It’s over, for this year at least. Last night, the BBWAA revealed the four newest members of the Hall of Fame: Mariano Rivera (who also became the first unanimous candidate to make it), Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez, and Mike Mussina. That’s really cool, because I like all of those guys, and think all of them are Hall of Famers.
The top guys returning for next year are Curt Schilling, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Larry Walker. With Derek Jeter being the only slam dunk Hall of Famer to join the ballot next year, we seem to be at a bottle-neck in Hall of Fame evaluations, and we’ll find out where today’s voters truly stand on steroids, controversial statements, and Coors Field as be-all-end-all issues.
That’s an issue for next year, but the answers to those questions will have a lasting impact on future votes as well. It’s weird to think about, but playing right now are a handful of active Hall of Fame players. When I started watching baseball in earnest in 2003, I had the honor of watching several amazing batters and pitchers. I’ve only recently reached a point in history where players I began watching as a kid are getting into the Hall of Fame, and it’s made me wonder who I’ll be celebrating five, ten, or twenty years from now.
To figure this out, I made a shortlist and narrowed it down until I had around 50 of the best players currently playing. I tried to avoid young players with less than two years of experience — many apologies to Walker Buehler and Shohei Ohtani — but one great season does not a Hall of Fame career make. I cannot even come close to being certain they’ll stay the same for a long period of time, so I don’t think it’s fair to act as if they already have. I’ve separated my speculation into three groups: No-Doubters, Close (but not quite), Too Early (but on the right path).
This grouping is players I believe could retire today and be considered locks for the Hall of Fame. This list will feature only players I’m reasonably certain will get in on their first or second ballot, and not require years of complex thought and discussion (like Mike Mussina or Edgar Martinez). These players are complete packages, with strong cases even if they fall off a cliff (or if they already have).
Adrian Beltre - I’m starting this list with a player that is technically retired, because he played in 2018. Beltre retires as arguably a top five third baseman in history. He was uniquely strong on both sides of the ball for a very long time. Even in what was supposed to be his decline, he managed to play at an all-star level.
Albert Pujols - Pujols may have the absolute worst contract in MLB history, but he was a Hall of Famer before he ever set foot in Anaheim. He’s been pretty mediocre (especially by his standards) since signing that massive albatross, but he’s still a fun player to watch play. He still has three years left on his contract. He probably won’t get there, but he’s only 67 home runs from 700 in his career.
Justin Verlander - As loathe as I am to admit it, Verlander is one of the top two pitchers of the current era along with Max Scherzer. A few years ago, the former would have been in that close-but-not-quite tier, but he has ripened with age. His past three years in particular have been ace-like, and has seemingly reversed the effects of decline. Not that counting stats are as vital in today’s game, but Verlander is only 294 strikeouts away from 3000 in his career, a number reached by only 16 pitchers. The only two not in the HoF right now are Schilling and Clemens.
Max Scherzer - He’s basically Justin Verlander, but he never took a couple years off of being an ace. He’s been consistently incredible since 2012, a run that has included three Cy Young awards across both leagues. I’m pretty sure he’s a lock, but if he’s not, one more good season should seal it.
Miguel Cabrera - It is really hard to be in the debate for one of the top ten first basemen of all time. His wRC+ ranks 11th among first basemen, all-time. Offensively speaking, he’s pretty close to Jeff Bagwell, a Hall of Famer. He’s 35 dingers shy of 500. 324 hits shy of 3000. He’s the last player to win a Triple Crown.
Ichiro - I know this is a list of active players, and I already broke the rule for Beltre, but in fairness, Ichiro is actually playing in the first games of the season in Japan before retiring. Ichiro could have gotten in on just his MLB stats alone, but he also had a HoF worth career in Japan. He might be the best Japanese baseball player ever. Single season hits king, and managed 3000+ hits in 16 years (yes, that’s 189 per season - only two players last season hit 189+, Whit Merrifield and Freddie Freeman).
Joey Votto - He never pops out. That alone is incredible. For a more reasonable take, just go here and look at his OBP over the years. Only 11 players have a higher career OBP than Votto. Of those names are Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, and Jimmie Foxx. Since the beginning of his career, only Mike Trout is within 10 points of his OBP.
Clayton Kershaw - Kershaw has slowed somewhat in recent years. That’s not to say he’s bad now, and has hit a terrible age related decline, robbing him of his talent, but it’s very hard to keep up 6.0+ fWAR production seasons every single year into your thirties. It feels wrong to say, but he’s only won three Cy Young awards. He’s eclipsed 2000 strikeouts, and is probably only five seasons or so away from hitting 3000. He’s the active leader in FIP among starting pitchers.
Mike Trout - I’m not going to justify this with a blurb. It’s arguable he’s the greatest player to ever play any sport ever right now. Next.
Close... (But Not Quite - 11)
I won’t be writing full blurbs here in the interests of space. This is a list of players who are either a few good seasons away from locking it up, or are going to be in that Mike Mussina category, where it takes some ballot thinning and a little luck to get in. These players are HoF caliber, but are just a step below the above names.
C.C. Sabathia - The counting stats are there. During his peak years (2007-12), only Halladay was better, and he just got in on his first-ballot.
Robinson Cano - I’m surprised to think this, but he kept his case strong during his Seattle years, a period where many expected decline. His recent PED suspension hurts, but a good year or two with the Mets could make him an easy vote.
Chase Utley - Another player to recently retire. I figured I had him as a lock, but I’m not so sure. Will people remember him fondly like these other players in five years time?
