There should be little doubt which free-agent third baseman on the market should be the most highly coveted.

Aramis Ramirez chose not to exercise his side of the $16 million mutual option for 2012 he had with the Cubs, entering free agency as the top option available to play the hot corner.

The free-agent market for third basemen drops off after Ramirez, which no doubt will help his bargaining power. Ramirez is a career .284 hitter with an .842 OPS, and he is coming off a strong 2011 season, his ninth with the Cubs.

There are few potential starters among the rest of the group. Casey Blake, Kevin Kouzmanoff and Wilson Betemit could all catch on, though they are far less attractive options than Ramirez.

Blake, 38, was limited to 63 games in 2011 due to injuries, and he batted only .252 with 15 extra-base hits. Kouzmanoff, 30, is a younger option and can provide solid defense at third, but his offensive numbers in recent seasons -- he hasn't hit better than .260 since 2007, and batted .235 this year while playing for the A's and Rockies -- could be a concern.

2011 awards
MLB.com takes a glance at each position entering the Hot Stove season.

SP: Plenty of mid-tier arms
RP: Closers flood market
1B: Pujols, Prince elite
2B: Thin but reliable
3B: Aramis the lone big bat
SS: Attention on Reyes
OF: Bargains available
DH: Ortiz the top target
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Hot Stove MLBlog
Hot Stove Tracker

That leaves Betemit, perhaps the most intriguing candidate behind Ramirez. While he isn't a top-notch defender, Betemit posted a .292/.346/.525 batting line after being dealt by the Royals to the Tigers in July, and he figures to land a starting job somewhere.

Edwin Encarnacion could have signed with someone to be a starting third baseman had he hit the open market, but the Blue Jays picked up his $3.5 million option last month.

Further complicating the market is the possibility that the Mets could deal David Wright. His availability could have teams looking to trade for him to fill the position rather than dip into the free-agent market.

Looking to buy: This is a fluid list. The Cubs could use a replacement for Ramirez, and the D-backs could be looking for a third baseman if they don't re-sign second baseman Aaron Hill and have to move third baseman Ryan Roberts to second. ... The Angels might be looking to upgrade over Alberto Callaspo and Maicer Izturis. ... The Tigers could make a play for Ramirez as an improvement over Brandon Inge, but will also look at the trade market. ... The Brewers would like to add a bat to their lineup, and third base is one place where they could do it. But they will first need to decide which is the real Casey McGehee, the productive one from 2010 or the less-productive 2011 version. ... The Rockies seem prepared to go with a platoon of Ian Stewart and Jordan Pacheco but will explore trading for a veteran, and the Marlins may choose to spend their money on pitching rather than filling a hole at third.

Top dog: Quite simply, it's Ramirez, and everyone else is a distant second. Barring an injury, you can pencil in Ramirez for 25-plus homers and 90-plus RBIs per year. He hit .306 with an .871 OPS, 26 home runs and 93 RBIs in 149 games this past season. He has driven in 100 or more runs six times.

Best of the rest: In a thin class, Betemit is probably the next-best option. He hit .285 with eight homers and 46 RBIs in 97 games. Jerry Hairston Jr. might get some attention after performing well during the postseason for the Brewers.

Worth a shot? Health has been an issue for veteran Eric Chavez, but he might prove to be a capable backup with an occasional spot start. He's a good clubhouse guy. The same goes for Mark DeRosa, whose power has been sapped by wrist injuries. He remains an excellent clubhouse presence and leader, however, and he batted .370 with four walks in 32 plate appearances, albeit with no extra-base hits, in September. Nick Punto is another veteran who should be able to find work as a backup.

Potential 2013 class: As of now, it looks like another thin third-base class. That could change if club options on players like Wright, Mark Reynolds of the Orioles and Kevin Youkilis of the Red Sox aren't picked up. Mark Teahen of the Blue Jays does not have an option for 2013, but he would have to start hitting up to what was believed to be great potential.