35 Future Hall of Famers

I borrowed this idea for a list from this post at Pinstripe Alley, which borrowed the idea from this post written by Nate Silver on his New York Times blog. It was such a good idea that I just couldn’t pass it up.

Basically, Silver crunches the numbers on Baseball Hall of Famers and finds that, on average, 35 Hall of Fame players are active at any given time. This includes every player that saw action in a season – from veterans in their last year to rookies getting their first at-bat. The Pinstripe Alley post takes this thought one step further and tries to breakdown who the 35 players are. That post got a lot of feedback, much of it unfortunately negative, so I figured I’d take my own shot at the list.

There are two caveats to the list that most of the Yankees fans over at Pinstripe Alley don’t seem to understand: it is obviously way too early to project stud rookies like Jason Heyward or Jay Bruce into the Hall of Fame, but that’s the fun of the list.* The list isn’t 35 who already might have arguments for the Hall of Fame – it’s what 35 active players will make the Hall of Fame. By the law of averages, two or three rookies that played this season will make the Hall of Fame. Those are the players I’m trying to pick.

* Ok another caveat: since I don’t know what rookies will start their careers in 2011, I went with players active at the end of the 2010 season. So, yes, I’m aware that Trevor Hoffman retired, but he’s still included in the list.

Second, I like sabermetrics. I think the advanced statistics are valuable tools to show just how good players are. But I’m picking who I think thewriters will select to the Hall of Fame. These writers are not the most progressive of all baseball fans. So at times you will see me quote batting average instead of the far more useful on-base percentage. That’s not because I’m dense, it’s simply because that’s the number I expect voters to pay attention to. Certainly by the time many of these players retire, many young writers will have been BBWAA members long enough to earn a vote, but I think the old school voters will still make up the majority.

Here are my thirty-five players, broken down in categories from most likely to least likely to make the Hall of Fame:

A. The Locks

These players are locks to make it into the Hall of Fame, even if they suddenly retire before the 2011 season begins.

1. Derek Jeter (11-time All-Star, 5 Gold Gloves, 5 World Series rings, 1 Rookie of the Year Award, 1 World Series MVP award, 8 top ten finishes in MVP voting, 2,926 career hits, .314 batting average)

Jeter just signed a three-year guaranteed deal, with an option for a fourth year, meaning he will be on the ballot in 2018 at the earliest. I think that by the time Jeter makes it onto the ballot, the steroid issue will have died down somewhat. By 2018, Palmeiro, McGwire, Sosa, Clemens, and Bonds will all have had their test cases and the story simply won’t be as fresh as it is now.

However, if steroids are still a big issue, there is a good chance that Jeter goes in with the highest vote total in history, topping Tom Seaver’s 98.84%. There’s no question that he’s Hall of Fame-worthy and will get in on the first ballot. But many of the same people that keep the first ballot sacred are also the ones rallying against allowing any steroid user in the Hall of Fame. They’ll vote Jeter in on the first ballot based on his character alone. I could easily see Jeter going in with something very close to 100% of the vote.

If I have to lay out Jeter’s Hall of Fame case for you, it’s safe to say you haven’t been paying attention over the last 15 years. Here’s a few numbers to put Jeter’s career in perspective. Among shortstops his .314 career batting average is third (Honus Wagner and Arky Vaughan); 2,926 hits is fourth (Wagner, Cal Ripken, and Robin Yount); and 1,685 runs is second (Wagner). He is the All-Time Yankees hits leader and the most respected player of his generation. If you insist on finding a knock on his career, his defense has been overrated according to advanced defensive metrics and he probably did not deserve most of his Gold Gloves. But Hall of Fame voters aren’t usually up to speed on advanced statistics (maybe they will be by 2018), and no one will really get hung up on Jeter’s Hall of Fame case based on his defense.

2. Mariano Rivera (11-time All-Star, 5-time World Series champion, 1999 World Series MVP, 42 postseason saves, 559 regular season saves)

The only relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame are Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, and Goose Gossage. Eckersley spent half of his career as a starter and Fingers, Sutter, and Gossage pitched before the era of 1-inning closers. As the new breed of relievers appear on the Hall of Fame ballot in the coming years, voters will have to assess whether they are worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame. They are currently struggling with Lee Smith, the first great one-inning closer and baseball’s career saves leader before Trevor Hoffman broke the record. Smith received 42% of the vote on his first ballot appearance in 2003 but has not gained momentum, topping out at 47% in 2009.

