When the lights come on after the eight-month dance that is the baseball season, one of the most anticipated free-agency periods in recent memory will begin.
Following the 2011 season, the players that will be available to the highest bidder sounds more like a future Hall of Fame ballot than a list of players for sale.
Chances are, none of the big-time free agents will air a one-hour segment on ESPN announcing their next destination. But there will be plenty of fanfare surrounding the new landing spots of some of baseball's best players.
It was tough to narrow down the potential free agents to a top ten. Some players left off include Carlos Peña, Mark Buehrle, Aramis Ramirez and Michael Cuddyer.
But as you will see, the players that did make the cut are some of the most valuable players in the game and could instantly turn a team into a contender.
Without further ado, here are this offseason's 10 best free agents, along with my best guess as to where they'll go.
The oft-injured Giants outfielder will be a free agent after this season, but he will not be nearly as pricey as he was when signed by the New York Mets for $119 million following the 2004 season.
He has not played a full season since 2008, when he hit .284 with 27 home runs and 112 RBI for the Mets.
He will be 35 shortly after Opening Day next year, so declining speed and fielding ability will start to become a concern. Beltran can still swing the bat though, and his track record as a playoff performer will help.
Could go to: Tigers, Giants, Red Sox, White Sox
Will go to: White Sox.
The Red Sox would have been logical, but the emergence of Josh Reddick makes that less likely. The White Sox, however, are starving for some outfield production.
If they could get a good couple of years from Beltran, who can also tutor talented youngster Dayan Viciedo, it will be a good deal.
The eccentric and ultra-valuable Bell is on the short list of baseball's best closers and was very close to being traded to a contender at the 2011 trade deadline. Unless the Padres make the peculiar move of trading Bell during August, he will become eligible to be a free agent.
Many, many teams will be lining up to try and sign Bell. His contract would probably be in the $12 to $14 million per year range, which would make him one of baseball's best-paid relievers. For the Padres, it would be devastating to lose Bell, but perhaps a necessary evil in the team's rebuilding process.
Could go to: Red Sox, Phillies, Mariners, Blue Jays, Cardinals
Will go to: Blue Jays
Toronto's GM Alex Anthopoulos made a huge splash at this year's trade deadline, acquiring Colby Rasmus and change for what will likely turn out to be a very reasonable price. He has put his team in position to contend very soon for the AL East.
Getting a shut-down closer like Bell would be huge in setting up the Jays for long-term success.
The other big-time reliever on the market this winter will be Jonathan Papelbon, the longtime closer of the Red Sox who has had some surprising recent struggles. The Red Sox seem to have a replacement in Daniel Bard, a hard-throwing righty who has been absolutely dominant of late.
Papelbon will undoubtedly command a huge salary because of his track record and, frankly, his name. He is the rarest breed of reliever, one that is an actual reason for fans to see a game.
He could help a lot of the same teams in the mix for Heath Bell as, despite his struggles, he is still one of the best shutdown closers in baseball.
Could go to: Red Sox, Mariners, Dodgers, Cardinals, Mets
Will go to: Red Sox
With Bard eligible for arbitration and likely to get a pay raise, the Red Sox probably won't be crazy enough to offer Papelbon a penny more than the $12 million he makes now. But a short-term (one or two year) deal would be smart to evaluate Papelbon's long-term value and keep him in the place that loves him most.
Surprised? Don't be. This guy can pitch.
The 24-year-old Darvish is the Felix Hernandez of Japanese baseball and was showcased to the world during the 2009 World Baseball Classic as Japan's ace. He is arguably a better prospect than Daisuke Matsuzaka, combining a mid-90s fastball with a nasty slurve and an array of secondary pitches.
The only concerns about Darvish are his health (he had shoulder surgery in 2006, mostly as a result of throwing a screwball which he has since eliminated) and the transition to the majors, which has been historically rocky for Japanese pitchers.
Regardless, he will be highly sought-after by most teams with money to spend. If his team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, lets him go, Darvish might be the best pitcher available on the market.
Could go to: Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers, Dodgers, Blue Jays, Angels, Mets, Nationals
Will go to: Rangers
This may seem surprising, given that the Red Sox and Yankees both aggressively pursued Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Matsui, respectively. But MLBTraderumors.com reported earlier this year that Rangers GM Jon Daniels was scouting Darvish.
The Rangers have the money to spend, and this could finally be the move that turns them from contenders into champions.
Rollins is the lesser of the two NL East shortstops who could move this offseason. The 32-year-old Rollins has been a Phillie for life and is much beloved by fans and teammates in Philadelphia.
However, if the Phillies were to potentially make a run at Jose Reyes, it would likely mean giving up Rollins.
He has not quite been as spectacular offensively or defensively as he once was, but it is a sure thing that Rollins can still be a high-impact player for at least another few years. For the forseeable future, he is a guy that will hit .270 or better, steal at least 20 bases and provide well above-average defense.
Could go to: Phillies, Cardinals, Mets, Red Sox, Angels, Giants
Will go to: Phillies
It is very hard to imagine Rollins leaving the Phillies. It is extremely likely that he will remain in Philadelphia for his entire career, and giving him a reasonable long-term contract would likely solidify that.
Following the 2010 season, many wondered if Lance Berkman would ever be a valuable MLB player again. The Cardinals took a big chance on Berkman by signing him to a one-year, $8 million contract.
