Baseball is always changing, which makes it tough to definitively determine who is and who is not a Hall of Fame player. For example, 500 home runs used to be a milestone that meant a player was on their way to Cooperstown. The steroid era changed that. We now have advanced analytics that, while not perfect, can better help us understand which players are deserving. Analytics also add to the debate since not all voters embrace them, however.
A lot about the Hall of Fame voting process doesn't make sense though. Writers are only allowed to vote for 10 player even though some want to go over that limit. Many of these voters won't vote for "steroid guys", which makes it possible an entire era of great players won't be getting voted in for a while. But that's a story for another day.
I limited the below list to players over 30 because too much can happen with anyone younger than that. What was most interesting about the research for this is how no active pitchers can be considered locks for the Hall of Fame. Due to pitch counts and Tommy John surgeries it seems inevitable we will have to change how we view Hall of Fame pitchers going forward. It's entirely possible nobody ever reaches 300 wins again. The two active pitchers most likely to reach the Hall would be Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez but even they can't be considered locks yet. Without further ado here are the seven active players who have the best chance of becoming Hall of Famers:
Ichiro Suzuki, OF, Marlins Age: 42
First things first it's pretty impressive Ichiro is even still playing. At 42 he is the second oldest player in baseball, just a few months younger than Bartolo Colon. In spring training Ichiro declared he wants to play until at least 50. While this may be a bit far-fetched he has shown that he still has some life in his bat as a fourth outfielder for the Marlins. This season he is batting .339 in limited time and is just four hits shy of 3,000 for his career.
Now think about how hard it is to reach 3,000 hits. In the history of baseball dating back to the late 1800s only 29 players have ever done it. Cap Anson was the first. Alex Rodriguez was the most recent. The other players that have reached the milestone this millennium are Cal Ripken Jr, Rickey Henderson, Rafael Palmeiro, Craig Biggio, and Derek Jeter. Reaching 3,000 hits takes a combination of hall of fame talent, longevity, and durability. The fact that Ichiro did not begin his MLB career until he was 27 makes his accomplishment that much more ridiculous.
Ichiro hasn't been an all-star since 2010 so it's easy to forget how dominant he was when he first came over to the United States. In his 2001 rookie year Ichiro won Rookie of the Year, AL MVP, the batting title, a gold glove, a silver slugger, and was an all-star. He led the Mariners to a record 116 wins. In the 10 year span from 2001 to 2010 Ichiro appeared in 10 all star games, won 10 gold gloves, two batting titles, and led the league in hits seven times. In all 10 of those seasons he hit at least .300 with at least 200 hits. He stole at least 30 bases in every season but one. Regardless of how long he plays for, five years after Ichiro finally retires he will become the first Japanese born player to be inducted into Major League Baseball's hall of fame.
Albert Pujols, 1B, Angels Age: 36
Pujols has obviously not been the same player with the Angels that he was with the Cardinals, which makes it easy to forget how great he was. His apex came in the latter part of this past decade. In all six seasons from 2005-2010 he led National League position players in WAR. During that stretch he won three MVP awards with two second place finishes. That's a dominant prime and Pujols also has the longevity. In the 10 seasons from his rookie year in 2001 until 2010 he hit at least 30 homers with 100 RBI and a .310 batting average in every one of them.
Currently Pujols is sitting on 579 career home runs, which barring injury makes him a lock to become just the ninth player in history to reach 600. Doing so without the suspicion of steroids will increase the percentage he gets in on the first ballot, much like it did for Griffey this year. As if all this wasn't enough Pujols has won two World Series and in game 3 of the 2011 fall classic he became one of just four players to ever hit three homers in a single World Series game.
Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers Age: 33
Easily the youngest player on this list Cabrera has had an unbelievable 14 year start to his career. From 2005-2015 Cabrera batted at least .320 in all but one season, winning four batting titles along the way. His .320 career average ranks 50th all time, which is more impressive when we realize he is doing it in an era when it has become tougher than ever to get a hit. Until an injury shortened 2015 he had an 11 year streak of 25 home runs and 100 RBI.