Rivera won’t have to worry about any of this. You could make a persuasive case on his statistics alone – 559 regular season saves (second all-time behind Hoffman), 42 postseason saves (most all-time), 2.23 regular season ERA, an unbelievable 0.71 postseason ERA, and the best adjusted ERA+ (205) in baseball history. All that is probably enough to make him a Hall of Famer, but Rivera is a sure-thing because he transcends all that. Rivera in the ninth inning is an experience – the type of thing that you tell your grandkids about. The conversation for best closer of all-time begins and ends with Rivera. Regardless of what you think about the closer position, that type of dominance makes him a lock Hall of Famer.

3. Alex Rodriguez (13-time All-Star, 10-time Silver Slugger, 3-time AL MVP, 2-time Gold Glove winner, 1 World Series championship, .303 batting average, 613 home runs, 1,831 RBIs)

We’re only at #3 and we already have the first controversial selection on this list* – this could be tougher than I thought. A-Rod’s admission that he used steroids will certainly sway some voters, but I don’t see any way that he gets left out of the Hall. He may have to wait an election or two as the high-horse riding voters punish him for admitting his usage, but he’ll get in soon enough.

* And, painfully, the third Yankee in a row.

No eligible player with three or more MVP awards is not in the Hall of Fame; only Roger Maris, Juan Gonzalez, and Dale Murphy won two, and none of those three had anything close to the prolonged greatness that Rodriguez has had. No eligible player with at least 13 All-Star selections (other than banned Pete Rose) is not in the Hall of Fame; the only two players with 12 are Barry Larkin (likely in next year) and Mark McGwire. McGwire seems like a comparable player, but the steroid issue impacts him far more than it will impact A-Rod. Rightly or wrongly, McGwire is viewed as a one-dimensional long ball hitter. A-Rod will not have that problem – he ranks seventh among the 25 member 500-home run club in batting average and is already 11th in RBIs; McGwire ranks 23rd in batting average and last in RBIs. Additionally, A-Rod has played his career at a much tougher position (shortstop and third base) than McGwire (first base).

4. Ichiro (10-time All-Star, 10-time Gold Glove winner, 3 Silver Sluggers, 2-time batting champion, 7-time hits leader, 2001 AL MVP and Rookie of the Year, single-season hits record holder)

Few players in baseball history are truly unique. Ichiro is one of those players. He doesn’t take walks, doesn’t really hit for power, but man, can he hit the ball. In ten years in the league, he has made the All-Star game every year and led the league in hits seven times. He has at least 206 hits in each season and broke the single season hits record in 2004 with 262. He has five seasons with 224 or more hits; since he entered the league in 2001, no other player has had more than 221 in a season. In ten seasons in the league, he already has 2,244 hits. Add to that 10 gold gloves and 383 career stolen bases, and you have one of the best players in MLB in the 2000s.

Because Ichiro spent the first nine seasons of his career in Japan, his career numbers are not as impressive as many of baseball’s all-time great hitters. Still, I think the voters give Ichiro some credit for his Japan League years. He had 1,278 hits and a .353 batting average in nine seasons in Japan. Even if you get really conservative and give Ichiro only half credit for those hits, that still leaves him with 2,883 career hits. Every eligible player besides Pete Rose and Rafael Palmeiro with that many hits is in the Hall of Fame, and I expect Ichiro to join that club easily.

5. Albert Pujols (9-time All-Star, 3-time MVP, 6-time Silver Slugger, 2-time Gold Glover, 2001 NL Rookie of the Year, 1 World Series ring, .331 batting average, 408 home runs, 1,230 RBIs)

Going out on a small limb again with this pick. I think if Pujols retires right now, he’s still had a good enough career to make it into the Hall of Fame. We’ve never seen a player all-around dominate in his first ten years quite like Pujols has. Most think of Pujols as only a slugger, but he leads all active players in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. And as I mentioned with A-Rod, no eligible player with 3 or more MVP awards has been left out of the Hall of Fame.

Although I said I wouldn’t use new stats like WAR, look at this graph from Fangraphs comparing Pujols with three recent Hall of Famers with fantastic peaks and not much else (Puckett, Rice, and Dawson): http://www.fangraphs.com/graphsw.aspx?playerid2=1177&playerid3=1010897&playerid4=1010557&playerid5=1003091. It’s not even close.

