With the non-waiver trade deadline behind them, teams around Major League Baseball turn their attention to the stretch run to the postseason and, in many cases, their longer term needs.
Offseason trades and free agency are always crucial to clubs looking for replacements and improvements, and this winter will be no different. The free agent class of 2012 is headlined by some of the biggest names in baseball.
Some positions will feature prodigious power and top-tier quality. Others offer depth. Whatever their specific objectives, plenty of organizations will be bidding when the Hot Stove league gets under way.
It's time to rank the 20 best hitters available via free agency once 2011 comes to a close.
Ross has struggled since peaking in 2007 and 2008, but he's only 30 years old, comes cheap, and has 20 HR power. That's a good enough combination to draw interest this winter.
The downside here is that Ross has been hampered by injuries throughout his career. His health has been part of what's kept him from becoming established as a true full-time player, and some organizations might shy away as a result.
Still, he has reasonable upside for a team seeking outfield depth.
2011 Slash Line: .246/.336/.393
The 39-year-old Ibanez could very well retire after this year. Perhaps he should. But he could just as easily ink a one-year deal to come back to the AL as a DH. And he wouldn't be the worst choice at that spot.
Playing the outfield takes a toll, and if Ibanez could focus on his hitting, he could probably still be a 20 HR type guy. Remember that at age 37 he swatted 34 dingers en route to an .899 OPS.
Look for a club in need of power to take a flier.
2011 Slash Line: .240/.287/.419
The versatile Infante is having a bit of down year in 2011, but still holds a lot of value due to his ability to move around the infield. He can play at second, short and third and has dabbled in the outfield as well.
Prior to this year, Infante posted three straight seasons with OPS totals at or above .750. Only 29 years old, he has some prime left in him and shouldn't be too costly.
Middle infield production is hard to find, so Infante will receive some solid offers.
2011 Slash Line: .279/.324/.364
Hernandez may be the best catcher available this offseason, and despite turning 35 is playing some of the best baseball of his career. The past two seasons have been solid offensive campaigns, and Hernandez is still serviceable behind the plate as well.
His advanced age will keep contract offers short, but there will be interest. Depth at catcher is important, and Hernandez would bring a veteran presence in addition to his production.
Teams simply need to acknowledge that he can't be full-time anymore.
2011 Slash Line: .302/.362/.489
A one-time speed/power combo, D-Lee has suffered some considerable attrition over the past few years. But he still plays a decent first base, offers 20 HR power, and can be productive in the lower part of the lineup.
Lee is back in the NL after the Pirates acquired him from Baltimore. Staying there is probably his best bet. If he's able to raise his average a bit, he could hit in the sixth or seventh spot in the order for a number of clubs.
The Pirates could retain him, but if not, he'll draw some other offers.
2011 Slash Line: .247/.303/.420
Damon has very quietly put together an outstanding career. So outstanding that many fans are calling for a Hall of Fame selection. While that might be overstating things a bit, there's no doubt that he's been one of the game's better players for more than a decade.
Damon is now 37 and on the decline. But he still has some utility and shouldn't command too high a price. He can play some outfield in addition to DHing, and offers a consistent, veteran presence to any lineup.
Tampa could hang onto him to keep all of its youth in balance, but if Damon hits the market, he'll draw offers.
2011 Slash Line: .261/.315/.387
After posting a stellar .889 OPS in part-time duties last year, Betemit saw his numbers slide a little in 2011. He was mired in an untenable situation in Kansas City, splitting starts with the likes of Mike Aviles, Chris Getz and, later, Mike Moustakas before getting traded to Detroit.
Now getting a shot to be the guy at third base, Betemit has an opportunity to increase his value. The position has been an unlucky one in 2011 with plenty of injuries and relatively little production, meaning that Betemit can still stand out despite not being a stud.
Don't be shocked to see the Tigers retain his services.
2011 Slash Line: .281/.342/.409
Willingham may not come to mind when making a mental list of quality outfielders. But the guy is on his way to posting his sixth consecutive season with an OPS over .800. That's nothing to scoff at.
Back troubles and other injuries have reduced his playing time over the years, but when he's healthy, the Hammer can swing a bat. With solid on-base skills and 20 HR power, the 32-year-old still has plenty to offer a team in need of outfield assistance.
In a better lineup than Oakland's, Willingham could be a good producer.
2011 Slash Line: .249/ .331/ .468
Currently a Minnesota Twin, Kubel might have been trade bait at the deadline if not for a stint on the DL. Now he'll probably have to wait until this winter to find out his fate. He could be re-signed, but other teams will likely get in on the action.
Kubel has enough pop to make him valuable; think 20-25 home runs in a full season. He's capable of hitting around .300 and plays passable defense. Hardly a superstar, but certainly a decent bat who could hit sixth or seventh without hurting his club.
It doesn't hurt that he's having a strong year at the dish.
2011 Slash Line: .312/.362/.491
One of the game's more frustrating players, Johnson seems unable to develop any consistency. In 2007 he posted an .831 OPS at age 25, and appeared to be on his way to stardom. But after a quality 2008, he tanked in 2009.
Johnson bounced back last year with career highs in OPS (.865) and home runs (26). He looked locked in, but couldn't carry that success into 2011. His .213 average this year has been brutal.