Felix Hernandez - A few years ago, I’d have called him a lock. Maybe he still is. Last three years being bad has hurt him a little bit though.
Zack Greinke - One of the more surprising names to be high up on the fWAR leaderboard. He might be more of a counting stats guy though. Which is fine, it worked for Mussina. But this is slowly becoming a less efficient way of getting in.
Yadier Molina - Helped by a lack of amazing catchers in recent memory. Outside of Mauer and Posey, I’m not sure who else I’d consider for a spot right now. Easy to forget how consistently good he’s been.
Chris Sale - He’s been one of the most dominant pitchers of the 21st century. He probably needs a few more years, and a Cy Young award would certainly help. Despite consistent excellence, he’s only managed as high as second in voting. In each of the last six seasons, he’s been in the top 5, however.
Craig Kimbrel - Arguably, Kimbrel has the best career numbers of active closers, and closers are starting to get more love in HoF voting. If he lands somewhere where he can get 35 saves a year for the next 5 years, he’ll get up to 500 for his career. Both of the players to do that are in the Hall.
Buster Posey - He’s been a dominant catcher for a very long time. Slowly, like Mauer, he’s been transitioned off of it. His case is going to have to be dependent on rate stats as he’ll never going to have the counting numbers on his side.
Giancarlo Stanton - Yes, he’s not as good as J.D. Martinez. But his Marlins numbers exist, and he still has a few years in the joke known as Yankees Stadium. Strikes out a ton, but he’s probably going to finish with over 500 home runs, provided good health.
Aroldis Chapman - It’s not going to be popular, but if Kimbrel is the best closer of the era, Chapman really isn’t that far behind. It’s hard to strike out 15.0 batters per nine innings for an entire career.
Too Early (But On The Right Path - 21)
This final list is a list of players who have the rate statistics, and are performing well into their careers, be it their fifth year or their tenth, but are more than a couple of good years from consideration. There are a lot of fringe players here, as well as many young stars who could end up in the first, second, or third group in the next decade. One sentence blurbs for all.
Josh Donaldson - Missing 2018 hurt him a ton, but a resurgence with Braves could save his case.
Evan Longoria - A Rays Hall of Famer for sure, but probably just fringe for Cooperstown.
Stephen Strasburg - Hard to believe he’s already 30. Baseball-Reference’s Similarity Score does bring up Max Scherzer as a comp through his age.
Bryce Harper - This will be met with groans, I’m sure, but did you know he’s been worth 30.7 fWAR in only 927 games (5.4 per 162 games) and is still only 26 years old?
Jose Altuve - It’s probably too late for Ian Kinsler and Dustin Pedroia as dirt dogs, but Jose Altuve plays hard, and is more talented than either one.
Mookie Betts - He may not be Mike Trout, but Larry Bird wasn’t Michael Jordan, and being the second best player is still an incredible feat.
David Price - I’ll invite the controversy and I invite everyone else to look at his career numbers, he’s been shockingly good over his career, and it worked for others on the same career path.
Manny Machado - He may pimp singles and strikeout in clutch situations, but he is still a world-class talent.
Kris Bryant - Only been four years, and he had a rough 2019, but it’s hard to dismiss a player with as much talent as him.
Freddie Freeman - The path of consistent excellence is a path not trodden by many, but very few players are as consistent as Freeman.
Corey Seager - Missing 2018 hurt, and he’s still young, so anything can happen, but it’s hard not to love a kid who is always playing on another level.
Francisco Lindor - Ditto, but he’s been healthy, and may be more of a memorable character.
Paul Goldschmidt - If he continues what he did in Arizona, and St. Louis is kind to him, he’s got a real chance to blow up and be a true to life star.
Christian Yelich - Quietest 25.9 career fWAR before turning 28 perhaps ever, if 2018 was who he really is, he’s going to get a massive boost over the next few years.
Jacob deGrom - Much like Yelich, if 2018 was who deGrom really is, we’re going to see a huge spike in the next few years in his favor.
J.D. Martinez - I’d say it’s incredibly unlikely, but three or four more great years, and I’m sure you could make an argument that he belongs on the fringe.
Nolan Arenado - If the Coors stigma is broken, then it’s a pretty good chance he’s also on pace to join Walker and/or Helton in the Hall.
Anthony Rendon - Doesn’t roll off the tongue, but he’s sneakily been one of the better players in baseball since coming into the league.
Jose Ramirez - Speaking of sneaky, he’s been an MVP candidate the past two years, and may not be done.
Aaron Judge - He started relatively late and strikes out a ton, but big power draws big respect, and very few guys have as much power as he does.
Noah Syndergaard - His rate statistics are insane, and if he can manage to stay healthy, he’s going to be a beast (but that’s a big if).
Finally, I want to give a big thanks to the user BobZupcic for his contributions to this. If you are wondering what it was he contributed, he ran a spreadsheet of fWAR for active players (on teams, so no Harper/etc) divided by PA/IP, and put into a handy decimal formula. While it’s not a be-all-end-all, this gave me an idea of which players were truly “great” and not just putting up empty numbers.
It may be a small consolation, but you are an OTM Hall of Famer in my book.
I’m sure I missed a name or two. If I did, yell at me in the comments. Also shout support for someone I am underrating. It’s all subjective and a bunch of opinions anyway! Not all 41 players I just listed will make it, it’s possible not even 20 will. But of the players currently playing, these are the ones I would be most likely to bet on.