The Baseball Writers Association of America, of which I am a member, has voted in at least one first-ballot Hall of Famer three years running. Seven first-ballot candidates have been elected overall in that time—Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas (2014); Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz ('15); Ken Griffey Jr. ('16)—a record for any three-year period since voting began in 1936.
Nineteen first-year candidates populate the 2017 ballot, but it looks like the BBWAA's streak of first-year inductees will end. The first-year candidate with the best chance of getting elected is Vladimir Guerrero, but without a signature milestone or moment, he may fall just below the 75% threshold needed for election.
The first-year candidates also face a strong class of returning players, starting with Jeff Bagwell (71.6% last year), Tim Raines (69.8) and Trevor Hoffman (67.3), all of whom could win election this time. (All were on my ballot last year.) I’ll take more time to research the new guys before revealing my ballot, but here’s an early look at how I think they will fare in the voting. I grouped them into categories according to their chances for election this year and, within each group, ranked them by career earnings (according to baseball-reference.com) to create another sense of “value” during their careers.
Vladimir Guerrero ($126 million)
Guerrero should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but I don’t sense enough baseball writers have a clear, easy narrative for him to give him his deserved honor. He played his first eight seasons in Montreal without getting to the postseason and he reached his only World Series at age 35 with Texas—and then hit .071 in a five-game loss to the Giants.
But Guerrero was a wizard with the bat. Few hitters have combined his ability to hit the ball as hard and as often as he did: He finished his career with a .318 batting average and 449 home runs. Only five men ever reached those thresholds of hitting for average and power: Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig and Stan Musial. That means Guerrero is the only man born in the past 95 years to hit for that high of a batting average with that many home runs. There’s your quick and easy narrative.
It Will Take Years
Ivan Rodriguez ($123 million)
The voters have consistently delayed or denied candidates with connections to performance-enhancing drug use. The PED evidence against Rodriguez comes from his former Rangers teammate Jose Canseco, who wrote in his 2005 book Juiced that he educated Rodriguez about steroids in 1992, along with fellow teammate Juan Gonzalez and Rafael Palmeiro, and personally injected them with steroids “many times,” including in the clubhouse. “After a while it became no big deal to them,” he wrote. Canseco even spelled out the drug regimen: “a combination of growth hormone and steroids—mostly Deca and Winstrol—but with a small dose of testosterone.”
Nobody knew the drug culture better than Canseco. As Dave Stewart, a pitcher and a teammate of his with the A's in the late 1980s and early '90s, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005, when Canseco wrote his book and many people attacked the messenger: “I don’t like his work ethic, and I don’t like him as a teammate. But one thing I can’t say about him is he’s a liar. As far as what Josie’s saying, I can’t deny it or verify it.... If this is all made up, he’ll suffer from serious damages. But if you’re an admitted steroid user, believe me, you’d know who uses them.”
Rodriguez brought no legal action, but he did tell the Detroit Free Press in 2005 about Canseco’s charges, “I have nothing to say about that. They are some very serious comments he said. This is not true. I just say what I feel. I don’t need to use any other stuff. I don’t need it. I’ve been in baseball for 14 years not using that. I don’t need it. Whatever comments he says are not true. I'm just going to move on and concentrate for this coming season.”
Jorge Posada ($117 million)
His Hall of Fame case is better than you think. His case in a nutshell: He won five championships rings (four as the Yankees’ primary catcher) as a premier offensive catcher with historic numbers. Posada played more than 1,800 games and posted an OPS+ of 121. Only five catchers played that long with a better adjusted OPS, and all of them are Hall of Famers: Mike Piazza (142), Johnny Bench (126), Gabby Hartnett (126), Ernie Lombardi (126) and Yogi Berra (125).
Manny Ramirez ($207 million)
Could he hit? Absolutely. But quoting Manny Ramirez’s crazy career stats (.312, 555 home runs, 1,831 RBIs) is like quoting Ben Johnson’s times in the 100-meter dash. Ramirez was twice busted for PEDs while there was testing—in 2009 and '11. He won’t be voted in during his 10 years of eligibility. He likely will hover just over the five percent threshold for remaining on the ballot.
One and Done
Magglio Ordonez ($133 million)
A near statistical twin of current outfielder Matt Holliday, only with fewer strikeouts, Ordonez was a lifetime .309 hitter who smacked 294 home runs and never struck out more than 87 times in a season. Among retired players and since 1988, Ordonez is tied for eighth in batting average with two strikes (.241).
J.D. Drew ($108 million)
He made his major league debut on Sept. 8, 1998, otherwise known as the night Cardinals teammate Mark McGwire hit his 62nd home run of the season, off the Cubs' Steve Trachsel. Never the superstar many expected, Drew was an on-base machine (.384 career, one of 75 players to get on base at that rate over at least 1,500 games), but he never hit lefties well (34 points below his average against righties) and made only one All-Star team.
Derrek Lee ($91 million)
With his tremendous raw power, Lee put on staggering shows in batting practice. In his best year, 2005, Lee defined near-greatness: 199 hits, 99 extra-base hits, 393 total bases; he did win the batting title at .335. Lee is one of only seven players to hit .300 with 100 home runs at Wrigley Field. Five are in the Hall of Fame: Andre Dawson, Hartnett, Ryne Sandberg, Hack Wilson and Billy Williams. Lee and teammate Aramis Ramirez, however, will be left outside of Cooperstown.