Among active players, Pujols is already second in career WAR. In other words, he’s done more in his career already than Manny Ramirez, Ivan Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Vladimir Guerrero, and…well everyone besides Alex Rodriguez. I’d say that’s a pretty strong argument that Pujols is already a Hall of Famer without even considering his future production.

6. Ivan Rodriguez (14-time All-Star, 13-time Gold Glover, 7-time Silver Slugger, 1999 AL MVP, 2003 World Series winner, .298 batting average, 2,817 career hits, 1,313 RBIs)

Pudge is probably just behind Johnny Bench as the best all-around catcher of all-time. Any time you can make a legitimate case that a player is the best ever at his position, that’s a pretty good indication that that player is Hall-worthy. Since I already have the amazingly fun Fangraphs site open on my computer, here is a graph comparing Rodriguez with the last three MLB catchers elected (Bench, Fisk, and Carter): http://www.fangraphs.com/graphsw.aspx?playerid2=1275&playerid3=1000826&playerid4=1004101&playerid5=1002015.

Rodriguez already ranks first among catchers in career batting average and fourth in RBIs to go along with his stellar defensive reputation. It will be interesting to see when Pudge makes it into the Hall. First, he is one of those questionable steroid cases. Although he was never mentioned in the Mitchell Report nor did he test positive, Jose Canseco explicitly identified him as a user and he had that sudden late career weight loss that voters will surely pounce on. Second, catchers are tragically underrepresented in the Hall. Only 16 catchers are currently in the Hall, the second fewest for any position behind the 13 third basemen. Bench is the only catcher ever elected on the first ballot. Rodriguez definitely gets in, but he may have to wait for it.

B. Probably Already in, but not a Lock

The following players have probably already done enough to ensure their selection to the Hall of Fame, but they are not locks for a variety of differing reasons.

7. Jim Thome (5-time All-Star, .278 career average, 1,679 walks, 589 home runs, 1,624 RBIs)

In a different era, Thome would be a lock for the Hall of Fame. Every eligible player ahead of him on the career walk and home run lists is in the Hall. Only Rafael Palmeiro and Harold Baines are ahead of him on the career RBI list and not in the Hall (Baines is only four ahead). Thome matches up favorably with virtually every slugger from any generation. But of course, the issue is his era.

I still think he gets in for two reasons. First, the 600 Home Run Club will become the new 500 Home Run Club. Thome plans to play two more years so he surely will get 11 more home runs. If he averages 21 over those two seasons (he hit 25 this year), he will retire sixth all-time on the home run list. Importantly, he will also pass Sammy Sosa (609), placing him above all the suspected steroid users of the era, save sure-thing Hall of Famers Bonds and A-Rod.

Second, Thome is one of the most liked players in baseball. Fans, reporters, and teammates all love him. He won the Good Guy Award in 1995, Marvin Miller Man of the Year in 2001 and 2004, the Lou Gehrig Award in 2004, and was the 2002 BBWAA Man of the Year and Roberto Clemente Award winner. In the 2009 offseason, he was named the most liked MLB player by his peers in a Sports Illustrated poll. In short, everyone loves the guy. Thome will escape much of the steroid speculation simply because he is so well liked. Fair? No, but that’s just the way voters operate.

8. Trevor Hoffman (7-time All-Star selection, 2.87 career ERA, 601 saves)

Hoffman’s statistics are better than pretty much every closer in baseball history. His 601 saves are the most in MLB history and his 2.87 ERA is behind only Rivera, Tom Henke, and Bruce Sutter among closers with at least 300 saves. The only thing keeping Hoffman from being a lock is the question of how the voters are going to treat closers. Hoffman does not have Rivera’s postseason transcendence to hang his hat on; in fact, most of his 601 saves came on the relatively anonymous West Coast, three hours after East Coast viewers fell asleep.

Lee Smith and John Franco are the only pitchers with 400-plus saves that have been on the ballot. Smith, with 478 saves, started with 42 percent of the vote in 2003 but has stalled below 50 percent. Franco had 424 saves and a better career ERA than Smith. Amazingly, he did not even get enough votes to stay on the ballot after his first year. I think Hoffman eventually gets in based on his staggering statistics, but the fact that voters have never elected a modern ninth-inning closer and their treatment of Smith and Franco keeps this from being a lock.

