MLB Winter Meetings: Ranking the 20 Best Batters Available

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst IDecember 2, 2011

MLB Winter Meetings: Ranking the 20 Best Batters Available

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    Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols might hold out until the holidays before signing for huge money via free agency. For most of the other top names available this winter, however, next week's MLB Winter Meetings will be the tipping point.

    Money and players will change hands, and for some teams in need of an offensive boost, this will be the best opportunity to pull the trigger.

    Rumors are swirling. Momentum is building. Here are the 20 best hitters available as we hurtle toward Dallas.

20. Norichika Aoki

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    Aoki asked his Japanese team to post him in November, and if he makes it over, he could provide a surprising boost. He's a very good hitter, though not necessarily a powerful or patient one.

    His value would be tied closely to batting average, which augurs badly, but look at this photo. Aoki is swinging swiftly, smoothly and with great wrist action.

    His head is the only thing in frame holding still. That signals a great bat-to-ball hitter.

19. Johnny Damon

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    Once overrated, Damon has become a quiet commodity that no one really gets. He's got some speed yet (30 stolen bases in 37 tries over the past two seasons) and his power goes unnoticed because it tends to be more about doubles and triples than about homers.

    Way back when gap power was not a derogatory term, that was about Johnny Damon. He may not have a home on the field anymore, but he can still hit.

18. Jason Kubel

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    Kubel can hit right-handed pitching for power and average, and he falls somewhere into a comfortable middle in terms of walk rate.

    He's more platoon guy or DH than impact addition, but one way or another, this guy can bolster a weak offense in a snap. His career OPS against right-handers is a solid .833.

17. Martin Prado

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    Prado's 2011 was a troubling outlier from what has generally been consistent production. It feels more like a blip than a permanent derailment, though, and many teams likely want to pry him loose from the Atlanta Braves.

    Atlanta views Prado as expendable, and since they have asked him to play so much left field over the past year-plus, that makes sense. If he lands in Colorado, Detroit or with some similar suitor, though, he would probably shift to second or third base and prove much more valuable.

16. B.J. Upton

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    A lot of discussion has been had over the past year and a half or so about when B.J. Upton will figure it out and become a star player. It's an interesting question, not least because Upton is a star right now.

    He's been worth roughly four wins in each of the past two seasons, and has averaged exactly that level of value return for the past five.

    His OPS was unimpressive in 2011 on a raw numerical basis, but adjusted to league and park considerations, Upton was a solidly above-average batter, a slight plus with the glove in center field and a good base runner.

    Some team might deal a lot to get him this winter, but he'll be worth every bit of the acquisition cost if the Rays make him available.

15. Jimmy Rollins

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    Rollins is not the superstar he once was, but he's gotten more amenable to drawing walks the past few years and has retained his value at the plate that way.

    His power bump is important. If it turns out to be fleeting, Rollins is in trouble. It seems real, though.

14. Kelly Johnson

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    If anything, Johnson is too patient for his own good. His strikeout rates sometimes soar simply because Johnson is selective at the cost of a certain amount of healthy aggression up there.

    Still, he's a plus power bat at second base, and when he gets locked in, you can't find a much more valuable left-hitting infield option.

13. Josh Willingham

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    Even Oakland could not stifle Willingham's power, which demonstrates how real it is. The sometime catcher is now a bad option in left field or an average first baseman, but wherever he lands, his bat will play.

    He's not the on-base machine he once was, but he's traded in some of that patience (11.5 percent, 12.2 percent and 14.9 percent walk rates from 2008-2010) for power (29 homers despite a 9.9-percent walk rate in 2011).

    It's not an ideal choice, but it worked, and if Willingham can find his way back to a hitter-friendly park in 2012, look out.

12. Michael Cuddyer

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    Target Field is no friend to power hitters, and Cuddyer's numbers since the Twins moved there reflect it. He hit 32 home runs in 2009, the last year of the team's residence in homer-friendly Metrodome. He has 34 in two years since the move.

    Still, this guy can hit. He strikes out less than most sluggers, draws a fair few walks and should benefit from a move to more fly-ball-friendly environs.

    I offer just one caveat: Please, people, for the love of all things good, stop treating Michael Cuddyer like a utility infielder. He can play right field tenably, left field a bit better, and first base just fine. At all other positions, he is a nightmare.

11. Yonder Alonso

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    There is not a great deal of power here. Alonso will never be an elite first baseman because he does not have the power to be there. For that reason, no team is likely to pony up enough to snag him away from the Reds.

    Yet, if a club decides they see him developing that power, or else maintaining an early James Loney or John Olerud type of production, Alonso is a fine choice. No offensive prospect in baseball has more polish and big-league readiness to him, save perhaps Jesus Montero.

10. Yoenis Cespedes

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    If any team has not been mentioned as being among those interested in Cespedes, it was surely only by accident or oversight. Everyone seems to be testing the water, although the realistic suitors and the merely curious are difficult to distinguish from one another.