He has played out of his mind this year, banging out a .292/.401/.592 triple slash as of Aug. 8th.
There is no doubt that signing Berkman would come with a lot of risk, but it is clear that when healthy, he can still be one of the game's most productive hitters. He would look good in the middle of almost any team's lineup.
He will not get a gaudy contract, but teams will be willing to spend some money to pick up the Big Puma.
Could go to: Red Sox, White Sox, Tigers, Giants, Rays, Mariners, Cardinals
Will go to: Cardinals
With the prospect of Albert Pujols leaving, the Cardinals will probably try to shell out the money to retain Berkman in order to show Pujols that this is a team that will continue to contend for years.
Berkman would be a nice fit on a lot of teams, but especially with Colby Rasmus gone, the Cardinals will need some outfield production. And, in the worst case, Berkman could end up as Pujols' replacement at first base.
By the end of 2011, C.C. Sabathia's opt-out clause will become the most famous contract feature in the history of contracts. The Yankees ace has the option to explore his options as a free agent following this season and will likely exercise that option.
Of course, that doesn't mean he will leave New York.
Much like Derek Jeter last year, Sabathia could use the clause as a bargaining tool. Give me more money or I'm gone. Already making nearly $25 million per year, Sabathia could potentially ask for more money.
But given his status as the unquestioned ace in New York, there is no reason for Sabathia to go anywhere else.
Could go to: Yankees, Dodgers, Angels, Rangers, White Sox, Twins
Will go to: Yankees
Honestly, I don't even think Sabathia will opt out. He loves New York, the Yankees love him, and as baseball's wealthiest pitcher, there isn't much reason for him to try and milk Brian Cashman and company for more money. This won't be very messy.
The most complete player on the market this winter, Reyes has done everything possible to help him make some big bucks when his contract is signed.
The Mets' shortstop has had a stellar 2011 so far, hitting .336 with eight home runs, 37 RBI and 34 steals in a mostly anemic lineup. He is only 28, and appears to have put all health issues behind him aside from the occasional hamstring flareup.
If anything, Reyes appears to be getting better at the plate. His BB/K rate is a career best, and making the most contact of his career. Adding Reyes would be an instant boost for any team, but they will have to mortgage their stadium to do so.
The $11 million Reyes is making in 2011 will likely be right around half what he will ask for per year in free agency.
Could go to: Red Sox, Giants, Cardinals, Angels
Will go to: Giants
This was an extremely tough call. The Red Sox likely would not be willing to pay Reyes' $20 million salary in addition to the current megadeals of Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and John Lackey.
The Cardinals' only hope for signing Reyes would be to concede Albert Pujols, as the team likely would not be able to afford to spend $50 million per year on two players.
The Giants make the most sense here, as they have been in the mix for a shortstop, have money to spend and are an attractive landing spot.
The big first baseman is likely playing his last few months in Milwaukee, as the mid-market Brewers are unlikely to be able to afford Fielder after this season. His constant power and gaudy on-base percentage make him one of baseball's absolute best in terms of middle-of-the-order options.
If moved to the American League, Fielder's likely position would be designated hitter, but he could just as well remain a first baseman on any NL team willing to pay a hefty price tag. Some teams may view Fielder as a more attractive option than Albert Pujols because of his age, but it is unlikely that he will command a salary as high as Pujols will.
Expect something in the $24 million to $26 million per year range, comparable in structure to the deal the Phillies gave Ryan Howard.
Could go to: Cubs, Giants, Nationals, Brewers, Cardinals, Orioles, Rangers, Blue Jays
Will go to: Cubs
The Cubbies and their fans may finally be sick of losing. The first step on the road to recovery is acceptance. Then comes action, and GM Jim Hendry appears willing and able to deliver Chicago the megastar they've wanted for years.
Fielder is a natural fit in Chicago, especially with Carlos Pena likely gone after the year. He will key the middle of the lineup for years, something the Cubs will build around as they attempt to return to relevance.
Somewhere, LeBron James is quietly texting Albert Pujols.
With his pending free agency, Pujols will join the list of elite players who have faced the monumental decision of shifting scenery or staying at home. But this might be the most intriguing one to date. Pujols will be 32 next year, and this year has showed signs of being a human being.
All the signs point to Pujols being baseball's best hitter, and the fact that he will finish this season having 11 straight years of 30-plus home runs means teams will have access to almost unparalleled consistency.
Like I said, an argument could be made that Pujols is a riskier bet than Prince Fielder. But if career averages mean anything, Prince Albert's long-term value is almost limitless.
A 10-year contract is not out of question, although seven or eight years is probably more likely given his recent injury. Regardless, it is not out of sight to think Pujols will demand between $28 million and $32 million in salary.
No matter what happens, this will be fun.
Could go to: Harlem Globetrotters, Manchester United, Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Nationals, Cardinals, Dodgers, Giants, Angels, Rangers, Blue Jays
Will go to: Cardinals
Do you ever close your eyes and imagine the world as a different place? Well, I closed my eyes and imagined Albert Pujols in another uniform than the Cardinals, and global thermonuclear war followed.
Pujols belongs in St. Louis and frankly, baseball needs him in St. Louis. It is extremely rare for a superstar to spend his whole career in one place. If anyone is to remain with a team for life, it is Pujols.