9. Chipper Jones (6-time All-Star, 2-time Silver Slugger, 1-time MVP, .306 batting average, 436 home runs, 2,490 hits, 1,491 RBIs, third among active players in career WAR)

It is easy to forget just how good Chipper Jones has been in his career. He rarely gets mentioned in the discussion for best hitters in the league, but he’s simply one of the best all-around hitters of all-time. He is the only switch hitter in baseball history with a batting average of over .300 and more than 400 home runs – and that list includes Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray. And again, here I go with this WAR thing, but Chipper Jones ranks third among active players in career WAR – ahead of better-known contemporaries Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Ivan Rodriguez, Todd Helton, Vladimir Guerrero, and the recently retired Ken Griffey Jr.

Of course the same problem will plague Jones in the future. If it is already easy to forget how good Chipper Jones has been in his career, it won’t get any easier in the five-plus years before he gets on the ballot. His problem is that he is one of those players who isn’t great at any one thing – he’s just very good at everything. I see Chipper as one of those guys that slowly gains momentum through the voting process as his supporters point out just how good he was.

10. Omar Vizquel (3-time All-Star, 11 time Gold Glove winner, .273 career batting average, 2,799 hits, .985 career fielding percentage is the highest for a shortstop)

Hall of Fame voters are suckers for the outstanding defensive shortstop. Look no further than Ozzie Smith. Smith is undoubtedly the best defensive shortstop of all-time, but Vizquel might be the second best. His 11 Gold Gloves trail only Smith’s 13 among shortstops. Smith gets a lot of credit for turning himself into a solid hitter after hanging around the league for his first several years based on his defensive prowess. Vizquel did the same thing, perhaps even more effectively than Smith. He tops the Oz in batting average (.273 to .262), hits (2,799 to 2,460), and OPS (.692 to .666)

Twenty-three shortstops have made it in the Hall of Fame, the second most of any position behind the twenty-five center fielders. I put Vizquel on the probably already in column because it would not surprise me if he didn’t make it in. But with 23 shortstops already in, I just don’t see Vizquel getting left out.

C. The Steroid User

11. Manny Ramirez (12-time All-Star, 9-time Silver Slugger, 2 World Series championships, 1 World Series MVP, .313 career batting average, 555 home runs, 1,830 RBIs)

Ah, what to do about Manny? He gets his own category because there is really no debate about his Hall credentials. He finished in the AL top ten in MVP voting eight times, home runs nine times, total bases eight times, and RBIs eight times. He won the 2002 American League batting crown, and led the league in OPS three times and on-base percentage three times. Ramirez is just a great all-around hitter and a no-doubt Hall of Famer in any another era.

But Manny has not one, but two, knocks on him. First, there’s that whole “Manny being Manny” thing – the perhaps undeserved reputation that he is not a team player and a terrible defender. More importantly, he has the 50-game drug suspension. A fair amount of voters will never vote for him because of the suspension. However, I have a hunch that he gets in eventually. Assuming Manny does not latch on with a team this offseason, he will first become eligible for induction in 2015. That gives him until 2030 to make it in. Keeping with my theory that the steroid anger will eventually die down, I think Manny makes it in.

D. Close, but not there quite yet

These players are really close to already being solid Hall candidates, but probably need one to three more solid seasons to solidify their candidacy.

12. Vladimir Guerrero (9-time All-Star, 8-time Silver Slugger, 1 MVP, .318 batting average, .946 OPS, 2,605 hits, 436 home runs, 1,548 RBIs)

You could make a strong argument that Guerrero is already a Hall of Famer. Here’s the same graph I used for Albert Pujols, with Guerrero plugged in instead of Pujols: http://www.fangraphs.com/graphsw.aspx?playerid2=778&playerid3=1010897&playerid4=1010557&playerid5=1003091. He is one of the most exciting hitters of his generation and his numbers compare favorably with Rice, Dawson, and Puckett.

Still, I think Guerrero probably needs a couple more solid years because of his era. Rice, Dawson, and Puckett all came from more pitcher-friendly eras. With three more strong seasons, he will pass the 3,000-hit mark, 500-home run mark, and 1,800-RBI mark. If he passes even one of these marks, I think Guerrero moves into lock status.

13. Roy Halladay (7-time All-Star, 2-time Cy Young Award winner, 1 perfect game, 1 postseason no-hitter, 169-86 record, 3.32 ERA, 1,714 strikeouts)*

* Finally we get to a starting pitcher. This list would have gone a lot smoother had I done it two years ago, when Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, John Smoltz, and Roger Clemens were still pitching. What happened to pitchers born in the ten-year gap between this crew and Halladay, Santana, Sabathia, and the like?

