For the second straight year, I’ve chosen to compile a list of active MLB players who have the best odds of winding up in the Hall of Fame after the conclusion of their careers. A lot has changed in a year. Some of the players from last year’s list have retired, and other players have performed at a level that greatly enhanced their odds. In addition, I have added ten more spots on this year’s list so that I could evaluate more players and avoid redundancy.
Keep in mind that I wouldn’t vote for every player on here, nor am I suggesting that every one of them is better than certain players who were left off the list. It’s whom I believe has the best chance at reaching the Hall of Fame based on career accomplishments, projected output going forward, and voter tendencies. Service time also needs to be taken into consideration, because it’s way too early to predict how the careers of players who are early in their careers will shape up. Players like Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, and Carlos Correa won’t appear on here. Instead, I’ll be writing a separate piece similar to this one which will cover the best young stars in the game.
1) Albert Pujols
Nothing has changed since last year; Pujols will end up as one of the greatest hitters in history. Even in decline, he is still a very productive bat and has a legitimate chance to break Hank Aaron’s career record for runs batted in. When it’s all said and done, it will be his incredible run with the Cardinals – which included an OPS+ of 170 and three MVP – that cements his legacy.
2) Miguel Cabrera
Cabrera is behind Pujols only based on service time. He is already a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame and continues to be one of the most feared hitters in the game. The only question is whether he or Pujols will ultimately finish up on top. Cabrera is three years younger and still going strong, while Pujols isn’t quite the hitter he once was. If Cabrera can continue to hit the way he has heading into his late 30’s, he could overtake Pujols as the greatest hitter of our generation.
3) Ichiro Suzuki
When Ichiro notched his 3,000th career MLB hit last season, he further solidified his eventual Hall of Fame induction. Reaching the rare milestone despite not playing in the majors until age 27 speaks for itself, but Ichiro also carries the added factor of acting as a pioneer for future Japanese players coming over to the U.S. and forever changing the game.
Over his outstanding 19-year career, Beltre has very quietly put together a resume that places him among the best third baseman in the game’s history. He will be 38 this upcoming season and is under contract with the Rangers for two more years, so there’s every reason to believe Beltre can put together a couple more productive seasons. He has been at his best during his six-year tenure in Texas, and is a virtual lock to reach 3,000 hits and 600 doubles, with a shot at 500 home runs. Five Gold Glove Awards don’t hurt him either.
5) Carlos Beltran
Like Beltre, Beltran has somewhat quietly put together a career worthy of serious Hall of Fame consideration. He too has boosted his credentials by remaining productive into the latter part of his career. Beltran is less of a first ballot lock, but he should still get in rather quickly. Beltran has brought a unique blend of offense, defense, and speed to the game, and has also made nine All Star teams. What will put him over the top is his historic postseason performance. Beltran is a .323/.432/.646 hitter with 16 home runs in 55 playoff games. The only thing he’s missing is a World Series ring.
6) Clayton Kershaw
At the rate he is going, Kershaw could wind up being one of the greatest pitchers the game has ever seen. Pitchers nowadays are much more prone to injury than hitters are, making it fairly difficult to project out the rest of their careers. Kershaw, though still only 28, may have already solidified his case. There aren’t too many players in recent memory who you could count as Hall of Fame locks before they turn 30, but Kershaw is currently enjoying a run of brilliance that hasn’t been seen since another legendary Dodger lefthander, Sandy Koufax. In fact, Kershaw may have already surpassed Koufax in career accomplishments. Koufax amassed an ERA+ of 167 over his final five seasons in what is considered by some to be the greatest peak of any pitcher ever. Over the last eight seasons, Kershaw’s ERA+ is 166. He’s also won three Cy Young Awards; the other eight players to accomplish this feat were all first ballot Hall of Famers, with the exception of Roger Clemens.
7) Robinson Cano
His first two years in Seattle were slightly down from what he did as a Yankee, but last year was among Cano’s best, during which he set a career high with 39 home runs. Showing no signs of slowing down, the 34-year old has missed only a handful of games over the last ten years and is already in select company in terms of offensive achievements among second basemen. He currently has 479 doubles and seems a good bet to surpass 3,000 hits. Cano has a chance to finish as the greatest offensive second baseman since World War II.
8) Felix Hernandez
King Felix was less dominant than usual last year, but he’s still only 30 and has already logged well over 2,000 innings in his career, so the total numbers are there. In an era when starting pitchers are given shorter leashes and injuries derail far too many great careers, Hernandez has been a model of consistency and excellence since he debuted as a 19-year old in 2005. Unfortunately, he’s played for a lot of bad Mariners teams over the years, so his win total isn’t as high as it should be. Luckily, baseball writers and analysts put far less weight in wins than they used to and look more at the whole picture (Hernandez himself won the AL Cy Young Award in 2010 with a 13-12 record). Felix is on the doorstep of the Hall of Fame, but it would be a shame if he didn’t get to pitch in the postseason at least once while he’s still in his prime.
