From the MLB to the Mexican League, Julio Franco played 31 seasons of professional baseball. (Reuters)
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2013 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to JAWS, please see here.
We're working through the final five first-time candidates whose JAWS scores are at least 20 points below the standards at their position (the first two installments are here and here). These are players unlikely to receive even the five percent of the vote necessary to remain on the ballot for a second chance, but before they head off into the sunset, they're worth at least a brief valedictory, and one of them is particularly fascinating for his epic, globe-trotting career.
Avg HOF SS
Avg HOF LF
Avg HOF RF
Julio Franco (1982-2007)
If there existed a Hall of Damn Good and Even More Interesting, Julio Franco would be guaranteed first-ballot entry. His professional baseball career covered an astounding 31 seasons, from his signing out of the Dominican Republic by the Phillies in 1978 to his retirement from the Mexican League in 2008, when he was 49 years old. That previous year, playing for the Mets, he became the oldest player ever to hit a major league home run. Had he not spent several years playing ball in Japan, Mexico and Korea, he might have reached 3,000 hits.
Franco played in just 16 games for the Phillies in 1982 before being sent to the Indians as part of a five-for-one swap in which Philadelphia received outfielder Von Hayes. Though he hit just .273/.306/.388 with eight homers as a rookie, Franco finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. In five years as the Indians' regular shortstop and one as their second baseman, he developed into a high-average hitter, reaching .300 in three straight seasons and topping out with a .319/.389/.428 line in 1987, a year when offense was up. Traded to the Rangers in December 1988, he kicked off a five-year stretch in a hitters' haven, earning All-Star honors three times and totaling an impressive 17.6 WAR from 1989-1991, ranking in the league's top 10 all three years, and sixth in the majors during that span, behind five future Hall of Famers (if you include Barry Bonds). In 1991, he collected 201 hits and won the AL batting title with a .341 average accompanied by a .408 on-base percentage and a .474 slugging percentage.
Franco missed most of 1992 due to a knee injury that for the most part marked the end of his time in the middle infield, and left as a free agent for the White Sox following the 1993 season. After hitting a career-high 20 homers in the strike-shortened 1994 season, he departed for Japan (the Chiba Lotte Marines of the Pacific League) for the first time, but returned stateside in 1996, with the Indians; even at 37, he could still hit (.322/.407/.470), and he even played a bit of second base. He split 1997 between Cleveland and Milwaukee, missing out on a trip to the World Series due to a mid-August release, and over the next three years, made just one major league plate appearance while trotting around the globe.
Remarkably, he resurfaced with the Braves as a 42-year-old backup first baseman in September 2001, and over the next four years, he averaged 115 games a year while hitting .291/.364/.426; the Braves reached the playoffs in all five of those seasons. His playing time diminished with a move to the Mets prior to the 2006 season, though he was part of another playoff team; they released him in July 2007, and he finished out that year back in Atlanta. Not until another stint in the Mexican League the following year did he decide he was done. All in all, his was a remarkable, one-of-a-kind career, and while it won't get him into Cooperstown without buying a ticket, he deserves to be remembered.
Ryan Klesko (1992-2007)
A beefy lefty-swinging masher drafted in the fifth round in 1989 out of a California high school, Klesko was a key supporting player for the Braves during a run of five straight division titles from 1995-1999 before taking his talents to the west coast, where he remained effective for several seasons with the Padres before shoulder injuries got the better of him. Had he found his way to the American League to DH — particularly to Yankee Stadium, with its short right field porch — during his prime, he might have become a whole lot richer and more famous. As it was, his was a pretty good career nonetheless.
After brief cups of coffee with Atlanta in 1992 and 1993, Klesko emerged as the team's regular left fielder during the strike-shortened year, hitting .278/.344/.563 with 17 homers in just 276 PA, though he was often limited to pinch-hitting on days when lefties started. He was even more productive the following season (.310/.396/.608 with 23 homers) when the Braves captured the sole world championship of their run; he homered three times in the World Series, though two of those were in losing causes. He hit a career high 34 homers in 1996, and continued to put up gaudy rate stats for the Braves through 1999, though his ongoing struggles against lefties and his ineptitude afield cut into his playing time. From 1994-1999, he compiled just 519 plate appearances against southpaws (21 percent of his total) and hit .209/.293/.325, compared to .300/.377/.574 against righties.
In December 1999, the Braves sent Klesko, Bret Boone and Jason Shiell to the Padres for Wally Joyner, Reggie Sanders and Quilvio Veras. Klesko took over first base chores, played regularly, and started to hit lefties with some level of respectability. He totaled 11.4 WAR from 2000-2002 while averaging 28 homers a year on .290/.388/.531 hitting; he even swiped 23 bases apiece in the first two of those years, and made the NL All-Star team for the only time in his career in 2001. Thereafter, his production tailed off a bit due to the 2004 opening of Petco Park and an inevitable rash of injuries just as a big three-year, $26.5 million deal kicked in. He underwent surgery on the acromioclavicular joints in both shoulders during that deal; the left one cost him all but six games in 2006. He spent one more year with the Giants before he was done.