Like Guerrero, you could make a strong case that Halladay is already a borderline Hall of Famer. After his postseason no-hitter, I think he is knocking on the door, but probably needs a couple more solid seasons. His 169 wins would be the third lowest all-time for a starting pitcher in the Hall, ahead of only Sandy Koufax and Dizzy Dean. Still, only sixteen pitchers have won multiple Cy Young Awards. Only two of those pitchers are eligible for the Hall of Fame and not in – Denny McLain and Bret Saberhagen, both of whom had shorter careers than Halladay already has, and neither of whom had two legendary big-game performances like Halladay.

If Halladay gets to 200 wins or wins a third Cy Young, we can safely move him into the lock category. That shouldn’t be a problem with him pitching in the National League for the Phillies.

#14. Andy Pettitte (3-time All-Star, 5-time World Series champion, 240-138, 3.88 ERA, 2,251 strikeouts, MLB-record 19 postseason wins)

If this seems like a weird place to put Pettitte, that’s because it is. Pettitte is currently a free agent and is undecided on coming back for next season. I have a hunch that Pettitte ends up in the Hall even if he retires now, but he needs another season or two to seal his case.

Jack Morris is sort of a test case for Pettitte. His stats are very similar: 254-186, 3.90 ERA, and 2,478 strikeouts. Like Pettitte, he was known as a big-game pitcher, mostly on the heels of his 1991 World Series Game 7 performance. Morris seems to be on track for the Hall – he was up to 53.5% this year and still has four years left on the ballot. If Morris slips in, I think Pettitte does too. If not, Pettitte probably needs another season or two to make it in.

#15. Scott Rolen (6-time All Star, 8-time Gold Glover, 1 Silver Slugger, 1 World Series ring, .284 batting average, 1,945 hits, 303 home runs)

Here we go, yet another WAR graph: http://www.fangraphs.com/graphsw.aspx?playerid2=970&playerid3=1011586&playerid4=1011055&playerid5=. This compares Rolen with Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt, two great defensive third basemen. Rolen was on pace with the two third basemen all the way through the 2005 season, when he turned 30 and battled injuries for the better part of two seasons. Still, he has remained fairly close to those two first-ballot Hall of Famers. Rolen is 35 now, and if he can be halfway decent until he is 38 or 39, I think he gets in.

Third basemen are a little hit or miss when it comes to the Hall of Fame. Only 13 third basemen are in the Hall, and only seven of those were elected by the BBWAA. Yet a whopping five of those seven – Robinson, Schmidt, George Brett, Paul Molitor, and Wade Boggs – were elected on the first ballot. Apparently when the voters like a third baseman, they really like a third baseman. I have a feeling that eventually there will be a backlash against the lack of third basemen and that will help Rolen get in. The backlash may have already started: after only eight third basemen made the Hall between 1936 and 1994, five have made it since 1995.

E. Way ahead of pace, but need several more years

The players in this section are way ahead of pace to make it to the Hall of Fame. Some of these players are still very young – even younger than those in the next section that are merely on pace to make the Hall. These players have a head start on making the Hall because their careers have started out so fantastically. They can afford either several more average seasons or a few more outstanding seasons to make the Hall.

#16. Joe Mauer (4-time All-Star, 3-time AL Batting champion, 3-time Gold Glover, 1 MVP, .327 career batting average)

Finally we have a Twin on the list. Still in the early years of his career, Mauer is well on his way to redefining the catcher position. Not only is he one of the best defensive catchers in the league, he is one of the top sluggers at any position. In 2006, only his second full season as a major leaguer, he became the first catcher to lead MLB in batting average. He has gone on to win two more batting titles and in his 2009 MVP season he had the best season for a catcher in history, become the first catcher ever to lead the American League in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.

Mauer still has many years to go, but if he can stay healthy and merely be adequate, he is a certain Hall of Famer.

#17. Johan Santana (4-time All-Star, 2-time Cy Young Award winner, 1 Gold Glove, 3 strikeout titles, 3 ERA titles, 133 wins, 3.10 career ERA, and 1,877 strikeouts)

Santana has been pushed to the backburner playing for a crappy Mets team the last couple of years, so it is easy to forget just how dominant he has been. He is the active ERA leader among starting pitchers. At only 31 years old, he has the sixth most strikeouts among active pitchers and only CC Sabathia is younger than him in the top 20.

