Legends Among Us: American League Position Players

We’ve looked at pitchers in both leagues and position players in the National League: now it’s time to turn our attention to Yankees current, former and future and pick out which active players are likely to win election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The Inner Circle

Quick quiz: how many Hall of Famers were absolute lock first-ballot choices on their 30th birthdays? I don’t know the answer to that, but I suspect the list would have to start with Alex Rodriguez. He’s just the beginning of the list of sluggers who are headed from the 2007 AL to Cooperstown. The others are Frank Thomas, Mike Piazza, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez, and Derek Jeter.

Not a bad group, eh? Much to my surprise, Ramirez’s career OPS+ is 10 points higher than A-Rod’s, 156 to 146. That doesn’t make him the active leader in the AL, though: that honor goes to Frank Thomas, at 159. These guys don’t need explanations, they just need to steer clear of scandals involving young boys. Except for Jeter, anyway, who could probably weather such a scandal and still earn a plaque.

The Peak Performers

In the process of writing just about any article, I discover something that shocks me. I realize I’m late to the party, but this time around it was the group of players rapidly approaching 500 home runs. Did you know that A-Rod, Thomas, Ramirez, Gary Sheffield, and Jim Thome are all above 450? I certainly didn’t.

Sheffield and Thome highlight the list of guys charging toward the career numbers they’ll need to earn induction. Thome is at a disadvantage, racking up some of his numbers at DH and slipping under the radar, but that doesn’t make his accomplishments any less impressive. He’s only 36, and aside from his 2005 season lost to injury, he hasn’t hit fewer than 42 homers in a single campaign since 2000. Not only that, his career on-base percentage is .410. That’s eighth-best among active players, just above Ramirez.

Sheffield is a fringier case. He’s likely to cross the 500 threshhold as well, but his personality raises the bar on his accomplishments. If he had won an MVP or two, I’d like his chances better, but as is, a lot rides on what he can dig out in these three years in Detroit.

The cases that interest me the most are those of two catchers, Jorge Posada and Ivan Rodriguez. Unlike shortstop, which has experienced a huge offensive surge in the last generation, catcher is still the home of no-hit defensive wizards and the very occasional Mike Piazza. Neither of these two is going to come close to matching Piazza’s numbers (no catcher is history has), but both seem likely to get plenty of support when their time comes.

Posada’s career totals are hurt by his late start: he didn’t play his first full season until he was 26, by no fault of his own. Since that time, he’s maintained an OPS+ of 122 and played in a mere 22 postseason series. It would be good for his case if he were the Varitek of the Yankees, perceived as the dynasty’s “heart and soul” or some such, but as is, another five years, perhaps nudging his way up to 300 home runs, will give him a very solid candidacy.

Rodriguez is much more deserving of election at the first possible opportunity. He’s got 12 Gold Gloves, 13 All-Star appearances, an MVP award, 280 homers and (so far, anyway) a .300 career average. Tough to argue with that. I suspect he may lag on the ballot for a few years, though: as his skills have lagged in the last couple of years, respect for him has, as well. If he hangs on until he’s 40, he won’t come up for election until almost 15 years after his last really memorable season.

The Younger Peak Performers

Remember that active OPS+ list I mentioned earlier? Sitting at #8, right behind Jim Thome, is Vladimir Guerrero. There isn’t a better 31-year-old player this side of A-Rod, and even better: it’s as if his career has been designed so far specifically to cater to the whims of Hall voters. He’s never hit below .300 for a full season, he won an MVP, and—how’s this for establishing the respect of your peers?—he’s already in the top ten in career intentional walks.

Another guy putting together a resume hand-crafted for Cooperstown is Eric Chavez. It’s easy to forget about him now that his offensive skills lag so far behind those of another AL third baseman, but a respectable OPS+ of 118, combined with the counting stats that started when he was only 21, put him in position to capitalize on one of the greatest fielding reputations in the game. He may never be viewed as the peer of Brooks Robinson, but he could easily retire with double-digit Gold Gloves and an offensive record that Brooks would envy.

An interesting case I’m not too excited about is that of Johnny Damon. Damon doesn’t have a whole lot to recommend him…except for his hit total. He’s likely to cross the 2,000 mark in the near future, and only Derek Jeter and A-Rod are both younger and farther along in the quest for 3,000. He’ll have to stay healthy for a while, but it’s easy to imagine Damon reaching the milestone. It’s possible that 3,000 won’t continue to make enshrinement automatic, especially after Rafael Palmeiro doesn’t get in, but consider that, after Palmeiro, the next non-Hall of Famer on the list is Harold Baines at 2866. For substance-free batters, 3,000 is likely to remain a magic number.

Another pair of interesting cases with farther-reaching ramifications are those of Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki. Neither player is likely to amass Hall-worthy numbers in the States, but to what extent will their exploits in Japan be counted toward their candidacies? Each has certainly established that they can compete at the major-league level.

The Wildcards

Two young players stand out from the pack as future Hall of Famers: Joe Mauer and Grady Sizemore. I said last week that Jose Reyes was about as easy a choice (among 24-year-olds) as you could imagine; Sizemore is right there with him. If Mauer weren’t destined for a new position so soon, he’d make it a trio. As is, both have extremely strong cases considering their age.

If Mark Teixiera’s peak is a little stronger than what we’ve seen so far, he will put himself in the running. He’s not as good as Travis Hafner—a weaker wildcard—but he got regular playing time three years earlier, and when it comes to accumulating the necessary counting stats, no OBP is going to make up for 100 lost to a late start.

It’s far too early to even categorize Alex Gordon and Delmon Young, but if there were a Hall of High Expectations, they’d be first-ballot choices. Each has the potential for a Cooperstown-worthy career, and could easily highlight this type of article were I to start over in another half-decade.

They’ll Have to Buy a Ticket

I’m afraid that Jason Giambi is going to end up as the Dick Allen of his generation. Having recovered from an awful 2004 (in which he still got on base at a .342 clip), Giambi remains on track to reach 500 home runs in his age 39 or 40 season. Combine that with his .413 career OBP—second best among active American Leaguers—and his numbers certainly point plaque-ward. His admission of steroid use, though, will prevent that from happening.

Other sluggers likely to miss the cut are Victor Martinez, Miguel Tejada, and Bobby Abreu. Even if he were likely to remain a catcher, it’d be too early to get excited about Martinez, but as is, he’ll have a very difficult time putting together the career necessary to make the cut as 1B/DH. Tejada has some nice laurels—the consecutive games streak, the MVP—but will probably retire as a third baseman with 450 homers. Abreu’s OBP is impressive, as is his power/speed mix, but he’ll probably have to get to 400 home runs for that to be enough.

A couple of other players who spring to mind are Carl Crawford and Vernon Wells. For all of Crawford’s athleticism and potential—he is still 25—his career OPS+ is below average. He could be the best defensive left fielder in the history of baseball and he’ll still need a heck of a lot more than that (and some monstrous stolen base totals) to get him in. Wells is another underwhelming candidate: he’s 28, has had two very good years and has yet to top a .360 on-base percentage in any of them.

Now that we’ve covered all active players, I full expect most of these guys to prove me wrong. The best part about a forecast like this, though, is that by the time they do so, everyone will have completely forgotten about me and my prognostications. How convenient!

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