King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Can a borderline Hall of Famer make it to Cooperstown after a career spent in baseball backwaters? New Marlin Carlos Delgado had better hope so.


Salon Staff
January 28, 2005 1:00AM (UTC)

Slugging first baseman Carlos Delgado signed a four-year, $52 million contract with the Marlins this week. Most of the talk about the deal has centered on what his choosing Florida over the Mets means in the National League East race. My take: Who can tell about these things?

But my first thought was that by signing with the Marlins, Delgado dealt a body blow to his own chances to make the Hall of Fame. He's going to have to be a better player in Miami over the next few years than he would have had to have been in New York, or even in Baltimore, which also wanted him, to make it to Cooperstown.

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You might be thinking: Carlos Delgado? Cooperstown? Especially if you don't live in Toronto, where Delgado has spent his entire career, you probably think of him as a next-level-down kind of guy, maybe a borderline case.

A borderline case is just what he is. I'll show you what I mean in a second, and unless you like digging around in this sort of thing like I sometimes do you'll say, "Wow, it really does get slow in the dead week before Super Bowl hype really kicks in." Those of you who prefer columns like yesterday's might feel more comfortable clicking over to today's New York Times, and I'll hope to see you again tomorrow.

Borderline Hall of Fame cases benefit greatly from playing for glamour teams in big markets. Playing for championship teams helps, but perhaps not as much as playing in a media center. If you don't believe me, consider Ryne Sandberg, who just got elected to the Hall after missing out in his first two votes, and the very similar Lou Whitaker, who in his first year on the ballot didn't even garner the 5 percent vote necessary to stay on it.

Sandberg spent his entire career with the Cubs, where he played on two playoff losers. Whitaker spent his entire career with the Tigers, where he played on a World Series winner and a playoff loser. But Whitaker played on six other teams that finished second or third. Sandberg none.

Sandberg was arguably a slightly better player, especially considering his defense, which Hall of Fame voters -- baseball writers -- tend not to do unless a player's defense is beyond astounding. But not so much better that he should get a plaque while Whitaker gets roughly the same consideration as Chili Davis -- who wasn't anything like a Hall of Famer but got a few votes after having spent some time in New York and Anaheim.

I think that if Sandberg had been a Tiger and Whitaker a Cub, things would have been very different for them, Hall of Fame wise.

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So that brings us to Delgado, who has played his entire career in the baseball backwater of Toronto. He had a one-at-bat cup of coffee with the '93 champion Blue Jays, but didn't stick until 1996, the third of four consecutive losing seasons. Toronto has never finished higher than third in a five-team division with Delgado at first base.

The Marlins won the World Series in 1997 and 2003, but Miami's a baseball backwater too. The Fish have been willing to spend a little money in the last couple of years, and signing Delgado and trying to succeed now are part of the team's strategy to win over the public to the idea of building the team a new stadium.

But even if the Marlins are more successful on the field over the next few years than the Mets, who have had a big offseason, signing Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez, Delgado would have had a better chance of getting Hall of Fame voters to think of him as Cooperstown material if he'd been playing in the spotlight in New York. That's just the way it is.

It's not impossible to go from a baseball backwater to the Hall of Fame, but it's not easy. The last guy to do it was Robin Yount, elected in 1998 after an entire career in Milwaukee. And he was even kind of a borderline guy, though he did win two MVPs. But even Yount played in a World Series.

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Delgado will be 33 in June. Here's a list, in order, of the 10 most comparable players to him through age 32, according to Baseball-Reference.com, which uses a formula invented by Bill James to determine players most similar to each other: Willie McCovey, Fred McGriff, Jeff Bagwell, Albert Belle, Mo Vaughn, Jim Thome, Jose Canseco, Jason Giambi, Ralph Kiner, Gil Hodges.

Borderline enough for you? That's basically a list of borderline Hall of Fame guys, or at least guys who looked that way at 32, plus Willie McCovey. Only McCovey and Kiner are in the Hall.