Santana gets knocked slightly below Mauer because of injury concerns. His season has ended early with injuries each of the last three seasons. Still, he finished the 2010 season with an 11-9 record and a 2.98 ERA…and many called it the worst season of his career. If a pitcher is 31 and is coming off a “career-worst” season with a 2.98 ERA, he is ahead of Hall of Fame pace.

#18. David Wright (5-time All-Star, 2-time Gold Glove winner, 2-time Silver Slugger, .305 batting average, 1,138 hits, 169 home runs, 664 RBIs, 138 stolen bases)

Wright was SO good in his first four full seasons that people have started to write him off when he had two merely above average seasons. He already had four and a half seasons under his belt by the time he turned 25, and his career WAR ranked him above Mike Schmidt, George Brett, and Wade Boggs: http://www.fangraphs.com/graphsw.aspx?playerid2=3787&playerid3=1011586&playerid4=1001400&playerid5=1001124. Even with two off-years, he is still ahead of Boggs and is right behind Schmidt and Brett.

Here’s how underrated Wright is: in my first draft of this list, I had Wright in the next category at #24. Then I realized that his statistics are uncannily similar to Chase Utley’s statistics. Their birthdays are three days apart in December. The only difference? Utley turned 32. Wright turned 28. Welcome to the ahead-of-pace group, Mr. Wright.

#19a. Tim Lincecum (3-time All-Star, 2-time Cy Young Award winner, 1 World Series ring, led NL in strikeouts between 2008 and 2010)

“The Freak” has only been a full-time starter for three years. He has made the All-Star team all three years and won the Cy Young Award twice. That’s what they call dominance. In his first ever postseason start this year, he went out and threw 14 strikeouts. If he keeps up his staggering strikeout pace, he could hit 3,000 strikeouts in his 12th season. It took Nolan Ryan until his 13th season to get 3,000. I’d call that ahead of the pace.

The pitchers who have won two Cy Young Awards show just how hard it is to project ahead for pitchers: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, Gaylord Perry, Bret Saberhagen, Tom Glavine, Johan Santana, Tim Lincecum, and Roy Halladay. That’s two Hall of Famers (Gibson and Perry), one future Hall of Famer (Glavine), two that seem well on their way (Santana and Halladay), and two flameouts (McLain and Saberhagen). Still, not bad company to be in for a guy with only three years as a starter under his belt.

#19b. Felix Hernandez (1-time All-Star, 1-time Cy Young Award winner, 1 ERA title, 71 wins, and 1,042 strikeouts)

I originally had Lincecum one spot ahead of Hernandez because of the World Series ring and the second Cy Young Award. Then I noticed something: Hernandez is only 24. Lincecum is 26. That barely seems possible; it feels like Hernandez has been around forever. Because of the age difference, I ended up moving Hernandez up a spot in a tie for 18th with Lincecum.

At age 24, Hernandez became the fourth youngest pitcher to strike out 1,000 batters after Bob Feller, Bert Blyleven, and Dwight Gooden. Again not bad company, assuming he can stay away from the crack. Pretty much everything else that can be said about Lincecum can be said about Hernandez.

#21a. Troy Tulowitzki (1 All-Star selection, 1 Gold Glove, 1 Silver Slugger, .290 batting average, 608 hits, 92 home runs, 338 RBIs)

Back to back ties, but these two shortstops go hand-in-hand just like young pitching studs Lincecum and Hernandez. Tulowitzki gets lost in the shuffle playing in relative anonymity in Colorado, but he is already a standout offensive and defensive shortstop. Tulo is a former first round draft pick and seems to be improving each year. In 2010, he added to an already impressive start with his first All-Star selection, Gold Glove, and Silver Slugger awards.

#21b. Hanley Ramirez (3-time All-Star. 2-time Silver Slugger, Rookie of the Year, 1 batting title, .311 batting average, 119 home runs, 373 RBIs, 176 stolen bases)

Ramirez is in virtually the same boat as Tulowitzki. He is a better offensive shortstop but does not have the defensive prowess that Tulowitzki does. I have a feeling that only one of these guys will end up making the Hall of Fame, mostly because these rivalries never pan out as well as we expect them too. After all, there was a time when we thought Nomar Garciaparra was a better shortstop than Derek Jeter. Still, I’ll hedge my bets and pick both of them.