Still, Johnson is only 29. And at his worst, he's still slugging at a decent clip. If he can get the average back up toward last year's .284, Johnson would be a very good option at second base.
2011 Slash Line: .213/.292/.423
Pena has always been a lead weight in terms of batting average. But 30 HR power makes him a sought-after commodity. At his peak, the first baseman was hitting 40 or more taters, and while he may not see that number again, he's still a reliable deep ball option.
The Cubs have made some noise about keeping Pena, but it would make more sense to allow him to sign elsewhere if the bidding drives up his price.
Now 33, Pena will probably be seeking one last good contract before accepting his long term fate as a mediocre DH.
2011 Slash Line: .221/.346/.444
Like his teammate Kubel, Cuddyer was at the center of trade speculation at this year's deadline. Ultimately, he stayed put, and perhaps that's a sign that Minnesota intends to bring him back.
If he does pursue free agency, he'll have plenty of suitors.
Cuddyer can play five different positions effectively, offers 20 HR power, and maintains a good average. He may not do any one thing particularly well, but he does everything well enough. That makes him both versatile and valuable. Teams looking for an outfielder could do far worse.
2011 Slash Line: .295/.360/.485
Shortstop is a very thin position lately, and that gives a big value boost to guys like Rollins. When you actually look at his numbers they aren't all that great, although 2011 is a rebound from poor performances in 2009 and 2010.
Rollins provides a good glove and quality offense at a key spot, and that will make him expensive this winter. At 32, his skills are clearly declining. But he's not done yet.
Still a threat for 15-20 home runs and around 25-30 steals, Rollins can be productive in many ways and should receive plenty of attention if the Phillies don't lock him up.
2011 Slash Line: .267/.341/.401
Just when we thought the Big Puma was washed up, he busts out with a crazy comeback year. Berkman currently leads the NL in slugging and has an OPS just shy of 1.000 to go with his NL-best 28 home runs.
It's astonishing to see him doing this at age 35.
However, expecting him to maintain these numbers would be a mistake. He can be a very good and productive hitter for several more years, but it's hard to imagine that the future will be as rosy as 2011. Even so, Berkman is earning himself one last big contract with his current efforts.
2011 Slash Line: .290/.399/.589
Another 33-year-old Cub, Aramis Ramirez probably should have been dealt at the deadline. But his refusal to waive a no-trade clause made that challenging. A-Ram has said that he wants to stay in Chicago, but that may change when money starts flying this winter.
A good option at third base, Ramirez will have value because of his position. His 2011 season is showing the MLB world that last year's .745 OPS was a fluke.
He may not get that total back to the .900 range, but Ramirez is still good for 25-30 homers and an average around .280.
2011 Slash Line: .282/.328/.490
Like Berkman, Big Papi has proven that the rumors of his demise were greatly exaggerated. Memories of poor 2008 and 2009 seasons are fading fast thanks to OPS totals of .899 and .941 in 2010 and 2011.
Granted, Ortiz is protected by a killer lineup. But he's flat out raking. On pace for more than 100 RBI and 32 homers, he's proving that he's still a slugging force at age 35.
The downside with Ortiz is that he's locked into the DH role. And that will limit his value on the open market. The likelihood is that he'll be back in Boston, but he'll certainly draw interest from other AL clubs.
2011 Slash Line: .298/.386/.555
Like Big Papi, Beltran is also making a statement with 2011 season. Finally healthy (until a recent wrist sprain anyway), the right fielder is sporting an .873 OPS.
San Francisco won the Beltran sweepstakes at the deadline, but this is only a rental. For now. It's possible that Giants will extend him, but assuming he hits the open market, there will be yet another bidding war for his services.
Odds are this will be his final large contract, but Beltran can still play solid defense and brings a very good bat to any lineup.
2011 Slash Line: .284/.378/.495
The 28-year-old Reyes picked the perfect time to have the best season of his life. Though hampered by hamstring problems, his career-high .884 OPS, NL-best .336 average and 34 steals make him one of the game's most valuable players.
The fact that Reyes plays shortstop will keep his value high regardless of health concerns. His expectation of receiving "Crawford-like money" may be a bit over the top, but Reyes will definitely command a contract north of $100 million.
The Mets will make a run at him, but don't be surprised if Reyes wants to shop himself around the league.
2011 Slash Line: .336/.377/.507
In terms of raw power, the Big Veggie is probably the best player in the game. At age 27, he already has two season with 45 or more homers, and is on pace to eclipse the 35 HR mark this year.
Fielder is in his prime, offers elite offensive skills, and plays a good first base for a big man. In short, he would be an instant game-changer for any team that can afford him.
And that's the catch. Expect Fielder to seek (and probably get) something like $150 or $200 million. That will limit the buyer pool.
2011 Slash Line: .304/.419/.569
Who else? Pujols is the best player in baseball, and if he somehow escapes the Cardinals' clutches he will ignite the most ridiculous bidding war that free agency has ever seen.
Rumored to be seeking $30 million per year, Prince Albert will have a limited number of deep-pocketed suitors. But those who go all in will fight to the death to win him.
Pujols combines good defense, outrageous power and exquisite hitting ability. He is a once in a generation talent who, at age 31, still has some prime years left. This will likely be his last contract, as whoever gets him will have to go six years or more.
2011 Slash Line: .277/.342/.527