Carlton Fisk and Tony Perez were the recently retired players inducted into the Hall of Fame Sunday, which is as good a reason as any to consider which current players are headed to Cooperstown. (Note for you cub reporters: That’s what we call a news peg.)
Today we’ll consider position players. Baseball’s offensive explosion, which began in 1993 and really went nuts in 1998, may force the voters (baseball writers) to reconsider the “magic numbers” for inclusion. Traditionally, collect 3,000 hits, 400 home runs or 1,500 RBIs and, with a few exceptions, you’re in. Will that still be true when players who have spent most or all of their careers in the current rabbit-ball era start to become eligible?
The first test case may be Jose Canseco. He has 439 home runs and 1,331 RBIs, and at 36 he’s still hitting when he’s healthy. But he’s widely perceived as a guy who hasn’t lived up to his otherworldly abilities, an indifferent fielder who doesn’t really help the teams he plays for. He just hits a lot of home runs.
First, the obvious choices — guys who, if their careers ended today, would still be a lock: Tony Gwynn, Rickey Henderson, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Cal Ripken Jr.
Next we consider guys who look like they’re on their way to the Hall of Fame but just haven’t played long enough yet. We’ll ignore young hotshots like Chipper Jones and the amazing American League shortstop trio (Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra) on the grounds that you need to have played on a high level for a decade or so to even be included in conversations like this one.
Roberto Alomar: A dazzling second baseman, the yearly Gold Glove winner and a perennial All-Star. He’s a solid hitter who had a monster season in ’99 (120 RBIs, 26 more than his previous career high) and is slumping this year. His offense alone wouldn’t get him in, but factoring in the glove, he’s on his way.
Jeff Bagwell: He’s 32 and just chugging along as one of the game’s most feared hitters. Assuming he stays healthy and keeps it up for four or five more years, he’s in.
Albert Belle: Sure, nobody likes him, but this guy’s driven in 121 runs per year since becoming a regular player. If he has three or four more good seasons and doesn’t get in (both likely), it’ll be because of politics.
Juan Gonzalez: He has hit 40 or more homers five times and 100 or more RBIs seven times, and he’s only 30. He’s struggling a bit this year and is hurt at the moment, but this is a guy with a chance for 600 home runs.
Ken Griffey Jr.: My God, he’s only 30! He has averaged 36 homers and 104 RBIs per year, and that includes a strike year and a year when he was out for half the season with an injury. And those averages will be higher after this season. The question isn’t really whether he’ll get into the Hall, it’s whether he’ll break Hank Aaron’s career records. Oh, and he’s as good as anybody in center field.
Mike Piazza: One of the best hitting catchers of all time. He’s 31, and it’s just a matter of staying healthy long enough to build up the numbers.
Ivan Rodriguez: He’s only 28, so he has to put more numbers up, but I’m ready to order his plaque already. He just about qualifies on his defense alone. Add in a lifetime average of .304 and decent power numbers (inflated the past two years), and we might be looking at the greatest catcher ever.
Frank Thomas: One of the best ever at on-base percentage, and averaging more than 100 RBIs a season. At 32 and having bounced back from a subpar year in 1999, he’s just a few good years away.
That brings us to my favorite category: the intriguing maybes. These are the guys you argue about when that sixth inning just drags on and on …
Harold Baines: For 20 years, he has gone out and hit about .300 with about 20 homers and about 80 RBIs. Sometimes a little better, sometimes not quite that, but right around there. At 41, it looks like he might finally be slowing down (.276, 10 homers, 29 RBIs), and if he retires after this year, he’ll finish with just under 3,000 hits and 400 home runs, but more than 1,600 RBIs.
You could reasonably vote either way, but I’ll say thumbs down, because he was never really dominant, and I think you have to be dominant at some point in your career to get in. Just being consistently good, but not dominant, over a really long period doesn’t get it for me, which is why I wasn’t thrilled by the inductions of Don Sutton and Robin Yount in recent years. Your mileage may vary.
Jose Canseco: See above for numbers. I vote yes. What the hell. I love the big oaf. If he’d come into the league with no expectations and had the exact same career, he’d be a lock for the Hall of Fame. You shouldn’t be excluded just because you didn’t live up to your supposed potential. (For those of you about to send me an e-mail, please restrict your comments to my intelligence, and let’s leave my mother out of this, OK?)
Barry Larkin: Tough call. He’s got middle-infielder-type numbers (fewer than 200 homers and 900 RBIs, now in his 15th year), and we’re now in an era when middle infielders have Ruthian stats. On the other hand: three Gold Gloves, an MVP and 11 times an All-Star. He has been the gold standard for National League shortstops for a decade. He’s in.
Edgar Martinez: Great hitter, but he started too late. He was 27 before he began hitting, in 1990, and 32 when his power numbers went up in 1995. If he plays well into his 40s and pads his career numbers he might have an outside chance, but he’s still a few years away from his 2,000th hit.
Fred McGriff: He’s over 400 home runs, and he’s having a good year at 36. Right now I say he just misses: never quite dominant enough. But I think it’s likely he’ll be around long enough to end with the kind of stats that’ll get him in.
Rafael Palmeiro: He has had at least 37 homers and 104 RBIs in six of the past seven years (the seventh was the strike year). He’ll get to and well above those magic numbers of 400 and 1,500, and he’d been playing for seven years by the time offensive inflation hit in 1993. He has hit .300 or better six times. He was also a great first baseman when he was younger. At 36, he’s still hitting. One more good year after this one and there oughta be no question.
Gary Sheffield: When he’s on, as he is this year, this guy is Cooperstown-quality stuff. But he has had too many unproductive seasons. He’s still only 31, so several more ridiculous years like the one he’s having this season might boost him into consideration, but what are the odds on several more ridiculous years?
Sammy Sosa: He’s been a home run titan for three years, but he’s been hitting in earnest for eight, since he was 24. If he hits homers and drives in runs for the next four years (till he’s 35) like he has for the past four, he’ll be at about 600 and 1,650, and that’ll be plenty.
Besides, he hit 60-plus home runs two years in a row, which is a hell of a thing. I say you get in for doing a hell of a thing, which is why I have no argument with the consistent but not dominant Ripken (a hell of a consecutive-games streak), and why I think Maury Wills (a record 104 stolen bases in 1962; changed the way the game is played) ought to be in.
Mo Vaughn: He’s only 32 but he seems older, doesn’t he? If he puts up numbers over the next five years like he has over the past eight, he’s got a shot, but I don’t think he will. Do you?
Larry Walker: His huge numbers in the late ’90s were inflated by Coors Field. He doesn’t make it.
Bernie Williams: A wonderful player with all the skills, but he’s on that next level down from Hall of Famer.
Matt Williams: A great home run hitter who might have threatened Roger Maris’ single-season record four years before McGwire did if the strike hadn’t ended the season. Also a great third baseman. But he has been hurt too much, and he won’t finish with the required numbers.
Whom have I left out?
Tuesday we’ll consider pitchers.