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Pujols is headed to the Hall, along with these nine players under 30

OK, I have this idea based on Albert Pujolswinning his third MVP in five years... it starts with this: I think Pujols at age 29 is a Hall of Famer right now. To me, it's done. True, you have to play 10 years in the big leagues to be eligible for the Hall, and Pujols has only played nine, so technically he is not yet eligible. But my point is not that old "he retires tomorrow" argument. No, my point is that in my eyes that no matter what he does on the field from this point on, the rest of his career, he has already locked up Hall of Fame status.

Look: In nine seasons, Pujols has only 16 fewer home runs than new Hall of Famer Jim Rice had in 16.

Look: His career 172 OPS+ ties him with Mantle and puts him ahead of Cobb.

Look: There are seven players in baseball history with 1,000 runs, 1,000 RBIs, 350 home runs and at least a .325 batting average. I know you can play all sorts of games by sorting numbers, but my point is: Ruth, Foxx, Williams, Gehrig, Musial, Pujols, DiMaggio.

So, Pujols is in. He will likely play many more years and he has a chance (as the old scribes used to write and the old announcers used to say) to have his own chapter in the record book. But the point here is that I think he has already clinched his spot in the Hall of Fame. The rest is just jockeying for position in the all-time great horse race.

Beyond Pujols, it's hard to tell who among young players will thrive long enough to become Hall of Famers. At 29, Juan Gonzalez had already won two MVPs and hit 340 home runs -- he seemed a cinch for 500 homers at a time when 500 homers meant automatic inclusion in the Hall of Fame. That didn't happen.... Dale Murphy at 29 had won two MVPs, four consecutive Gold Gloves, had led the league in homers in back-to-back seasons, and he had also led the league in RBIs, in runs, in slugging percentage, in walks. And he was baseball's ultimate gentleman, too. Seemed like a dead lock Hall of Famer. That probably won't happen either.... Vida Blue and Dwight Gooden were already troubled souls at 29, but they both had more than 150 victories and there was this sense that if they could just get their careers even slightly back on track... but, of course, it did not quite work out.

Meanwhile, Randy Johnson at 29 was 68-56 with a 3.78 ERA and was only just beginning to show his pitching genius. Paul Molitor at 29 had a 113 OPS+, about 1,200 hits, a history of injuries and a drug rap on his resume. And so on.

So, it's a foolish thing to try to predict which players under 30 will end up in Cooperstown. To finalize the point, if I tried to pick 10 players in 1985, the list would have looked something like this:

1. Dale Murphy (not in)2. Cal Ripken Jr. (in)3. Rickey Henderson (in)4. Pedro Guerrero (not in)5. Wade Boggs (in)6. Dave Stieb (not in)7. Tim Raines (not in ... yet)8. Fernando Valenzuela (not in)9. Eddie Murray (in)10. Lance Parrish (not in)

So, six out of those 10 are not in. Well, yes, it's a guessing game. But what the heck, right? Just know that these are merely predictions. Some of these players -- like Pujols -- are well on their way. Others will need to improve dramatically.

The rules: I am picking 10 players -- all younger than 30, who have either (A) played 500 games; (B) won 50 games; or (C) saved 100 games -- who I think will end up in the Hall of Fame. Here we go:

1. Albert Pujols. He is already in as far as I'm concerned.

2. Joe Mauer. He's only 26, and like any 26-year-old he has a lot of work to do to become a Hall of Famer player. But as the only American League catcher to ever win a batting title -- and he has done it three times now -- and as a remarkable hitter who has now added some home run power to the equation, I'm betting on him being a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

3. Hanley Ramirez. Let me show you two shortstops after their first 925 games or so:

Shortstop No. 1: .323/.370/.555, OPS+ 134Shortstop No. 2: .320/.392/.470, OPS+ 122

They both played in big markets and on winning teams. They both won Rookie of the Year Awards. They both were All-Stars most of the time. Neither one won a Gold Glove, and reports about their defense were sporadic. They both had terrific moments in the playoffs.

Shortstop No. 1 led the league in hitting twice, and at different times in hits, doubles, triples -- he scored 100-plus runs six times and drove in 100-plus runs another four.