9) Mike Trout
Trout would have appeared on last year’s list if I hadn’t set a requirement of at least seven major league seasons. I realize now that it shouldn’t matter because the odds of Trout making the Hall of Fame even with just five full seasons under his belt are better than most active players. He has finished either first or second in MVP voting every year since 2012, has led the league in runs scored four times, and has already accumulated 48.5 WAR by the age of 24, for those who use advanced metrics. Rarely has a player taken the league by storm so early in his career the way Trout has.
10) Jon Lester
Lester has steadily been building a strong Hall of Fame case for years, and may have had his best season in 2016. The left-hander has made at least 31 starts each of the last nine years and holds a solid 3.44 career ERA, despite pitching a good chunk of his games in the AL East. Although not the best barometer for a pitcher’s effectiveness, Lester averages about 15 wins a year and has a .635 lifetime winning percentage, which will surely sway some voters in an era where wins are much harder to come by for starters. And of course, we can’t discount the three World Series rings he’s won. The Red Sox and Cubs both owe a lot to Lester, because without his exemplary World Series accomplishments (4-1, 1.77 ERA in 35.2 innings), who knows how those series would have turned out.
11) Justin Verlander
Following the 2014 season, Verlander looked to be in decline, but he’s bounced back the last two years, nearly winning the AL Cy Young Award in 2016. Verlander has been very durable over his 12-year career, leading the league in innings pitched three times and strikeouts four times. He’s received Cy Young votes in seven different seasons, and when he appears on the ballot, voters will remember him being the best pitcher in his league for a period of time.
12) Dustin Pedroia
He doesn’t have the same power as Cano does, but Pedroia is nonetheless a lifetime .301 hitter at a premium defensive position, who’s also won an MVP and four Gold Glove Awards. There is a certain intangible factor that needs to be counted for too. As the obvious choice to take over as vocal leader and unofficial captain of the Boston Red Sox following the retirement of David Ortiz, Pedroia should get a long look once he’s eligible for the Hall.
13) Cole Hamels
Hamels compares very favorably to another pitcher on this list, Jon Lester. The similarities between the two are actually pretty striking. Both lefties debuted in 2006 and will be 33 years old in 2016. They’ve both made 30 or more starts in each of the past nine years and have nearly identical career records and ERAs. While Lester has slightly more postseason experience to his credit and has three rings, Hamels has a lot of postseason success as well, and he won World Series MVP honors in 2008. The bottom line is that if Lester is building a solid Hall of Fame case, Hamels is right there with him.
14) Madison Bumgarner
He hasn’t been around as long as some of the other hurlers on this list, but Bumgarner has already accomplished a heck of a lot in his eight-year career. The Giants’ ace currently carries a career ERA of 2.99 and a WHIP of 1.10, and he keeps getting better. The last four seasons have been the best of his career and at age 27, Bumgarner figures to have plenty of great years left in him. Like teammate Buster Posey, his role on three San Francisco World Championship teams will play a big factor in cementing his legacy. With a pristine 2.11 ERA in 102.1 postseason innings, Bumgarner may just end up being the greatest postseason pitcher the game has ever seen. His World Series heroics are already the stuff of legends – four wins and a save in five appearances and just one run given up in 36 innings.
15) Buster Posey
Catcher is somewhat of an underrepresented position in the Hall of Fame, and among the 19 backstops enshrined, only five have played in the last 50 years. Following the recent elections of Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez, there isn’t a viable candidate entering the ballot any time soon, so the next catcher inducted will be a player who is currently active unless the veterans committee puts someone in. Posey is currently the league’s best catcher and already has a pretty stacked resume – Rookie of the Year, an MVP, three World Series rings, a Gold Glove, and three Silver Slugger Awards.
16) Adrian Gonzalez
Gonzalez is has an interesting case. He doesn’t have the gaudy power numbers often required of Hall of Fame first basemen, but he has been incredibly steady and consistent over the course of his career. A big reason is because A-Gon has managed to play at least 156 games in each of the past 11 seasons. Four Gold Gloves help his case too, as do ten consecutive seasons with 90 or more RBI. A good comparison would be Tony Perez, who may not have ever been the best at his position, but got into the Hall due to his consistency year in and year out.
17) Andrew McCutchen
McCutchen had a down year in 2016, but he’s only 30, so it’s reasonable to think he could bounce back. If that happens and he can maintain it into his mid-to-late 30’s, the player who finished in the top five in MVP voting each year from 2012-2015 and has made five All-Star teams should have a solid Hall of Fame case.
18) Chase Utley
Last year, I compared Utley’s Hall of Fame case to Nomar Garciaparra’s. Both were incredible players in their primes, but numerous injuries hampered a good chunk of the latter half of their careers. Sure, Utley is a far better player than a lot of the guys in the Hall, but how much weight can be placed on a player’s peak versus his overall output? From 2005-2009, Utley’s performance was legendary, but he has missed so much time since then that his total numbers probably fall a bit short. Although he intends to play in 2017, he didn’t look like he had much in the tank towards the end of last year.
