With Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza scheduled for baseball immortality Sunday in Cooperstown, the debate over their Hall of Fame credentials has long since ended. Griffey, though not a unanimous selection, commanded a 99.3 percent share of the BBWAA’s ballots, easily cruising past the 75 percent threshold the first year he became eligible. For Piazza, however, it took four attempts to finally become plaque-worthy and he pushed through with 83.0 percent this time.
While baseball is a numbers game, the Hall of Fame process certainly has its gray areas, from the stain — real or perceived — of performance-enhancing drugs to the historical weight of the statistics themselves. On top of that, Cooperstown is meant to be a very exclusive club.
According to baseball-reference.com, 18,487 players have participated in Major League Baseball since 1876, and with 246 now in the Hall, that means only 1.33 percent have been awarded the honor. Applying that same measure to the current MLB population, of the roughly 650-plus players spending time on a roster this year, almost 10 of those will someday end up in Cooperstown.
That’s a generational cross-section, of course, with players varying in age from their 20s to 40s. And in trying to forecast the future crop of Hall of Famers, it’s best to remember that being consistently great — for a decade or more — is a critical part of the Cooperstown equation.
Think of David Wright, for example. At age 25, after four-plus seasons, Wright seemed to be on the Hall of Fame track, averaging 26 homers with 98 RBIs while hitting .309 — and only getting better. But injuries, paired with the Mets’ decline, conspired to knock him off course.
So as a 12-year voter myself, I thought I’d try to handicap the Hall of Fame chances of these active players, keeping Wright’s cautionary tale in mind. And we’ve also added different categories to reflect the factors at play in each case.
SAVE THE DATE
Ichiro Suzuki, 42, Marlins
This is about as automatic as it gets, with Ichiro a no-doubt, first-ballot pick. Ichiro didn’t start playing in the U.S. until age 27, when he won both the MVP and Rookie of the Year, but was closing in on 3,000 hits Saturday while batting .343 — at age 42. A 10-time All-Star with 10 straight Gold Gloves, Ichiro also has been a baseball rock star on two continents.
Carlos Beltran, 39, Yankees
After 19 years, Beltran has solidified himself as one of the best switch-hitters in baseball history, with 412 home runs, a career .281 average and 1,503 RBIs. Tack that on to his seasons as a Gold Glove centerfielder and an impressive playoff resume that includes hitting .332 with 16 homers, 40 RBIs and a 1.115 OPS in 52 games.
Adrian Beltre, 37, Rangers
Another member of the 400-homer club (426), and 140 hits away from 3,000, Beltre has placed in the top 10 in MVP voting five times, including twice in the top three. Also a four-time Gold Glover that has always been an excellent defender. Beltre’s numbers through age 36, according to Bill James’ method for determining similarity scores and used by baseball-reference.com, compare favorably to Hall of Famers Eddie Murray, Al Kaline, Cal Ripken, Dave Winfield, Carl Yazstremski and Billy Williams.
Albert Pujols, 36, Angels
Pujols slipped off the radar slightly after ditching his St. Louis icon status for SoCal riches, but his final destination remains Cooperstown. With 579 homers, 1,770 RBIs, a career .310 batting average and .970 OPS, there shouldn’t be any debate here. Pujols also is three-time MVP that has placed in the top five 10 times.
Miguel Cabrera, 33, Tigers
Though he’s got seven years left on his $240-million contract, Cabrera’s career could end tomorrow and he’d still be deserving of Cooperstown, with 427 homers, a lifetime .320 batting average and .957 OPS. Cabrera has received MVP votes in every one of his 13 previous seasons, winning the award twice with seven finishes in the top five. He also has six Silver Sluggers and is an 11-time All-Star.
David Ortiz, 40, Red Sox
Big Papi, though certainly deserving on the stat front, gets an asterisk for being outed for his inclusion on the supposedly confidential PED list during the survey testing year of 2003. There were no penalties back then, and Ortiz hasn’t failed a test since, so our bet is that Ortiz will eventually get into Cooperstown, but it’s going to take him a few ballots to get there. Otherwise, Ortiz should be a slam dunk, with 527 homers and five straight seasons of finishing in the top five for MVP as a designated hitter. He’s also been the soul of three Red Sox title teams, including his ALCS MVP in breaking the Bambino curse in 2004.