Shortstop No. 2 also scored 100 runs six times and had driven in 100 runs once. He led the league in runs scored once and in hits once.

You have certainly guessed that No. 1 is Nomar Garciaparra, and No. 2 is Derek Jeter. And if you had tried to predict which of the two was the certain future Hall of Famer, I suspect you would have had a hard time doing it. To be honest, I probably would have gone with Nomar. Ah, but baseball careers can take such wild turns... crazy thing is that Nomar keeps signing these one-year deals and playing his role as super sub, and I would guess that more and more people will forget or never know that at one point he looked to be as good a Hall of Fame bet as anyone.

Right now, Hanley Ramirez seems to me like a future Hall of Famer. He plays a premium defensive position (and the numbers indicate that he really hasn't been bad defensively the last two years despite a bad reputation), he just won a batting title, he hits with power, he has stolen 50 bases in a season, and he will take a walk.

His career numbers at age 25: .318/.386/.543.

Then again, Nomar's numbers at a similar career point: .333/.382/.573.

Ya never know. I'm betting on Hanley, though.

4. David Wright. Yes, it was weird that he only hit 10 home runs in 2009. Weird and disconcerting because everything else about Wright's season seemed to be more or less in line with the rest of his career. He hit doubles at the same pace, triples at the same pace, stole bases like he usually does and walked at roughly the same pace. He struck out quite a bit more than usual, which could be a hint, but his average stayed about the same, his on-base percentage stayed about the same, too.

He just stopped hitting home runs. It's tempting to say this was because of the Mets' new stadium... and that no doubt played a role. Wright's home run swing fit old Shea Stadium. But the truth is that while he hit only five home runs at home, he also hit only five home runs on the road. It's a strange thing to see home run numbers drop so dramatically for a 26-year-old player, especially a player as good as Wright.

So, the question here: When thinking about future performance and such, how much stock do you put into a daunting home run drop? I don't think you can just ignore it. Still, it seems to me that Wright is such a good player in so many ways -- he hits for average, draws walks, steals bases, plays good third base defense (though his defensive numbers did fall off in 2009), and there's reason to believe his home runs will come back. I still think he's a good Hall of Fame bet. I think he'll get there.

5. Miguel Cabrera. He did not deserve a first-place MVP vote, but he's just such a good hitter and he's so young... I think he will simply bash his way into the Hall of Fame.

6. CC Sabathia. He has more wins at 29 than Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson, Warren Spahn and about 40 other Hall of Famers.* He also has fewer wins at 29 than Gooden, Blue, Milt Pappas, Fernando Valenzuela, Ken Holtzman and Wes Ferrell, among other non-Hall of Famers. So make of that what you will.

*If you care about pitcher wins, which, thankfully, fewer and fewer people do.

What makes Sabathia a good Hall of Fame bet is that even though he reached the big leagues at age 20, he has never had a BAD season. And he has had four exceptional seasons in a row -- pitching for three different teams in both leagues. People in baseball will tell you that no pitcher is a sure thing, and it's true. Injuries, shattered confidence, a slider that stops sliding, control issues, a tell that tips pitches -- lots of things can derail a pitcher.

But Sabathia seems pretty close to a sure thing. He seems utterly comfortable and at the height of his powers with the Yankees. He figures to get great run support year after year, and he showed in the playoffs that he can pitch supreme baseball under the intense glare. I suspect he will win another Cy Young in the next three or four years. And I think he will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

7. Grady Sizemore. Injuries and general woes wrecked his 2009 season, and took him off the best-player-in-the-league watch list... but I'm betting on David Wright to get his power back, and I'm betting on Sizemore to return to form. He's just 27, and a healthy Sizemore is well-above-average at every part of the game except throwing... he's a well-above average defender in center, a well-above average base runner, a well-above average offensive player with well-above-average power. There just aren't many complete players out there, and only a handful who are spectacularly complete. Yes, I'm betting on Sizemore to have a rebound and be one of the best in the game for a while.