19) Yadier Molina
Molina’s case is a complicated one because it will test just how much value the voters put into outstanding defense. There’s no denying Molina is one of the greatest defensive catchers of all-time, but his offense doesn’t stack up to most players in the Hall of Fame. He had a few seasons where he hit well enough to garner serious MVP consideration, but for the most part, he’s been average or mediocre even for his position, and he looks to be in decline. One thing he has going for him is that there’s really no qualified catcher coming on the ballot anytime soon. Omar Vizquel, another player whose case rests mostly on defense, enters the ballot in 2018, so how well he does could give a good indication of Molina’s future prospects.
20) Ian Kinsler
Kinsler’s name might be one of the most surprising on here, but upon closer examination of his numbers, you might find that he’s a lot better than you thought. Although Kinsler has never gotten a great deal of national attention, he is everything a team could ask for in a second baseman. He plays great defense, hits for power, steals bases, and produces runs hitting at the top of the order. It might be tough for him to ever get much Hall of Fame support since he flies so under the radar, but if he continues to play at his current level for another five years, picture where he’d wind up statistically among second basemen. A strong finish could put Kinsler over 2,500 hits and 1,500 runs. Even if he doesn’t reach those numbers, he’s already one of five second basemen with 200 home runs and 200 stolen bases. The other four are all Hall of Famers – Morgan, Sandberg, Alomar, and Biggio.
21) Joey Votto
Votto is the type of player who may have been underappreciated had he played in an earlier era. His .313 career batting average would have garnered plenty of attention, but his ability to walk and get on base at a ridiculous rate (.425) is more recognized in today’s game than ever before. Detractors can point to his somewhat low RBI totals from 2012-2015, and as crazy as it sounds, you could definitely make the argument that Votto walks too much considering his role in the Reds’ lineup. However, I would argue that the problem isn’t so much Votto’s approach as it is the team’s lineup strategy. If Votto is going to be a guy who is more willing to work the count in any situation than swing away with runners in scoring position, he should probably be batting first or second instead of third, so that’s not exactly his fault. Anyway, Votto’s contract runs thought at least 2024, so if he’s able to continue reaching base at a prodigious rate for a while, it should be enough to take him to Cooperstown.
22) Joe Mauer
In order to evaluate Mauer’s career, we can focus on his first ten years, during which he hit .323 with a .405 on base percentage, and compare it to other Hall of Fame catchers. Among all players who caught 500 games, Hall of Famers Mickey Cochrane and Bill Dickey are the only ones with a career average higher than .310. Cochrane and Johnny Bassler, a catcher for the Tigers during the 1920s, are the only two with an on base percentage over .400. However, Mauer’s time behind the plate ended at age 30. He hasn’t caught a game since 2013, and while he was moved to first base in part to prolong his career, his production has fallen off pretty significantly. A first baseman who hits around .265 with limited power is a pretty mediocre player, so Mauer will have to hope the voters place a high value on his remarkable peak as a catcher.
23) Jimmy Rollins
Although he’s in the twilight of his career, Rollins was a mainstay for the Phillies at one of the game’s toughest positions for a decade and a half. I’m guessing his career OPS+ of 95 will keep him out, but Rollins’ offensive totals are still better than a lot of shortstops in the Hall of Fame. He did win an MVP, and is close to 2,500 hits, 500 stolen bases, and 1,500 runs scored. Deadball Era Hall of Famers Honus Wagner and George Davis are the only shortstops to accomplish that feat.
24) Max Scherzer
Over the past four years, Scherzer has emerged as one of the more dominant starting pitchers of our time. During that span, he’s led his league in WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio twice, strikeouts once, and has an ERA+ of 137. Scherzer has also had his share of memorable moments, which is something that acts as a big bonus for Hall of Fame candidates. The superb right-hander has thrown two no-hitters, won two Cy Youngs, and tied a major league record for strikeouts in a game with 20. He hasn’t yet accumulated the major career milestones that many of the other players on this list have, but there’s no reason to think a pitcher with Scherzer’s talent can’t get there.
25) Francisco Rodriguez
He’s probably not the first guy that comes to mind when you start thinking of future Hall of Famers, but with teams starting to place a greater value on relief pitchers, you never know. Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera will both get inducted in the next two years, which could open the door for more relievers in the future. Rodriguez already has 430 career saves, good for fourth all-time, is the type of dominant closer voters like to see. K-Rod is probably the most logical choice for an active relief pitcher to make this list.
Obviously, this list is mostly speculative. There will always be players that look like Hall of Famers who begin a steep decline and other players who aren’t even in the conversation that emerge later in their careers. I’m sure nobody thought Adrian Beltre would be a Hall of Famer after 2009.
There’s a whole group of active players who’ve had wonderful careers that could easily have made this list as well. Ace pitchers like Chris Sale, Zack Greinke, and David Price came close, along with veterans C.C. Sabathia and David Wright, who could re-enter the Hall of Fame conversation if they have major career rejuvenations. Lights out closer Craig Kimbrel was tough to leave off. In addition, late bloomers like Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, or Josh Donaldson could rack up some huge career numbers if they remain productive until they’re almost 40. Maybe Bartolo Colon can pitch until he’s 50 and get to 300 wins. Anything can happen.