Rondell White (1993-2007)
Once upon a time, there was a baseball team in Montreal, one that seemed able to produce frontline outfielders at will. Andre Dawson, Ellis Valentine, Tim Raines, Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom… In 1990, they made Rondell White their first round pick out of a Georgia high school. White spent four years ranked among Baseball America's top 15 prospects, and served stints with the Expos in 1993 and 1994, the year they compiled the best record in baseball before the strike hit. Soon after it was settled, Grissom was traded to Atlanta, freeing up center field for the 23-year-old White, who hit a strong .295/.356/.464 with 14 homers as a rookie. He struggled to build on that promising beginning, averaging just 118 games over the next four years due to injuries, including a ruptured spleen in 1996 and a season-ending broken finger in 1998. He hit 28 homers while playing a career-high 151 games in 1997, good for 4.6 WAR, then took a big step forward in terms of plate discipline over the next two seasons, but the .307/.360/.508 he hit in those years came in just 235 games. The Expos moved him out of center field, and finally traded him to the Cubs on July 31, 2000, while he was on the DL for a thigh injury; he played just 19 games for Chicago before going down again. That was pretty much par for the course for White.
White signed a two-year, $10 million deal with the Yankees prior to the 2002 season but was a complete flop in the Bronx, hitting just .240/.288/.378 even while playing 126 games. The Yankees unloaded him on the Padres after the one season, and by the following August, they in turn flipped him to Kansas City. He spent two decent years in Detroit and two bad ones in Minnesota, where shoulder and hamstring injuries got the best of him. His career ended when he was named in the Mitchell Report in December 2007, allegedly having purchased human growth hormone and Deca-Durabolin from former Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski several times between 2000-2005. Mitchell said White told Radomski he needed the substances to "stay on the field," though he certainly appeared to have a harder time doing so once he got involved. In all, he played 100 games in a season just six times in his 15-year career.
Reggie Sanders (1991-2007)
Have bat, will travel — that was Sanders, a slugging outfielder who after spending his first eight seasons with the Reds bounced through six teams in the next six years, making the playoffs more often than not but losing a fair bit of time to injuries. Drafted by the Reds in the seventh round in 1987, he debuted in 1991, and became a regular the following season, hitting .270/.356/.462 with 12 homers, placing fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting. His biggest season in Cincinnati came for Davey Johnson's division-winning squad; he hit .306/.397/.579 with 28 homers, and his 6.4 WAR led the team, topping even teammate Barry Larkin, who won NL MVP honors. Sanders was limited to just 167 games in 1996 and 1997 due to back and ankle injuries. The Reds let him depart after a 1998 season in which he slumped to .268/.346/.418 with 14 homers even while avoiding the DL.
Thus began Sanders' odyssey, much of it on one-year conracts. A big year with the Padres in 1999, a lousy one with the playoff-bound Braves in 2000, a career-high 33 homers with the world champion Diamondbacks in 2001, a so-so one — though featuring a career-high 140 games — with the NL pennant-winning Giants in 2002, a huge year out of the spotlight with the Pirates in 2003. Finally, he signed a two-year deal with the Cardinals in December 2003, and was part of playoff teams in the next two years, including the 2004 pennant winners; even limited to 93 games in the latter year due to a broken leg, he hit 22 homers and slugged .546. He finished out his career on a two-year, $10 million deal with the Royals in 2006-2007, spending more time on the disabled list than in the lineup. On a per-162 game basis for his career, he hit 28 homers, but so rarely did he manage to play more than three quarters of a season that he reached that mark just three times.
Shawn Green (1993-2007)
At a time when baseballs were flying out of ballparks with as high a frequency as they ever have, with long-standing records falling by the wayside, Green was one of the game's top home run hitters, though one just outside the glare of the spotlight. From 1999 through 2002, his 157 dingers tied for eighth in the majors, as he reached the 40-homer plateau three times, with a high of 49 in 2001.
A first-round draft pick by the Blue Jays out of a California high school in 1991, Green debuted in 1993, and became a regular in 1995, though it wasn't until 1998, when he was 25, that he broke out for a 35-homer, 35-steal season season, just the 22nd player to reach the 30/30 plateaus, and the first Jewish one. He upped his homer total to 42 the following season while batting .309/.384/.588; his 6.1 WAR ranked sixth among AL position players, one of three six-win seasons he put together in that four-year span. In November 1999, the Blue Jays traded Green and a prospect to the Dodgers for Raul Mondesi and Pedro Borbon. The deal was driven by Green's desire to play in a major American city with a large Jewish population, and as part of it, he signed a six-year, $84 million contract with the Dodgers, the fourth-largest in baseball history at the time. Money aside, the move was a lopsided one that netted the Dodgers 19.1 WAR over the next five years, compared to 5.2 for the Blue Jays.