As an aside, how spoiled were we by the mid 1990s shortstops (Jeter, Garciaparra, Miguel Tejada, and the like) that guys like Tulo and Hanley don’t even phase us any more? Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith and probable Hall of Famer Omar Vizquel are lucky they retired when they did. Had they come along 10 to 15 years later, they might have even lasted in the league, let alone made the Hall of Fame.

#23. C.C. Sabathia (4-time All-Star, 1 Cy Young Award, 1 World Series championship, 157-88, 3.57 ERA, 1,787 strikeouts)

Sabathia has remarkably similar stats to Halladay in three less seasons. However, unlike Halladay, you could not make a legitimate argument that Sabathia is already a Hall of Famer. He has 1 less Cy Young and does not have the two memorable games to stake his case on.*

* And if you don’t think one game makes a difference, look at how far Jack Morris’s candidacy has come based basically on one game in the 1991 World Series.

Sabathia is still well on his way to the Hall of Fame. In an evolving era, 250 wins will become the new benchmarks for pitchers. Although he has not been as consistently dominant as Santana and Lincecum, he is eighth among active players in strikeouts – the only pitcher in the top 20 younger than 30. At his current rate, Sabathia will get to 250 wins and 3,000 strikeouts in five or six years, which should make him Hall-worthy.

F. On pace, but need to maintain current pace for several more years

This next group is made up of players that have put together the beginnings of a Hall of Fame career. Unlike the players in the previous group, these players are on pace but need to maintain that pace for several more years to merit Hall consideration.

#24. Carl Crawford (4-time All-Star, 1 Gold Glove, 1 Silver Slugger, 4 stolen base titles, 1,480 hits, 765 runs, 409 stolen bases)

Crawford narrowly misses the previous group. He is a very similar player to Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines. Henderson easily qualified on the first ballot while Raines has bizarrely received almost no support. If Raines receives more support, that bodes well for Crawford. Until then, Crawford will have to settle for merely being on pace to make the Hall. If he keeps up his current pace, he will have 3,000 hits and 800 stolen bases by the time he turns 38. Only three other players can claim those numbers – first-ballot Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, Lou Brock, and Rickey Henderson.

#25. Roy Oswalt (3-time All-Star, 150 wins, 3.18 ERA, 1,666 strikeouts)

Oswalt gets overshadowed by other more dominant pitchers, but he has been consistently very good for a long time. The most surprising stat about Oswalt? He ranks behind only Johan Santana among active starters – ahead of Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez, and C.C. Sabathia, among others. He has started 30 or more games in eight of his ten MLB seasons. Only once did he finish a season with higher than a 3.54 ERA and less than 10 wins. Because Oswalt does not really wow anybody, he will need to pitch for another seven or eight years to get to the Hall. I think he turns into this generation’s Tom Glavine and gets there.

#26. Carlos Beltran (5-time All-Star, 3-time Gold Glover, 2-time Silver Slugger, Rookie of the Year, .280 batting average, 280 home runs, 1,062 RBIs, 289 stolen bases)

Beltran has it easier than most in this category. Hall voters love center fielders: more center fielders have been elected than any other position. Beltran will come out in an era with a dearth of center fielders.* Beltran is like a poor man’s Ken Griffey Jr. He has been merely solid for so many years with the Mets that it’s easy to forget just how good he is.

* I considered Jim Edmonds for this reason, but I think Edmonds comes up just short.

A few statistics to remind you of Beltran’s greatness: 100 RBIs eight times, 100 runs seven times, 25 stolen bases seven times, 20 home runs nine times. Beltran is probably not quite a Hall of Famer quite yet but a few more solid seasons will get him there.

#27. Evan Longoria (3-time All-Star, Rookie of the Year, 2 Gold Gloves, .361 on-base percentage, 82 home runs)

Longoria was called up in 2008 and has had three spectacular seasons for the Rays. Here’s a good statistic to put in perspective both Longoria’s rapid ascent and how hard this is to predict – in their first seasons, both at age 23:

Longoria – 448 ABs, 122 hits, 27 home runs, .272 BA, .343 OBP, .874 OPS

Mike Schmidt – 367 ABs, 72 hits, 18 home runs, .196 BA, .324 OBP, .697 OPS

Schmidt got off to an awful start, but any time you’re a third baseman and get a chance to compare yourself with Mike Schmidt, you have to take that. Longoria gets the edge over fellow young slugger Ryan Braun because he is two years younger and is a defensive stud at a tougher position than Braun’s left field.