Clayton Kershaw, 28, Dodgers
Kershaw’s recent back scare illustrates how fragile a brilliant career can be, but few pitchers in history have been as dominant as he has during his current six-season masterpiece. Kershaw had been on pace for his fourth Cy Young Award — finishing second and third the other two times — - with 99 wins, a 2.08 ERA, 10.0 K/9 and 0.913 WHIP since 2011. Kershaw also won both the Cy Young and MVP in 2014, when he went 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA.
Mike Trout, 24, Angels
In the previous four seasons, Trout has batted .308 with a .970 OPS while averaging 34 homers, 95 RBIs, 114 runs scored and 27 stolen bases — along with playing the premium defensive position of centerfield. No wonder Trout was the 2014 MVP, and finished second the other three seasons. Through age 23, baseball-reference.com has Trout’s value better than eight Hall of Famers, including Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron.
Buster Posey, 29, Giants
It’s difficult to put up HOF-worthy numbers from behind the plate because of the position’s physical demands, which is why Posey’s accomplishments so far have been so impressive, along with being the catcher for three World Series champs. In the previous four seasons, he’s averaged 20 homers and 90 RBIs while batting .315 with an .870 OPS. He won the MVP in 2012, placed in the top 10 the past two seasons, and this year is hitting .286 with 12 homers and 44 RBIs in 85 games.
Robinson Cano, 33, Mariners
Cano turned his back on Monument Park when he signed that 10-year, $240-million deal with Seattle, but he may wind up with his plaque in Cooperstown anyway with a .307 career batting average, .853 OPS and a shot to make a run at both 3,000 hits and 400 homers — strong work for a second baseman. In addition, Cano has five finishes in the top five for MVP.
Madison Bumgarner, 26, Giants
It’s a little early for Bumgarner, we know. But he’s already reached 95 wins with a 2.94 ERA, is on pace for a sixth consecutive year of 200-plus innings, and has three top 10 Cy Young finishes. Another big plus: A 7-3 record, 2.14 ERA in 14 playoff appearances (12 starts) including 4-0 with a 0.25 ERA spanning three World Series.
CC Sabathia, 36, Yankees
During a seven-year stretch, from 2006 to 2012, Sabathia averaged 17 wins with a 3.14 ERA and a stalwart 227 innings per season. He won the Cy Young in ’07, has five top five finishes overall, and placed sixth for the MVP in 2008, the same year he went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA and seven complete games in 17 starts to pitch the Brewers into the playoffs. Also has an ALCS MVP (2-0, 1.13 ERA) in helping Yankees get a ring in ’09. Overall, Sabathia has 219 wins with a 3.70 ERA for his 16-year career, and his rebound this season suggests he still has time to improve his resume.
Chase Utley, 37, Dodgers
Utley is far removed from his peak years, and won’t reach the traditional benchmarks of 3,000 hits (1,730) or 400 homers (242). But as an anchor of the Phillies’ six-year resurgence, including the ’08 title, Utley batted .298 with a .911 OPS, averaging 27 homers and 95 RBIs. That earned him four Silver Sluggers and three top 10 MVP finishes. Utley also is supported by the SABRE-set, with a combined 63.8 WAR that puts him ahead of Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson (61.5) and Joe Gordon (57.1).
Alex Rodriguez, 40, Yankees
These are strange times, when the sport’s home run king is excluded from the Hall of Fame, and a player of A-Rod’s pedigree — three MVPs, 696 homers, 3,113 hits, 2,084 RBIs — is very likely to join Barry Bonds in exile. Rodriguez’s season-long suspension for Biogenesis, not even a positive PED test, won’t keep him off the BBWAA ballot. But if Bonds can only get 44 percent of the vote, what chance does A-Rod have? Rodriguez’s only shot is if the hardcore stance against PED offenders softens over the years, or the Hall chooses to change its election process in some fashion.