: 3B Adrian Beltre
No. 5: OF Alex Rios
Now that he calls Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas, his home, Prince Fielder is primed for a monster year in 2014. With the short porch in right field and a big gap in right-center field, Fielder's home-run and extra-base hit totals should be right up there with some of the best numbers he's ever posted in his career.
What makes this Texas lineup so dangerous are the two table-setters atop the order, free-agent outfielder Shin-Soo Choo and speedy shortstop Elvis Andrus. Choo sported a healthy .423 OBP last year for the Cincinnati Reds and was a huge reason for their success, and he should give Fielder, Adrian Beltre and Alex Rios plenty of chances to drive in runs.
Fielder will also see some pitches to hit because Beltre is no slouch. He's consistently been one of baseball's best-hitting third basemen since 2000, and he shows no signs of slowing down. In 2013, Beltre batted .315/.371/.509 with 30 homers, 92 RBI, a BB/K ratio of 50/78 and a 137 OPS+.
Rounding out this trio will be Rios, who also showed some nice pop in his bat (.278/.324/.432, 18 HRs, 81 RBI) this past year in 156 games between the Rangers and the Chicago White Sox.
No. 3: SS Hanley Ramirez
No. 4: 1B Adrian Gonzalez
No. 5: OF Matt Kemp
The Dodgers have yet to trade away one of their four legitimate outfielders this offseason, giving the team a bunch of options from which to choose. For now, let's assume Carl Crawford and Yasiel Puig lead off the top of the order, leaving the next three spots to this imposing trio of hitters.
At the age of 30, Hanley Ramirez is still one of the top hitting shortstops in the game. He played 86 contests in 2013, batting .345/.402/.638 with 20 homers, 57 RBI, a career-best OPS of 1.040 and a 190 OPS+.
As for the veteran first baseman, Adrian Gonzalez, he is still a reliable run producer after all these years, posting a .293/.342/.461 slash line with 22 homers and 100 RBI in 2013.
Wrapping things up is perhaps the team's most talented hitter of all, outfielder and 2011 MVP runner-up Matt Kemp. Injuries have limited him to just 179 contests the past two years, but he came one homer shy of joining the 40/40 club in his last full season of work, while also winning a Gold Glove.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a more talented trio in baseball heading into 2014, but like most teams, there are some serious health concerns that cause worry. Still, the robust qualities of these three hitters are tough to top.