CHICAGO -- He may have gotten off to a slow start, but once again, Aramis Ramirez provided a lion's share of the offense for the Cubs in 2011.
This season, which may have been his last with the Cubs, Ramirez finished in the top 10 in the National League in batting average (.306), and for his efforts, he is the team's nominee for the Hank Aaron Award. This honor is presented annually to the best overall offensive performer in both the American League and National League.
Originally introduced in 1999 to honor the 25th anniversary of Aaron breaking Babe Ruth's all-time home run record, the Hank Aaron Award was the first major award to be introduced in 30 years.
For the second straight year, a special panel of Hall of Fame players led by Aaron will join fans in voting for the award.
This year, the Hall of Fame panel will include two new members -- personally selected by Aaron -- Roberto Alomar and Joe Morgan. They join panelists from last year, which included Tony Gwynn, Paul Molitor, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams and Robin Yount, forming a group comprised of some of the greatest offensive players of all-time. These Hall of Famers -- who combined for 23,536 hits, 11,445 RBI and exactly 2,800 home runs -- have all agreed to join Aaron in lending their expertise to select the best offensive performers in each League.
Fans will have the opportunity to select one American League and one National League winner from a list comprising one finalist per club through Sunday. The winners will be announced during the World Series.
Ramirez, 33, led the Cubs in RBIs (93) for the fifth time in the past six years -- boosted by three straight months with at least 20, starting in June. He compiled a 16-game hitting streak from Aug. 11-27, batting .508 over that stretch.
The third baseman joined Hall of Famer Billy Williams as the only Cubs players with at least 25 homers and 30 doubles in six seasons. Ramirez notched No. 25 on Sept. 12, leading off the sixth against the Reds. He previously reached the 25-homer/30-double mark from 2004-08; Williams did so in 1963-65, '68, '70 and '72.
On Aug. 23, he had a season-high five hits in a 5-4 loss to the Braves.
"I was so afraid of him," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said of facing Ramirez in the ninth. "He's been hotter than anybody in Major League Baseball."
In that game, Ramirez singled with one out and one on in the first; singled to lead off the fourth; hit a two-run double in the fifth; singled in the seventh; and singled in the ninth.
"He's got an excellent approach, and we've seen him hot here in Chicago before, but I don't think he's ever been hotter than this," Cubs manager Mike Quade said at the time of Ramirez, who extended his hitting streak to 12 games with the five-hit effort.
Ramirez does most of his work quickly. He led the Major Leagues with 12 first-pitch home runs. The key? Ramirez said there are times when he sees the ball well.
"That's all it is," he said. "When you get your pitch, don't miss it. This is the big leagues, and [pitchers are] not going to make many mistakes. When they do make mistakes, you have to make them pay."
Last season was a struggle for the third baseman, who battled injuries and batted .241 in 124 games. This year, he was healthy.
"Last year was a tough year," Ramirez said. "That's what I say all the time -- if I'm healthy, the numbers will be there."
He is also likely headed to free agency. Although the Cubs would like to pick up his $16 million option for 2012, Ramirez is planning to test the market. That's a story for the offseason. Ramirez would be the top free-agent third baseman available. He helped himself with a .377 August, hitting five homers and driving in 20 runs.
On July 1, he became the 131st Major League player to hit 300 home runs, connecting with one out in the sixth.
"It feels good, because it's something that I worked for, and nobody gave it to me," Ramirez said.
Ramirez is the ninth player to reach the 300-homer milestone with the Cubs. Last season, Derrek Lee and Alfonso Soriano both did so just two days apart on June 9 and 11, respectively.
He's come a long way since his first home run on June 12, 1998, with the Pirates, when he connected in the bottom of the second off the Brewers' Scott Karl. Could he get to 400?
"We'll see," Ramirez said. "It depends on how long I play."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter@CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.