One odd thing about Sizemore is that his batting average has dropped in each of the last three seasons -- from .290 to .277 to .268 and finally, last year, to .248. He walks quite a lot so that has made up for some of it. Still, it's weird. I suspect a part of the problem is that it's hard to punch up a good batting average when you strike out as often as Sizemore does (he has struck out once every four or five at-bats over his career). I think there has also been this weird vibe around Sizemore because he was expected to be one kind of player (fast, scrappy, moderate power, Johnny Damon type, good defense, leadoff hitter) and ended up being a slightly different player (still fast, big-time power, good defense, leadoff hitter whose skills seemed better suited for the middle of the lineup -- his numbers through age 26 match up to Barry Bonds').

For a while, we in the American League Central would have a fun argument -- who is better, Grady Sizemore or Curtis Granderson? Two left-handed hitting center fielders with power and speed. Both had rough 2009 seasons for different reasons, and the argument has derailed somewhat. Granderson looks to be on the open market while Sizemore has to come back from injury and doubt. I hope the argument re-emerges, because both players are so likable. Sizemore has some edges: He is better against left-handed pitching (though not great) and he's almost two full seasons younger than Granderson.

8. Mark Teixeira. There are a handful of 29-and-younger first basemen -- Ryan Howard, Justin Morneau, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez -- who can make a Hall of Fame case if they keep playing at this high level for a long time. Teixeira seems to me the likeliest of the group to do it. He's a switch-hitter, he's in a great hitter's park, he's batting in the middle of what will be a great lineup, and he plays the sort of defense that will likely win him a lot of Gold Gloves*.

*The Doyen of Defense, John Dewan, wrote an interesting thing the other day. He was trying to determine if Torii Hunter or Adam Jones deserved their Gold Gloves. And while he hit on several points, the one that stuck out for me was this: Adam Jones led the league with four home run-saving catches. And Hunter has had five in the last three years -- including one late in a game against the Royals during the 2009 season that I have burned in my memory because it was so bloody awesome.

Without getting too deep into it... this makes sense to me. I can see why a gift for making the great play could play a huge role in the Gold Glove voting. The voting is done by managers and coaches. These are people who, for the most part, are watching their own guys. They study opposing players to discover weaknesses or habits, but I doubt they spend a whole lot of time admiring players' strengths and weaknesses, especially on defense.

So, I would imagine a great play -- say a home run-saving catch -- echoes in the mind again and again and again. I talked about the Hunter catch -- it was in the ninth inning, and it was spectacular, and I would bet that the entire Royals coaching staff thought about it 25 times during the season. When the time came to vote for the outfielder Gold Glove, I have to believe that catch was prominent in the coaches' thinking... especially because Hunter had done it so many times before.

Well, I think Mark Teixeira will win many Gold Gloves for the same reason. He makes some great defensive plays... he has a reputation for it now. He's good defensively, but the reputation is even better.

Give you an example: It has become something close to accepted fact that Teixeira's ability to scoop bad throws out of the dirt was a huge factor in the Yankees defense improving in 2009 (and is often one of the keys mentioned when discussing Derek Jeter's good defensive year). However, Dewan says that the one thing that former first baseman Jason Giambi was good at defensively was, yes, scooping bad throws out of the dirt.

Now, if you are a Yankees fan you may simply say Dewan doesn't know what he's talking about... you watch every Yankees game, and you saw Giambi and you watch Teixeira and you know... but I'm telling you, John has studied this thing more thoroughly than you have. He has looked at every single play on video -- every one. He has catalogued every play. He says that, yes, Teixeira is a much, much better defensive first baseman than Giambi. But it's not because of his ability to scoop throws.

Still, with the Gold Glove, what you SEE is what matters. Teixeira make diving plays. And he looks so smooth scooping bad throws out the dirt. So in addition to BEING a good defensive first baseman -- and he is good -- he LOOKS like a good defensive first baseman, which helps too. I think Tex will keep winning Gold Gloves for the next 10 years unless someone who looks better comes along.

9. Ryan Zimmerman. I'm going to go off the board for my last two choices -- that is I'm going to take young players who have not accomplished all that much yet. But I'm betting on them being two of the biggest stars in baseball over the next 10 years or so.