Edgar Renteria ($85 million)
His career numbers (2,327 hits, .286 batting average, .343 OBP) closely resemble those of Alan Trammell (2,365, .285, .352), the former Tiger whose Hall of Fame candidacy is a cause celebre for certain observers. Renteria, though, trails Trammell in OPS+ (94 to 110). Most famously, Renteria went to the World Series with three different teams (1997 Marlins, 2004 Cardinals, '10 Giants) and hit .333 there, including the rare twin honors of getting the winning hit (a walk-off single in Game 7 in 1997) and winning the MVP (2010).
Mike Cameron ($76.3 million)
He played for eight teams, four of whom signed him as a free agent. His most famous move came when he was a key piece going to Seattle in the 2000 trade that sent Ken Griffey Jr. to the Reds. Cameron hit .174 in trips to the postseason with the Mariners, Padres and Brewers, three teams that have never won a World Series. He is best known for becoming the 13th player to hit four homers in a game, one of six to do so in consecutive at-bats.
In 2015 the Astros drafted his son, Daz, in the first round. After two pro seasons, the kid is a chip off the old block:
Pat Burrell ($70.8 million)
The No. 1 pick of the 1998 draft, Burrell hit more home runs (292) than anybody taken in the first round that year, though it’s a rather underwhelming bunch. (Pitcher CC Sabathia appears to be the only one with a shot at the Hall of Fame.) Burrell played on two world champions: the 2008 Phillies and '10 Giants. The best way to sum up his career is to look at this list of the players who hit the most career home runs without a single All-Star selection.
1. Tim Salmon, 299
2. Pat Burrell, 292
3. Eric Karros, 284
Carlos Guillen ($69 million)
He is the man who replaced Alex Rodriguez at shortstop for the 2001 Mariners, the team that won 116 games—a 25-game improvement over the previous year. Guillen is one of only eight players to spend his entire career with the Mariners and the Tigers. He hit .344 over three postseasons.
Jason Varitek ($67 million)
Varitek provided average offense overall, but like a lot of Boston players, he hit much better at Fenway Park (.273) than away (.240), and he caught until he was 39 years old. In short, he was the most prolific catcher in Red Sox history, thanks to 468 more games with Boston than Carlton Fisk.
Tim Wakefield ($56 million)
He pitched 19 years and received Cy Young votes in one of them: his 16–8 season in 1995, his first with the Red Sox. Like Varitek, he was a franchise fixture: Only Roger Clemens and Cy Young won more games for Boston, and nobody started more games in team history.
Orlando Cabrera ($51.7 million)
He played for nine teams and reached the playoffs five times, most famously for the eventual champion 2004 Red Sox after he was acquired at the trade deadline for Nomar Garciaparra. Boston's internal metrics that year showed Garciaparra was one of the worst defensive shortstops in the league, convincing the front office that the team needed a solid glove at that position to win the title. Cabrera introduced himself to Red Sox Nation by hitting a home run in his first at-bat for the team, becoming only the eighth player to do so. Only David Ortiz had more hits against the Yankees in the epic 2004 ALCS than did Cabrera, who had 11. Cabrera hit 122 career homers—101 of them to leftfield, and none of them to right.
Melvin Mora ($40.6 million)
Mora signed with the Astros at age 19 but didn’t debut, with the Mets, until he was 27. That should tell you how unlikely it is that he wound up on a Hall of Fame ballot. He led the AL in on-base percentage in 2004 (.419) while with the Orioles. His stock in trade was that he could play or hit just about anywhere. Mora played every position on the field except pitcher and catcher, and he started in all nine spots in the batting order.
Arthur Rhodes ($39 million)
The third member of the 2001 Mariners to debut on the ballot this year (joining Cameron and Guillen), Rhodes pitched until he was almost 42 years old. He had a win or a save in only 13% of his 900 games. What he did was pitch set-up relief—a lot: He ranks 18th for most batters faced in the eighth inning. (Lindy McDaniel, who last pitched in 1975, is first.) Rhodes tormented Jim Thome for 19 years, holding the slugger to two hits in 24 at-bats.
Casey Blake ($32 million)
By age 29, Blake had been waived or released four times and had only 29 career major league hits, so the fact that he has made a Hall of Fame ballot is an impressive achievement. He bounced from the Blue Jays to the Twins to the Orioles to the Twins to the Indians, who six years later traded him to the Dodgers for Carlos Santana, a key player on Cleveland’s 2016 pennant-winning team. Random fact: Blake is the only player in history to finish with exactly 4,500 at-bats.
Freddy Sanchez ($32 million)
Sanchez had the year of his life in 2006, winning the batting title at .344, 40 points better than his next best season. He hit .442 against lefthanders that year, second only to Bret Boone (.444 in 2001) in the expansion era by players with a minimum of 140 plate appearances.
Matt Stairs ($20 million)
Here’s another late bloomer. Stairs hit his first major league home run at age 27 and finished with 265. Remember the above showing the three players with the most home runs who never made an All-Star team? Stairs is fourth in that ranking.