Didn't Fred Lynn look like a certain Hall of Famer at one point in his career? He was the Rookie of the Year and MVP right out of the gate in 1975. In the World Series he got key homers and would crash into the wall. He won the batting title later, was a Gold Glove winner, and his 1982 ALCS performance was so great that he won the MVP despite being on the losing team.
Fernando Valenzuela looked like his legend would make him Cooperstown bound. He had the record-breaking start to his career— the Rookie of the Year AND Cy Young winner in 1981, not to mention a critical complete game win in the World Series. Throw in a 19-win season, a 20-win season and three more top-five Cy Young finishes before he turned 26. Later he threw a no-hitter, as well.
Remember Bret Saberhagen?
When his career got started, didn't he look like he was on the fast track to the Hall of Fame? By the time he was 25 years old he had won two Cy Young Awards, had another terrific season and was a World Series MVP, clinching Game Seven of the 1985 World Series with a complete-game victory.
Not only did none of them make the Hall, it wasn't even close. Lynn appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot twice, peaking at 5.5%. Valenzuela was on two ballots, peaking at 6.2%. Saberhagen got 1.3% of the Hall of Fame vote in 2007, his only year on the ballot.
Injuries caught up to these three superstars before they could build up a legit Hall of Fame resume. And the sad thing with all three of them was they already did the hard part! No matter what your personal criteria for Cooperstown happens to be, regular-season dominance, individual awards and postseason heroics would clearly be big voting factors. They all checked "legendary performance" off the to-do list. If they had simply compiled numbers for the rest of their career, their early accomplishments mixed with milestones eclipsed would have them enshrined.
Which players now have already accomplished the hard part of their Hall of Fame narrative?
I came up with 10, using my very scientific approach of "going with my gut."
Felix Hernandez - OK, he doesn't have the postseason resume. But his back-to-back dominating seasons plus being the pitcher that finally got Cy Young voters to stop being enamored with wins gives him a legacy. Now don't get hurt.
Ryan Howard - MVP? Check. Home run crowns? Check. Three more top-five finishes in the MVP vote? Check. Playoff MVP? Check. Huge World Series homers? Check. Add to that being associated with one Northeastern team and you have all the hard parts checked off the list. Don't break down and clear 500 homers (it will mean something again.)
Jon Lester - With Lester you have all the compelling elements for his Hall of Fame narrative. He beat cancer. He won the game that clinched the 2007 World Series. He threw a no-hitter. He became a legit Cy Young contender. Now all he has to do is pile up some numbers over the next 10 years. Should be no sweat.
Tim Lincecum - Talk about getting the hard part over with. Lincecum is already a multiple Cy Young Award winner with three strikeout crowns before his 27th birthday. And, oh yeah, he pitched the San Francisco Giants to their first-ever World Series title, outpitching Cliff Lee in the process. He could become the biggest San Francisco sports star ever NOT named Montana or Mays. Just be good for the next ten years. Great has already been taken care of.
Joe Mauer - He isn't even 28 years old and he is already sneaking into the "greatest catcher of all time" discussion. He already has multiple Gold Gloves and three batting titles to cover both ends of the game. And has been the lynchpin for three division champs and will evidently stick around with his hometown Twins for the foreseeable future. Now is he going to be a Carlton Fisk? Or a Benito Santiago?
Dustin Pedroia - The little guy already has a startling amount of hardware for a second baseman. He already has the MVP, the Gold Glove and the Silver Slugger. He already has the postseason heroics and the championship swagger. And he has all of those in the bag before his 27th birthday. But he also had a huge injury last year. He had better come back or else his Cooperstown credentials may never recover.
CC Sabathia - He has piled up the wins. He has the Cy Young Award. He has the World Series ring. He pitched the Brewers into the 2008 playoffs almost single-handedly. He is a legit "walk the walk" ace, but he has really had only four legit ace seasons in his career. Think that is enough for a World Series hero? Ask Dave Stewart. Getting to 200 wins would help.
Johan Santana - His multiple Cy Youngs and dominating numbers over the years have put him perilously close to "already in" territory when it comes to the Hall of Fame. But check out who Baseball Reference compares his career to at this point. John Tudor, Sal Maglie, Denny McLain, Preacher Roe... all great pitchers who fell short of the Hall. Oh yeah, Sabathia is a "similar pitcher" as well. If he gets back his ace mojo for a few seasons, then he should start rehearsing his speech.
Chase Utley - He will benefit by the simple phrase "for a second baseman." He has terrific power and his five homers in the 2009 World Series matched the output of Reggie Jackson in the 1977 World Series. He is at 177 homers. If he can hit 352 as a second baseman, he will have the most ever. It's something to shoot for.
Adam Wainwright - He has come perilously close to winning two Cy Young Awards. Plus his brief cameo as a closer led to the two iconic moments of the 2006 postseason: Carlos Beltran caught looking to end the NLCS and later clinching the World Series. Postseason hero...dominating regular seasons...just get a few good career numbers and that could be enough.
There were many others I considered putting on here. Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder need to have either the MVP season or the October heroics for me to include them. Miguel Cabrera has a ring and some big numbers, but he needs to lead a team to the postseason. His ugly end to the 2009 season doesn't help him. Robinson Cano has the ring and some big regular-season numbers, but he needs to be the centerpiece of the Yankee lineup to be in Cooperstown. Josh Hamilton has the narrative and the MVP award, but a lot of guys can win the award once. (Ken Caminiti anyone?)
Matt Holliday has some nice numbers, but his October legacy is dropping an easy fly ball. Hanley Ramirez needs to lead a team to October. Cliff Lee hasn't had as many ace-caliber seasons as you would think. Justin Morneau needs to stay healthy. Justin Verlander needs a big Cy Young season. David Wright needs to find his CitiField stroke. And Evan Longoria needs to not be so sensitive about who stole his hat.
The ten players I listed above all have the Cooperstown highlight and the easy-to-define legacy if they get in. Now they need to stay healthy. How important is that? Just ask Fred, Fernando and Bret.
References and Resources
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