First: Zimmerman. I've written this before, I think: I remember when the Royals had the No. 2 pick in the 2005 draft, and everyone -- EVERYONE -- said that Alex Gordon was the pick. Gordon was the best hitter in college baseball, he was a Midwestern guy, he had a swing eerily similar to George Brett's, heck, his brother was NAMED AFTER GEORGE BRETT. The Royals had no choice. They had to take him.

But there were a couple of high-ranking people in the Royals organization who seemed to think that Zimmerman might end up the better player. It wasn't that they were down on Gordon. They just thought Zimmerman's defense was so superior that he was ready to play third base (or shortstop, according to one of the Royals executives) in the big leagues immediately. As for the bat, they were not sure how good a hitter Zimmerman would become, but they thought he was such a good athlete and so adaptable that they expected he would hit.

Well, here it is, five years later... and Gordon is still trying to find himself, while Zimmerman had a superior season at 24. He punched up a 133 OPS+, banged 33 home runs, managed a .373 on-base percentage against lefties, and won a Gold Glove that is truly golden. His +31 Dewan Plus/Minus was preposterously good for third base defense.

It is only his first exceptional year, and, to paraphrase the old golf line, the slums of Chicago are filled with third basemen who had one exceptional year (Hello, Bill Mueller! Good to see you, Fernando Tatis! Gotta run, Dave Hollins! And how about the rhyming Paul Schaal?). But Zimmerman's so young, he's so good defensively, and he seems to have taken that quantum leap forward. I think Evan Longoria (who is not on this list because he doesn't have the requisite 500 games) is a good choice to become the next dominant player in the game. But Zimmerman is only a year older, he's probably better defensively, and he had almost precisely the same offensive year in 2009.

Longoria: .281/.364/.526Zimmerman: .292/.364/.525

10. Zack Greinke. Well, you knew this was coming, right? I know people think I'm in the bag for Greinke, and they're right. And I know people think that he's still an uncertain commodity, that he's only had one great year and is not that far removed from 2006, when he walked away from baseball. In that, I think, they're wrong.

Greinke became a full-time starter again at the end of the 2007 season. Here are a few of his numbers since then (including his final seven starts in 2007) compared to some of the best in baseball:

Greinke: 72 starts, 2.71 ERA, 466 IP, 456 Ks, 117 walks, 36 HRsLincecum: 66 starts, 2.55 ERA, 452 IP, 526 Ks, 152 walks, 21 HRsHalladay: 66 starts, 2.78 ERA, 485 IP, 414 Ks, 74 walks, 40 HRsHernandez: 65 starts, 2.93 ERA, 439 IP, 392 Ks, 151 walks, 32 HRsSantana: 59 starts, 2.78 ERA, 401 IP, 352 Ks, 109 walks, 43 HRs

And so on. This isn't just one year. This is who Zack Greinke has become. The truth is that, if you were watching closely, you could see greatness building in Greinke. I predicted before the season that Greinke would win the Cy Young in 2009 -- one of the craziest predictions I ever had come true. But I had the advantage of watching Greinke pitch almost every time out in 2008 -- I could see what a great pitcher he was becoming.

Lincecum is not eligible for my list because he has not yet won 50 games... I do think Lincecum is an awfully good bet for the Hall of Fame. Better than Greinke? I don't think so. I know many people prefer Lincecum's greatness, but I think a lot of that is because Lincecum pitches in the National League*. And, as good and as well-publicized a year as Greinke had, I think many people STILL don't quite get how good he is.

*Just as a starting point: Opposing pitchers have had 173 plate appearances against Lincecum in his career -- they are hitting .095/.142/.116 against him with 68 Ks against eight walks -- add a little of that to Greinke's totals and see what you get.

Here's what I have seen: Greinke has things figured out. I don't know that his 2010 season can be as good as 2009 -- seasons THAT GREAT don't just happen all the time. But I do think that over the next few years he actually will get better with a better team around him -- which has to happen sooner or later. He's a great competitor with four plus pitches and supreme confidence. Yes, he will have to pitch at a very high level for many years to become a Hall of Famer... but I think he has it in him.

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