    Whoever eventually signs Cespedes will be getting a risky bundle of thrilling tools. His bat might never work out, but if it does, he can tap into 30-homer power.

    In the meantime, he can lean on great speed and defensive upside, although his instincts in center field and his general frame augur poorly there.

9. Logan Morrison

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    You might know Morrison as @LoMoMarlins, and he doesn't figure to change that Twitter handle anytime soon.

    He had minor knee surgery this week, and while that's no major concern in reality, it makes it virtually untenable for some team to fork over a top-flight pitcher in order to acquire him.

    Morrison has on-base skills the Marlins do not value but that a dozen or so other clubs would love to emphasize.

    He hits for enough power to eventually settle in as a star first baseman, but he's athletic enough to at least meander in left field for a year or two more.

    That all adds up to an attractive package, but this procedure takes the wind out of those trade sails.

8. David Wright

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    Fences moving in or not, Wright and Citi Field do not much agree. Still, the man has some pop left in his bat. He was much better after returning from a back injury that cost him two months of 2011, and if the Mets do decide to trade him, they will have a handful of interested suitors.

    After returning from the injury July 15, Wright put up a healthy .789 OPS. He may never be a useful defensive third baseman again, but for another year or two, his bat will cover his inadequacy there.

7. Carlos Pena

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    Staying under the radar should be difficult for a man with 258 career homers and some serious value both on defense and in the clubhouse to boot. Pena makes it look easy.

    He's an 80 makeup guy, and at the plate, he finds ways to help the team even when he's slumping. He busted opponent shifts with eight bunt hits in 2011. He also drew 101 walks.

    Here's an interesting fact: Pena has topped 500 plate appearances in a season seven times in his career, and three times, he's had more than 600 plate appearances. Yet he has never registered 500 at-bats. 

6. Aramis Ramirez

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    Ramirez had a long way to go to prove to potential free-agent suitors that 2010 was but a speed bump for him. He did it. He's no longer a third baseman anyone wants manning that position defensively, but his status as a slugger is no longer in question.

    Ramirez must continue to make contact the way he did in 2011, because his batted-ball profile no longer portends success for such a hulking hitter.

    If he can do it, though, he should make a real difference for someone in the middle of the batting order.

5. Jose Reyes

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    Winning a batting title is a good kickoff to a free-agent foray. Reyes will make at least $90 million somewhere this offseason, and the good bet is that it will happen sometime next week.

    He's about as unpredictable a superstar position player as there is, but the reward is too high to ignore even at great risk.

4. Carlos Beltran

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    A sensational comeback season put Beltran into a tenuous position. Many teams probably don't even know how to approach the question of his health, which had limited him to 145 games in the years 2009-10.

    He played 142 in 2011, though, and racked up a stellar .300/.385/.525 line that was even better than it looks.

    Beltran might not be able to stay healthy, but any team that feels he can should be leaping after him. He is no longer a center fielder, but with the offensive numbers of which he remains very capable of producing, it shouldn't matter.

3. David Ortiz

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    For all the buzz and whispers about where Ortiz could go, all the smart money still says he returns to Boston. If he does, Red Sox fans can expect another big year from Big Papi.

    Any year could be his last as a dominant slugger, but he looks very comfortable at the plate and certainly translated that into huge production in 2011. 

    Ortiz struck out in 13.7 percent of his plate appearances in 2011, the lowest rate of his career. That feels unsustainable, but there are accompanying changes in his approach to suggest it's real.

    He was more aggressive on pitches outside the strike zone than ever in 2011, but it seemed he was picking his pitches, because he also made contact on a greater percentage of his swings than ever before.

2. Prince Fielder

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    Fielder is peculiar for a number of reasons. Chief among them are:

    1. His weight. It's a concern to many teams, but in fairness to the stout slugger, he's always been this big. He eats well, conditions himself and has missed only one game the past three years.
    2. His pattern of performance. In 2007, 2009 and 2011 he was great; dominant even. In 2006, 2008 and 2010, though, he was useful, but far from elite.

    The weight problem will be a problem to a team, or it will not be. That's a strictly intangible, future-focused consideration. As to consistency, though, there is one number that might assuage the doubts of certain teams who wonder if Fielder is learning and making adjustments. It's his strikeout rate.

    In four of his first five seasons, Fielder struck out 19.2 or 19.3 percent of the time. In 2011, though, he chopped that number down to 15.8 percent. That could be the difference. That could make him the perpetual superstar he needs to be if he gets $150 million next week.

1. Albert Pujols

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    Pujols is better than Fielder. That is not a debate. There is a healthy debate to be had about which player is the better long-term contract candidate, or about who is the better free-agent value in general, but Pujols is unquestionably the better all-around player right now.

    He's going to hit, he's going to sell tickets and he's going to break records. The question is whether he can stay at the top of his game for at least five more years, making an eight- or nine-year deal worthwhile.