Thome is 34 and with 423 home runs could reach 600, even considering an inevitable decline over the next five years. He's in unless he breaks down in the next year or two. Belle, even given his abrasive personality, which can be a factor, looked like a mortal lock at 32 before an injury did him in the next year. Canseco and Vaughn both looked like they had a shot at 30, but by 32 were declining.

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Giambi is 34 and won't make it, but a couple of years ago was looking borderlineish. Hodges was a perennial All-Star playing for a great team, but not a Hall of Fame-level player.

McGriff is the classic modern borderliner. With a long career spent mostly in a rabbit-ball era, he has 493 home runs, including two last year, which is looking like his last. That leaves him just shy of the round number that has always been a golden ticket to Cooperstown. He and Rafael Palmeiro, who has 551 and is still active, and who has always seemed like a next-level-down guy, have sparked a lot of talk that 500 really shouldn't be an automatic entree anymore.

Bagwell is probably on the good side of the borderline, a better player than McGriff. He'll be 37 in May, and while he's declining, he's still a pretty good player. Unless he falls off a cliff, he should be a sure thing when he retires in a few years.

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So, back to Delgado. You can kind of throw out McCovey as a comparable player because the similarity scores don't take into account the differences across eras. McCovey, who played during a time dominated by pitching, was a much better player than Delgado, who has played in an era of offensive explosion.

The 352 home runs McCovey hit through his age-32 season, 1970, were worth a lot more than the 336 Delgado has hit through his. American League teams hit 2.3 home runs per game last year. In 1970, teams in the National League, where McCovey played with the Giants, hit 1.7 per game, not even three-quarters as many. McCovey finished with 521 homers. If he'd played his entire career in a live-ball era like today's, he'd already have been pushing 500 at the age of 32, and might have finished closer to 700.

But let's compare Delgado with the next two guys, McGriff, who I don't think is quite a Hall of Famer, though he might make it, and Bagwell, who I think is and will.

Delgado is a two-time All-Star and one-time MVP runner-up who has led the league in OPS, RBIs, doubles, total bases and extra-base hits once each. McGriff, through age 32 in 1995, was a three-time All-Star who led the league in homers twice and OPS once, and whose highest finish in the MVP vote was fourth.

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Bagwell, through age 32 in 2000, was a four-time All-Star who had won an MVP award and been runner-up once. He had led the league once each in RBIs, doubles, total bases, slugging percentage and OPS, and three times in runs scored. He also had a Gold Glove.

We could dig deeper into the numbers to see how similar these three really are. I won't, but in my opinion they'd show that Delgado is not quite as good as Bagwell and a little better than McGriff. But how often have you heard Bagwell's and McGriff's names in Hall of Fame discussions, and how often, before reading this column, have you heard Delgado's?

It matters where you play if you're a borderline guy. Bagwell has spent his entire career with the Astros, mostly on contending teams, five times on playoff teams. Houston isn't New York, but in the last decade it has been a big baseball city. McGriff played in Toronto when it was a big baseball city, and also for the glamorous Braves. He played in five League Championship Series and two World Series. Delgado has never been on a playoff team.

Now he's off to play in front of 10,000 fans a night in a part of the world where football is king. If the Marlins turn into consistent winners, Miami will cease to be a backwater, but given their history we shouldn't consider that likely.

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Delgado's agent said the decision of the Marlins over the Mets came down to likelihood of winning, since the financial offers were almost identical. Of course, with no state income tax in Florida, they weren't really identical, and Miami is closer to Delgado's native Puerto Rico. So don't believe everything you read.

It's about an even bet that the Marlins will be more successful on the field than the Mets over the next four years, and I'm sure that even if that wasn't Delgado's only consideration, he did consider it more than he thought about his Hall of Fame chances. That's what I'd do too.

But if he does care about Cooperstown, he's going to have to step it up now that he's a Marlin. He wouldn't have had to as a Met.

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