#28. Chase Utley (5-time All-Star, 4-time Silver Slugger, 1 World Series ring, .293 batting average, 173 home runs, 637 RBIs)

Utley has slowed down over the past couple seasons, but his first few seasons in the league were among the best any second baseman has ever had. He has made the All-Star Game in each of his first five years and averaged over .300, 110 runs, 100 RBIs, 25 home runs between 2005 and 2009.

Utley is downgraded a little bit because of his late start – he was not a full-time regular until halfway through his age 26 season. Yet even with that late start, he still compares favorably with Hall of Fame second basemen Roberto Alomar and Ryne Sandberg through age 31: http://www.fangraphs.com/graphsw.aspx?playerid2=1679&playerid3=860&playerid4=1009179&playerid5=1011411. He turned 32 this offseason and his body will need to hold up for another five or six very good seasons to have a chance at the Hall.

#29a. Ryan Braun (3-time All-Star, 3-time Silver Slugger, 1 Rookie of the Year, 1 slugging title, 1 hits title, .304 batting average, 128 home runs, 397 runs, 420 RBIs)

Braun is in the same boat as Utley. He has been flat-out incredible in his first four seasons in the league. In addition to averaging over 30 home runs, 100 runs, and 100 RBIs per season, he is one of the best left fielders in the league according to both advanced defensive metrics and standard fielding percentage. But like Utley, Braun got a late start on his career. In 2011, he will begin his fifth season in the majors, but he is already 27 years old. If he was younger, he could afford a couple off years but at 27, he doesn’t have that luxury – he needs to keep producing to eventually make the Hall of Fame.

#29b. Dustin Pedroia (3-time All-Star, 1 MVP, Rookie of the Year, .305 BA, .369 OBP, 377 runs, 253 RBIs)

Another cop-out tie, but Braun and Pedroia are too similar to separate. Both are 27. Braun has better statistics, but Pedroia has the MVP award and a tougher defensive position. Pedroia is a tough guy. He played several games on a broken foot this season so he seems like a solid bet to have a long career playing through various injuries.

#31. Carlos Zambrano (3-time All-Star, 116-74, 3.50 ERA, 1,441 strikeouts, 1 no-hitter)

This one is a bit of an off-the-wall selection coming off Zambrano’s strange 2010 season in which he was sent to the bullpen partly for having no control but mostly for being Big Z. Zambrano is another one of those guys who feels like he has been around forever, but he is only 29 years old. He differs from most in this category in that he has never really been considered one of the best at his position, but his numbers are not bad by any means. He is very durable, starting 28 or more games in each of the past eight seasons. I just have a hunch that he will pitch consistently for another ten or so years like a Tom Glavine or Gaylord Perry and finish with statistics that voters will not be able to ignore.

G. The Way too Early to Tell Guys

These are the players that are obviously not anywhere close to the Hall of Fame. They have all played three seasons or less – not even enough to project them as on pace to make the Hall. Yet if 35 Hall of Famers are active at any given time, a few of them will necessarily be in their first seasons as a professional.

#32. David Price (1 All-Star start, 29-13 record, 3.31 ERA, 302 strikeouts)

Among players that have three years or less experience in the big leagues, Price seems as good a bet as any to make the Hall of Fame. He was the first overall draft pick in 2007, so he clearly has the natural talent. In his second big league season, he established himself as a #1 starter. He started the All-Star game and went on to finish second in the league in wins (19) and third in ERA (2.72). Not a bad start to a career.

#33. Clayton Kershaw (26-23 record, 3.17 ERA, 497 strikeouts)

Kershaw’s innings have been tightly controlled, but he is still off to an outrageous statistical start. He is only 22-years old but is a strikeout machine – his 497 total strikeouts have come over 483 career innings. Last season, his first without a cap on his innings, he went 13-10 with a 2.91 ERA and 212 strikeouts in 204 innings. He does struggle with his control, so it would not at all be surprising if he flames out early, but for now he is amazing to watch.

#34a. Jason Heyward (1 All-Star selection, .277 batting average, 18 home runs, 72 RBIs)

#34b. Buster Posey (2010 NL Rookie of the Year, 1 World Series ring, .305 batting average, 18 home runs, 67 RBIs)

Posey edged out Heyward for the NL Rookie of the Year this season but both were worthy of the award. Really, they should have made Heyward an honorary AL rookie so he could have won an award also. Both of these guys are studs. Johnny Bench considers himself Buster Posey fan. Thisarticle found that Jason Heyard’s rookie season really had no comparison. Good enough for me.

 

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