I love receiving my Hall of Fame ballot each November. I like it for the traditional reasons, namely the privilege of being a voter and the responsibility of helping to decide who should be immortalized in Cooperstown.
But what raises it to love is actually the players on the ballot I am pretty sure are never going to get in. For the ballot should not be ignored as an honor. Think about all the filters you have to endure just to get onto the ballot. Of all the millions and millions of kids who begin playing baseball each year around the world and funnel through Little League and high school and perhaps college and the minor leagues. To reach the ballot, not only do you have to ascend to the majors from all of those thinning processes — quite an achievement even for one day — but also you have to play in 10 seasons, at minimum, and then get the nod from a screening committee (full disclosure, I am on that committee for the second straight year).
Last year, for example, I included Mark Buehrle, Dan Haren and Tim Hudson (among others) on my ballot to make the Hall ballot. I did not think they would ever be elected.
But I think there are three exclusive clubs that make up the majors. One is simply getting there — and that number is still less than 20,000. On the upper echelon is the Hall of Famer. The third tier is getting on that ballot. It represents those who have been among the best 10 percent ever, perhaps even top 5 percent or better in most cases. The ballot is a way to say, “What Little Leaguer would not have wanted the career of Bobby Abreu, Torii Hunter or Aramis Ramirez?” I delve into each candidacy when I receive the ballot in November, in part, to remember how great you have to be to attain Hall of Fame status. Because every career on the ballot is terrific.
I bring this up because of this: Have you noticed all the really good players who have retired since the end of last season, including Jerry Blevins and Jay Bruce recently? I have a feeling the ballot is going to be jammed in five years with a bunch of first-timers, who fall into the realm, not immortals, but of “that is one impressive career.”
We don’t have a final count yet on who will be eligible. For example, players such as Masahiro Tanaka and Shin-Soo Choo returned to their home countries to continue their pro careers and might come back. Ryan Braun, Edwin Encarnacion and Matt Kemp have not announced their retirements (the game might retire them with disinterest). Braun and Kemp would be an interesting pair to go onto the ballot in five years, considering their link: In 2011, Braun won the NL MVP and Kemp finished second. Braun was suspended in 2013 after admitting he used illegal performance enhancers in 2011. There was some movement to retroactively give the MVP to Kemp.
Starters Cole Hamels, Rick Porcello and Jeff Samardzija also have not announced their retirements, and Hamels, in particular, looks like he still might try to pitch this year.
Dustin Pedroia announced his retirement last offseason, but because he did not play in 2020, he will go onto the Hall ballot after the 2024 season. Even though it was just 39 plate appearances, Bruce did play this year, so he will not go onto a ballot until after the 2026 campaign. Brian Dozier, Alex Gordon, Howie Kendrick, Nick Markakis, Daniel Murphy, Hunter Pence and Neil Walker all will be eligible for the ballot after the 2025 season. I don’t think any will make the Hall, but here is a first chance to rank those seven and offer pre-ballot plaudits for careers well done:
- Pence — He was taken one pick before Pedroia in the 2004 second round and shares a similarity to him. They had unorthodox swings and were emotional leaders on two championship teams. You sensed both maximized their skills. Pedroia, due to an MVP and positional value at second, might have a Hall chance, especially if Chase Utley fares well when his election class comes up. Pence was a four-time All-Star with 244 career homers.
- Markakis — He had a tortoise career, slowly and steadily putting up one strong season after another until the end result was 2,388 hits — which is more than many Hall of Famers, two more than Ryne Sandberg, for example.
- Kendrick — A .294 hitter who had exquisite bat-to-ball skills. He hit two of the biggest homers in Nationals’ history in the 2019 postseason to help the organization to its first championship.
- Gordon — He played his whole career with the team (Royals) that took the Nebraska native with the second-overall pick in 2005. He came up a third baseman, but made his rep — and helped the Royals win the 2015 title — as an elite defensive left fielder.
- Murphy — His career slash line was .296/.341/.455, not that different from Pedroia’s .299/.365/.439. His 114 OPS-plus is the same as Pence’s — and that Sandberg guy’s again. Murphy was never much of a defender, but he can hit, and starting with the 2015 postseason — when he helped hit the Mets to a World Series clash with Gordon’s Royals — he could really hit. In 2016, he nearly won the NL MVP with the Nationals, and in his first two Washington seasons he hit .334 with 146 extra-base hits.
- Dozier — There was a period, mainly 2014-17, in which Dozier was the premier power-hitting second baseman in the majors (127 homers in those four seasons). You may remember that he led off the 2017 AL wild-card game against the Yankees’ Luis Severino with a homer.
- Walker — He replaced Murphy as the Mets’ primary second baseman in 2016, and only Yoenis Cespedes had a better OPS-plus that year for the Mets than Walker’s 121. He had an eight-year run from 2010-17 with a 114 OPS-plus.