One of the many ways baseball is best of the four “main” team sports in North America is how they keep fan interest high in the off-season. Example A, nothing livens up a dull off-season month like Hall of Fame announcements and subsequent debates. so in keeping with that theme, I’ll take a moment to consider the Hall. Not so much this year’s inductees- Ken Griffey Jr., his 630 home runs and scandal-free career was a no-brainer and few would really argue Mike Piazza didn’t belong – but by thinking ahead. Not ahead to 2017, but years down the road. I tried to consider which active players were assured of a spot in Cooperstown when they retire and came up with just two. And no, A-Rod isn’t one of them.
The only shoe-ins that will be hitting fungoes and jogging in the outfield in a month’s time are Ichiro (like music’s Madonna, no last name required!) and Albert Pujols. Now, that’s not to say that some other current players won’t make it in, just that they still need to work a bit more on their resumes to be assured.
Ichiro Suzuki would be a done deal even if he’d only played here. 15 seasons, two batting titles, ten All Star games, just shy of 3000 hits (he needs 65 to crack that elite club, something that’s going to be “hit” or miss playing as a backup for Miami this year) , ten gold gloves and that magical 2004 season when he set a record clipping 262 hits. Add in a .314 career average and 498 steals and you’d have a rather strong case for his inclusion. But factoring in how big a star he was with the Orix blue Wave in Japan before coming to America (seven batting championships , over 1200 hits with a .353 career average there) and he ranks favorably with the best of all-time. Granted, it may be fair to equate Japanese pro ball with AAA, or something a rung below the majors, but being the best there is over there for seven consecutive seasons has to count for something… as does the job he did opening doors for more Asian players to come to MLB. Before Ichiro, there’d been a decent Japanese pitcher or two in the bigs, but many doubted the Asians ability to hit or play positions. No more .
Pujols, like Ichiro, has 15 stellar big league seasons under his belt, but unlike the wiry Japanese outfielder, he’s only 36. It’s not unthinkable to imagine Pujols playing out most of his current ten-year deal with the Angels, which would put him at 41. And quite possibly the undisputed all-time home run leader. Even if that doesn’t happen, even if he chose to walk away from it all right now, he’d still be representing the Cardinals in the Hall in five years. A .312 career average, .977 OPS, 2666 hits… right now his 560 homers is 14th best-ever, but another two dozen this year will move him into the top 10. Ten 100-run years, seven 40-home run years, three MVPs, ten All Star games. No question about it, or him.
Perhaps more interesting though, are the players close to being in. the players who’d generate debate and probably (but not necessarily) fall a wee bit short were they to retire now. Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Beltre, I’m thinking of you- and don’t expect either to retire anytime soon.
Cabrera’s career so far has been one for the record books. A .321 career average reflects his 4 batting championships and ten .300+ seasons (he last missed that mark in ’08). Almost 31 homers a year is a pretty respectable clip as well and like Ichiro and Albert P., he’s already been put on ten All Star squads. What is marginal however, are the career tallies. His 408 HR ranks him only 52nd all-time, and well behind Carlos Delgado (473) and Fred McGriff (493) who are on the outside looking in. His 2331 hits is a final total for 13 years, but doesn’t even put him in the top 100. All this should be somewhat irrelevant soon though; as much as he seems to have been around forever, Miggy is only turning 33 this spring. Another three or four years is quite reasonable to expect and assuming decent health, a Cabrera sporting 500 homers, 2750 or more hits and his tractor-trailer full of awards and titles should ensure him passage into Cooperstown, circa 2023 or so.
Adrian Beltre is a bit more of an enigma. At 37 this spring, he’s older than Pujols and younger than Suzuki, but he’s already logged a remarkable 18 seasons. When the umpires yell “Play Ball” in a little over two months time, Beltre will be joined by Bartolo Colon as the only players who heard the same call back in the last century. Watching Beltre handle the hot corner fo r the Rangers in the last few seasons and seeing the regard he’s afforded by teammates and opponents as well would make him seem a sure thing too. But one doesn’t have to turn over too many rocks (or bases) to find someone who recalls a younger, West Coast Beltre who seemed to lack the same work ethic he has now and who seldom posted the big numbers we expect of him. Bottom line is that over a long career of 2567 games, he has a career .285 average, .814 OPS, 2767 hits and 413 home runs. He has five 175 hit seasons and six 90-RBI campaigns, and of course his prowess with the glove is legendary. Twice he has won the “Platinum Glove” award for best overall defensive player, but he’s only got two extra Gold Gloves on top of that. I’d probably vote for him, but I’d also have likely given the nod to Alan Trammell- another great infielder with four Gold Gloves and a .285 career average to show for it. To the dismay of Michigan fans of course, Trammell hasn’t come close to being voted into the Hall. My guess though is that Beltre still has fire in his belly and another two, maybe three good years at third left and maybe another season or two as a DH somewhere. It will be hard for voters to ignore a Beltre with 3000 career hits, 475 or more homers and five or six Gold Gloves.
Following the march towards Cooperstown should make watching Texas and Detroit all the more interesting this season. Perhaps with a bit of luck, I can be writing a similar column three or four years from now about Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion!
Anyone I’ve forgotten on the list? Let me know…