The term "professional hitter" gets thrown around a lot in baseball circles. While its literal meaning might not do it any favors -- isn't every hitter in the Major Leagues a professional hitter, after all? -- the sentiment resonates. Some guys are better than others in gleaning quality out of an at-bat.
Who grinds through every pitch? Who sees a lot of pitches, tires out starters, gets into good counts, takes walks when they're available, fouls off bad pitches and then is in an advantageous position to square up on the good ones?
A group of players on the current free-agent market answers those questions well and without much argument. Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, Curtis Granderson and Nelson Cruz are all in possession of a combination of offensive skills that should render them the most sought-after available position players this winter.
But they'll also be the highest paid.
That leads us to the next question: Aside from those guys, who's going to give you the most professional at-bat for the buck?
Glad you asked. Here are some:
Mike Napoli, 1B/DH: Forget the beard for a moment and look at the on-base percentage (it was .360 this year; it's .357 for his career) and the fact that Napoli saw more pitches per at-bat than any player in the Majors in 2013. Mix in the 23 homers, 92 RBIs and .842 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) and you've got a well-rounded offensive player whose documented hip problems could lead to a bit of a bargain, as the Red Sox enjoyed this year.
Jhonny Peralta, IF/OF: Peralta missed 50 games because of a performance-enhancing drug suspension but seemed contrite upon his return and happened to excel in the batter's box prior to that, putting up a .303/.358/.457 line that shows he's still a very good offensive player. He's always struck out a lot (98 Ks and 35 walks this year), but he has good success when he puts the ball in play.
Carlos Ruiz, C: Ruiz had a down year at the plate (.268/.320/.368), but if he rebounds to anywhere close to where he was in his career year of 2012 (.325/.394/.540, 16 homers, 68 RBIs), this could be the steal of the winter on a one- or two-year deal. Even with the off-year, Ruiz has a .358 lifetime on-base percentage, which is stellar for a catcher.
Omar Infante, 2B: Infante has become a very useful player who has the skills to help out just about any big league team. That's a good thing this time of year, and Infante, who has hit over .300 in three of the past five seasons, including a .318/.345/.450 line and only 44 strikeouts in 2013, should be rewarded handsomely for it.
Marlon Byrd, OF: Considering the stark disparity between his 2012 season (.210 average, one homer and nine RBIs in 143 at-bats) and his 2013 body of work (.291/.336/511, 24 homers, 88 RBIs), at the age of 35, it's tough to know which Byrd a team will be get. Odds are that a club or two will be willing to bid on Byrd because they believe he'll be just as good next year as he was this year.
Lance Berkman, 1B/DH: If Big Puma is healthy, Big Puma can still rake, but that's a big if, especially since he'll be 38 next year. Berkman had more knee woes and got only 256 at-bats for Texas, but he did put up a .301/.412/.547 year with 31 homers and 94 RBIs in 2011, so if he doesn't feel like retiring, he might help someone.
Kendrys Morales, 1B/DH: Morales was looking like one of the best young hitters in baseball prior to the broken lower leg he suffered while celebrating a walk-off grand slam in 2010. He missed all of 2011 but has been rounding back into form. He had a .277/.336/.449 line while hitting 23 homers and driving in 80 runs for the Mariners
Kevin Youkilis, 1B/3B: Tough call here. Youkilis has missed so much time and lost so much effectiveness because of back problems over the past few seasons that it seems like a huge risk to sign him and expect anything resembling what he provided in his prime years with Boston from 2006-11, when his lowest on-base percentage was .373 and he averaged more than 20 homers and about 84 RBIs. The Yankees took a shot this year and it didn't work out. He'll be 35 in March. We'll see if he's got anything left.
Michael Young, IF/DH: Young used to be a poster boy for the term "professional hitter" when he was cranking out 200-hit seasons (he has six) and hitting over .300 (seven times). Young is 37, is coming off a down season in which he became a bench bat for the Dodgers and has never been a prolific drawer of walks -- hence his career .300 batting average and .346 on-base percentage. But if he can get back to anything like he was in 2011, when he put up a .338/.380/.474 line, led the American League with 213 hits and drove in 106 runs, he'll be a great get for an organization.
Other possibilities: Mark Ellis, 2B; Corey Hart, OF; Paul Konerko, 1B; James Loney, 1B; Justin Morneau, 1B; Luke Scott, OF; Chris Young, OF.