2012 might be the last "down year" for some time.
Well, it’s been a few days since the baseball Hall of Fame announcement that no one is going in for 2013. And, by now, you’ve surely heard about how this problem won’t be going away next year, with easy-choice Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas, Tom Glavine and Mike Mussina all joining the ballot, as well as borderline case Jeff Kent. And then the year after that, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Gary Sheffield all get added on.
The 2016 and 2017 ballots seem to relax a little from four-plus candidates per year. 2016 sees Ken Griffey Jr. and Jim Edmonds join the ballot (as well as Trevor Hoffman, depending how you feel about closers). 2017 brings Ivan Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and Vladimir Guerrero (among others) on the ballot.
But surely this onslaught of candidates will stop, right?
Actually, based on how the offseason so far has been going, it might not.
The 2018 Cooperstown ballot might be the deepest of any of these next five, actually. It lacks a name like Maddux or Johnson at the top, true. But while it may not reach the peak that those ballots do, it definitely comes close at the top and runs just as many names deep.
Let’s start with what we know: Chipper Jones is retired. Many teams want him to unretire, but it doesn’t appear that will happen.
And while he may not be at Greg Maddux or Randy Johnson’s level, that’s not at all a knock, seeing as those two won four and five Cy Young Awards, respectively. He’s still a clear Hall of Famer; 468 home runs puts him third among all third basemen, behind Mike Schmidt and Eddie Mathews. Even accounting for the offense-heavy era Chipper played in, he still trails only those two in OPS+ (141 for Jones, 147 for Schmidt, 143 for Mathews).
Add in an MVP award and eight All-Star appearances, and I think it’s fair to say you have a no-doubt first ballot member of the Hall. Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement agrees, putting him at 90.3 WAR, well above the Hall standards (70 usually represents a lock, with 60+ in the discussion).
The only other confirmed retiree so far is Omar Vizquel. Some will be pushing him on the basis that he was the best non-Ozzie Smith shortstop ever.
That’s not totally true; Total Zone Rating puts his fielding on the same level as Rabbit Maranville (129 runs saved to 130 for Maranville). They both even have an OPS+ of 82. Granted, Maranville is in the Hall, but he’s usually used to show the excess of the Frankie Frisch-led Veterans Committee.
The point is, Vizquel has a Hall case, and people will be pushing for him.
Now, that’s a solid start to the ballot, but Jones and Vizquel doesn’t quite make it an astounding class. It’s four players who still have uncertain fates that may make all the difference in quality.
Let’s start with the least certain. Andruw Jones will be playing in Japan for the Rakuten Eagles next year. There’s always the chance he returns to MLB in 2014, but that’s not at all a sure thing, making 2018 the earliest he would be eligible.
Right now, for his career, he has 434 home runs and a .254/.337/.486 batting line. The home run tally puts him fourth among center fielders (behind Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mickey Mantle). However, his batting line was only 11 percent better than league average for his career.
What really sets him apart is his fielding.
Going by either Fangraphs or Baseball-Reference, he saved more runs with his glove than any other center fielder in history. Fangraphs has only Brooks Robinson ahead of him at all; Baseball-Reference puts him behind Robinson, Mark Belanger and Ozzie Smith. From that group, only Robinson and Jones have an OPS+ above 100 (Brooks is at 104).
So, Andruw is arguably one of the top two fielders of all time, plus he brought an above-average bat. It’s no wonder Fangraphs credits him with over 72 career WAR.
After Vizquel and the Joneses, we’re dealing mainly with speculation on who won’t be coming back.
And there are still several Hall-caliber players hunting for jobs.
First is Jim Thome. I haven’t seen any serious rumors connecting him with a team so far (he still has time, though).
If he were to retire, though, he would have an easy case for the Hall. A total of 612 home runs and a .276/.402/.554 batting line (147 OPS+, 41st all-time) should be enough to sway Hall voters. Even accounting for his defense, Fangraphs still likes him to the tune of 71.6 career WAR.
Then there’s Scott Rolen, who, at last check, was not sure whether to retire following two straight seasons where injuries kept him below 100 games.
Rolen should be another first-ballot pick, but voters will likely overlook him with fellow third baseman Chipper Jones on the ballot. His 517 doubles and 316 home runs are impressive, as is his .281/.364/.490 batting line. That gives him a 122 OPS+, not on Chipper’s level but still fourteenth all-time.
Unlike Chipper, though, Rolen had a stellar glove to go with his bat.
If his eight Gold Gloves don’t convince you, both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference have him as one of the four best-fielding third baseman ever. No player is ahead of him in both fielding and OPS+. Together, it’s good for 75 WAR, better than every non-Chipper player listed so far.
He even leads all non-Chipper players listed so far in All-Star games, with seven.
Bobby Abreu has been unable to find work so far this offseason, and while he might not have the case of Thome or Rolen, he’s still worthy of consideration. I know this method has been used frequently, but look at it this way:
Games-Hits-Doubles-Home Runs-Walks-Times On Base-SB-Batting Line-OPS+-WAR
Player A 2436-3141-543-135-790-3955-319-.338/.388/.459-132-67.8
Player B 2342-2437-565-287-1456-3926-399-.292/.396/.477-129-63.0
Player A got to 3000 hits, but Player B got on base more frequently, hit with more power and stole more bases. The net effect was about the same, in terms of value, especially since the two were about the same quality of fielder.
Player A was first-ballot inductee (with 97.6% of the vote) Tony Gwynn.
Player B is Bobby Abreu.
Now, this isn’t to say Abreu was better than Gwynn, but if Gwynn is a near-unanimous first ballot pick, then surely Abreu deserves serious consideration.
And those are just the five most likely to stir debate.
Johnny Damon and Jamie Moyer look like they’ll be forced out of the game by age, but both deserve applause for playing as well as they did for as long as they did.
Even not counting those two, the 2018 ballot could be a serious problem: That still leaves us four 70-WAR players, three defensive wizards, a 600-homer guy, a player comparable to Tony Gwynn, 31 Gold Gloves and 30 All-Star games between six players.
That’s an incredibly deep group, and with a 10-player limit still possibly in place then, it will only make the overcrowding that’s already an issue even worse.
It might not measure up to the 2013 ballot. But with its depth, I’d say it’s in contention for runner-up, with 2014 and 2015.
But the negative side to all of this is that, with so many strong ballots in a row, the current backlog of deserving candidates might not let up until well into the 2020s.
This article is also featured at Hot Corner Harbor.