Legends Among Us: National League Position Players

In a pair of articles a couple of weeks ago, I looked at the active pitchers who are definitely, likely, and possibly Hall of Fame-bound. If past returns are predictive of future performance, there are even more position players currently on major league rosters who will end up enshrined in Cooperstown. Today I’d like to turn to the National League.

The Inner Circle

There are five no-brainer candidates, guys who could retire today and stake their substantial bank accounts on their eventual elections: Barry Bonds, Craig Biggio, Jeff Kent, Ken Griffey Jr., and Omar Vizquel.

I suppose that Bonds could be kept out for a while due to the shadow of his alleged PED use, but in the end, some group of voters will put the greatest hitter of all time in the Hall of Fame. Vizquel comes with his own set of question marks, too, I suppose: There aren’t many guys in the Hall purely due to defensive prowess. But his double-digit Gold Gloves, combined with respectable offensive performance (compared to other glove-first guys, anyway) will get him in.

Neither Biggio nor Kent stands out as a historically great offensive producer, but when you consider what they accomplished at second base, they’re obvious selections. Whatever his defensive deficiencies, Kent will retire with the most home runs for a second baseman, while Biggio is one of the better all-around players in recent memory. His run of eight consecutive seasons with an OBP above .380 may not get as much attention from the electorate as his 3,000 hits, but it says more about his ability as a player.

It’s easy to forget now that he’s a punchline for fragility, but Griffey is going to retire as one of the greatest players in history. Once upon a time, he was a tremendous center fielder, and if he’s willing to become a designated hitter, he could easily stick around for another five years. By then, he’ll amass 3,000 hits, and could be the third player to reach 700 home runs. Even if he doesn’t, he’ll stand among the best at his position.

The Peak Performers

The obvious choice among veteran but not over-the-hill players is Albert Pujols. Like Johan Santana, he has the potential to put up historic career totals, but would likely be inducted simply for continuing his current level of production for another handful of years.

Pujols’ teammate, Scott Rolen, is also a likely choice. Because of his injury problems, it’s easy to forget that he’s still only 32 years old; if he can stay healthy enough to put together five or six more seasons like his 2006 campaign (and perhaps score another cart of Gold Gloves in the process), he’ll be an easy choice. The danger, of course, is that he won’t make it that long; even with his impressive rate stats, he’s not getting in simply with a good defensive reputation and about 300 homers.

Another third baseman in a similar situation is Chipper Jones. Only three years older than Rolen, it seems like he’s been around forever; just how long he does stick around will at least determine how many ballots it takes before he’s elected. His .300 career average and track record in the postseason will probably get him in, but it would certainly help if he manages to be a productive player (and pad those counting stats) until he’s 40.

The younger players on the best course toward Cooperstown are Andruw Jones, Carlos Beltran, and Rafael Furcal. Jones is the easiest choice: Nothing helps your Hall case more than counting stats, and nothing helps your counting stats more than starting early. Jones got 100 at-bats as a teen, and was an above-replacement full-timer the following year. He’s already up to 345 home runs and he just turned 30 this week. Combine the inevitable huge numbers with a run of nine Gold Gloves (and counting), and this guy is as first-ballot as you can be at his age.

Beltran is a day younger than Jones, and while his counting stats aren’t yet as impressive as his fellow center fielder’s, they’ll likely be good enough. His 41-homer outburst last year suggests his career slugging percentage will improve substantially from it’s current .495 mark; if he keeps hitting dingers at his current rate and manages to continue swiping bases as well, he could join the exceptionally exclusive (and Cooperstown-guaranteeing) 400-400 club.

Furcal has more ground to cover that the other guys I’ve discussed so far, but then again he’s younger than all of them except for Pujols. He’ll need to do something in his 30s to differentiate himself: perhaps steal 30 bags a year until he’s 40, or start winning Gold Gloves once Vizquel retires. It’ll take something to set him apart from the impressive group of active shortstops, but in his first seven seasons, he’s set up a solid base to start from.

The Youngsters

It’s much easier to predict greatness from a 24-year-old position player than from a 24-year-old pitcher; it’s easier still to forecast a plaque for Jose Reyes. Of the younger-than-Pujols set, he’s the closest there is to a lock. If he continues to hit double-digit home runs, it’s simply a matter of time before his case is rock solid.

After that, things get messier. There are plenty of candidates at third base in the NL East alone: David Wright, Ryan Zimmerman, and Miguel Cabrera. It’s a tough call, but I’d put their chance of induction in that order. Cabrera has the most impressive stats up to this point, but he also seems most likely to end up at a less demanding defensive position. If that happens, the offensive standards for induction will go up. He may still meet them, but the odds will decrease accordingly.

Another strong position in the NL is catcher: Brian McCann, Russell Martin, and Chris Iannetta are all players with the potential to put together impressive careers. It’s far too early to tell in all three cases (especially Iannetta’s), but given the low offensive standards for induction at that position, McCann and Martin have a nice start.

They’ll Have to Buy a Ticket

There are a lot of great players who I haven’t mentioned thus far. The crop is especially strong at first base, where I’ve left out Derrek Lee, Todd Helton, Nomar Garciaparra, and Carlos Delgado, along with promising youngsters Prince Fielder and Conor Jackson. Among these, Delgado has the best chance, but given the oncoming deluge of corner guys with impressive counting stats, Delgado may be the first 550-homer player who misses the cut. Helton won’t reach the same thresholds, but even if he does, the era (along with his home park) will discount his achievements enough to keep him on the outside.

Garciaparra is the most interesting case in the group. As recently as 2003, I probably would’ve listed him as a near-lock (at least for his age), but he serves as an object lesson for our discussion of all those 30-and-under players who appear nearly certain to make it. While his .318 career batting average still looks nice, there’s little else to recommend him. He’d need a whole lot more 20-home-run seasons (like he posted in ’06) to grant him more than a cursory look.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

In the rest of the infield, it’s worth mentioning Rickie Weeks, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins. Weeks has the tools, but has yet to flash the skills, particularly the defensive prowess that will allow him to remain at a valuable position. Utley’s first two full seasons would put him in the running if he hadn’t started at age 26. And Rollins will need a couple more power/speed campaigns like his 2006 if he wants to be taken more seriously in these discussions.

The three outfielders I’ll include here couldn’t be more different: Jim Edmonds, Alfonso Soriano, and Jeff Francoeur. Edmonds has a nice run of Gold Gloves and will probably eek his way to 400 career home runs, but I suspect we’ll still be arguing about his candidacy in 30 years. I think he’ll probably deserve induction, but (perhaps unfairly) under the shadow of Andruw Jones and Carlos Beltran, he won’t make it.

Soriano is a very tough case. He started late, but may still amass some impressive career numbers. He crossed 200 career home runs and 200 steals in just six full seasons, so if he remains productive throughout the life of his contract with the Cubs, he could make it. I don’t see that happening, though; despite the gaudy counting stats, only three of his full seasons have been substantially above average, and if he becomes a permanent corner outfielder, that won’t cut it.

Most people probably wouldn’t even include Francoeur in the discussion, but I was tempted by his interesting set of PECOTA comparables, which includes such luminaries as Andre Dawson, Albert Belle, Dave Winfield, and Dale Murphy. If those are among the possible paths for him, it’s easy to imagine him retiring with 400 or even 500 home runs; the next two years will be crucial in determining whether he follows those paths or some of the other PECOTA-suggested routes, such as that of Charlie Spikes.

Next week, we’ll complete the series by looking at American League position players, in which we’ll answer the question: just how many Hall of Famers can come from one franchise, anyway?

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