By: Scott RossPublished: January 31, 2022

Who's Getting Their Ticket Punched for Cooperstown in 2023?

With the Steroids Era at last in our rearview mirror and David Ortiz bound for Cooperstown, it’s time to take a prematurely early look ahead to the 2023 contenders for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Next year’s potential ballot is decidedly less sexy without PED-tainted all-timers Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, to say nothing of also-controversial Curt Schilling and Sammy Sosa, but it’s got just about everything else you could hope for in a Hall-of-Fame checklist: first-timers, criminally overlooked players, cheaters, borderline cases, and guys who have no hope of making it.

The most notable holdovers are, of course, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield, and Andy Pettitte, the first two recidivist ‘roiders, the other two confessed, though never formally punished. A-Rod and Manny deserve to get in, as do Sheff and Pettitte, but the latter duo's cases, playing-wise, aren’t so cut-and-dry. It’s easy to imagine a world where writers ice out the first two over their suspensions and the last two because of their numbers.

Chief among the stink-free holdovers from last year’s ballot is the inexplicably unresolved matter of Scott Rolen. The man was a scandal-free, Hall of Fame caliber player who in his fifth year on the ballot finished at 63.2%, well short of the 75% needed to get in. It honestly makes you wonder if the Baseball Writers Association of America is still plagued by innumeracy even after all the recent leaps in analytical understanding. If history is any guide, Rolen will clear the bar eventually, at which point I can find something else about which to be unreasonably annoyed. Andruw Jones and Todd Helton also deserve to get in, but they won’t, at least not next year.

Bobby Abreu is the ultimate edge case, as he sits at 60.2 Wins Above Replacement (60 WAR being the unofficial borderline), but he was a compiler more than a dominator. Only once did Abreu rank in the top 10 in WAR; he never finished higher than 12th in MVP voting, made just two All Star teams, won just one Gold Glove and one Silver Slugger award, and ranks just 20th all time among right-fielders in JAWS (the Jaffe WAR System, which combines 7-year peak and career). His getting in would be no travesty, his not getting would be no tragedy.

Similarly, Mark Buehrle could go either way. The reliable, athletic lefty put up 60 WAR (let’s not deny him 60 just because he has -0.9 WAR as a batter), has more seasons with 200+ IP and 10+ wins than Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Gaylord Perry, Mike Mussina, Jim Palmer and Roy Halladay, and was one hell of a fielder, winning four Gold Gloves. He was the best player on the 2005 World Champion White Sox, threw a perfect game and a no-hitter, and made five All Star teams. But Buehrle was always very good, never AWESOME. Probably won’t make it.

Billy Wagner is probably one of the seven greatest closers ever, but I’m not sure that’s enough. He faced 3,600 batters in his career, or about 200 fewer than his former teammate Roy Oswalt faced from just 2004 to 2007. Oswalt, who out-WAR-ed Wagner 50 to 27.7, fell off the ballot in his first year after garnering just 0.9% of the vote. Make of that what you will.

Finally, Jeff Kent is on the ballot for the 10th and final time. Kent benefitted greatly from the era in which he played in, hitting more home runs than any other second baseman ever, which, sure, great. But he was an average fielder with a modest peak, who falls well short of the average Hall-of-Fame second baseman in terms of WAR, WAR7, JAWS, and WAR/162, and even his MVP award should’ve gone to Todd Helton. He was a very good ballplayer, far better than most, but nobody's Bobby Grich, Lou Whitaker, or Willie Randolph, who are all still on the outside of Cooperstown looking in.

The only new name on the ballot with any hope of near-term induction is center fielder Carlos Beltran, who is more than qualified, though that hasn’t stopped Scott Rolen from falling short for five years running (I’ll let it go as soon as he’s in, I promise). Among MLB center fielders, Beltran is eighth in WAR, 11th in WAR7, ninth in JAWS, was Rookie of the Year and a nine-time All Star, won three Gold Gloves and two Silver Sluggers, and is one of only four players ever with 300 stolen bases, 400 home runs, 1,500 runs and 1,500 RBI (the other three are dudes named Bonds, Mays and Rodriguez). He was also, despitethe infamous third strike looking, one of the great postseason performers, slashing .307/.412/.609 across 256 plate appearances, with 16 dingers and 42 ribbies, and going 11-for-11 on stolen base attempts.

If there’s a mark against Beltran's candidacy, it’s his involvement in the Houston Astros cheating scandal of 2017, as Beltran was the only player from that team mentioned by name in MLB’s official report, a revelation that cost him his job as the manager of the New York Mets before he even started. It will be interesting to see how much weight the voters give to his involvement in the scandal. It would be a shame if that kept him out, given that every other player involved is still making millions and didn’t pay so much as a fine.

Other first-timers of note on the ballot are John Lackey, who managed 37.3 bWAR over a 15-year career that saw him win three World Series rings, twice getting the W in the clincher; Jered Weaver, who looked to be a borderline candidate through his age-28 season, the third in a row in which he finished top three in the Cy Young balloting, before succumbing to injuries and Father Time; and Jacoby Ellsbury, who put up some great seasons in Boston before becoming the poster child for not signing a free agent away from a division rival, 'cuz they must know something.

Unfortunately, given how historically stubborn and stupid the BBWAA election process has been, there’s a very real possibility that no one gets voted in next season. Hopefully, Beltran won’t be punished for getting thrown on the pyre, or maybe people will decide that it’s time to acknowledge that Scott Rolen is one of the 10 best third baseman to ever lace up spikes. But past those two, the two most deserving players have steroids issues, then it’s edge cases and Hall of Very Good guys, and finally dudes who were just happy to have been in The Show for a decade, which is an accomplishment worthy of celebration, if not enshrinement.

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