Cabrera has finished in the top 5 in MVP voting a whopping seven times and won the award in both 2012 and 2013. In 2012 he became the first player in 45 years to win the batting triple crown. Cabrera already has 2,440 hits and 427 homers, which makes him likely to become just the sixth player in history to reach both 3,000 hits and 500 homers. Absolutely dominant in his prime he is still just 33 years old and has plenty of time to add to his already impressive counting stats. When all is said and done it will make Cabrera a no-brainer, first ballot Hall of Famer.
Should Get In Eventually
Alex Rodriguez, DH, Yankees Age: 40
Obviously this is only due to the fact that voters have been too stubborn to vote in steroid users. On paper A-Rod is one of the 10 or 20 best players of all time. Even though he missed all of 2014 with the longest PED suspension in baseball history he still entered this season with a real chance at Barry Bonds' home run record. Currently he has 696, which puts him just 18 shy of Babe Ruth for third all time. With another season left on his contract after this one it seems probable he surpasses Ruth.
For his career A-Rod has appeared in 14 all star games, won 10 silver sluggers, three MVPs, and two gold gloves. He has led the league in homers five times, won a batting title, and is one of just four players to ever have a 40/40 season. In the all time ranks he is currently fourth in homers, third in RBI, eighth in runs, 20th in hits (with over 3,000), and sixth in total bases. Some fans and voters will never get over the steroid use but he is undoubtedly one of the best players ever and maybe the greatest right handed hitter of all time.
David Ortiz, DH, Red Sox age: 40
It's tough not to put Ortiz on the absolute lock list but there will be voters who think a designated hitter doesn't impact the game the way a position player does. The worry for the Large Father is that Edgar Martinez received just 43.4% of the vote this year, which is well short of the 75% requirement. Ortiz fans shouldn't panic though because his numbers are much better than Edgar's. Martinez has just 309 home runs and 1,261 RBI, which are both well short of Papi's 527 homers and 1,722 RBI.
Ortiz also had a much better apex than Martinez. In the five year stretch from 2003-2007 Papi finished in the top five in MVP voting every season. He has the longevity as well and in his age 40 season leads the league in doubles, slugging, OPS, and intentional walks. In addition to being the best DH of all time Ortiz holds the title for greatest clutch hitter of all time as well as the most important Red Sox of all time. His postseason achievements include three World Series rings, the 2004 ALCS MVP, and the 2013 World Series MVP where he hit .688 in the six game series against the Cardinals. How voters view the DH position will determine how quickly Ortiz is ultimately inducted.
Adrian Beltre, 3B, Rangers Age: 37
The case for Beltre is one for consistency and longevity. The above graphic shows where he ranked in WAR among third baseman in each of his eighteen seasons so far. There is a real argument that he was never the best third baseman in the league aside from an outlier 2004 season when he hit 48 homers, which is 12 more than his next highest total. Those who do not vote for Beltre will point to the fact that he only ranked top three at his position in four of 18 season so far.
All that being said Beltre has amassed 2,862 hits and 427 homers. Assuming health he is a lock for 3,000 hits and has an outside shot at 500 homers. The hits would almost have to make him a lock for the Hall since every other player to reach the milestone is either in or a steroid guy who should be in. Beltre spent much of his 20s being pretty mediocre and just in the past couple of years has been talked about as a potential HOF guy. That consistency and longevity has added up, however, as Beltre ranks 31st all time on Baseball Reference's WAR leaderboard for position players. That puts him ahead of guys like Chipper Jones, Jeter, and Griffey. He probably belongs in the Hall of Very Good and may not get in first ballot but 3,000 hits while being free of steroid suspicion means he will get in eventually.
Carlos Beltran, OF, Yankees Age: 39
Out of everyone on this list Beltran's resume is probably the weakest. He likely won't reach 3,000 hits or 500 homers and never won an MVP. In fact he finished in the top 10 just twice, which could be a big deal for voters looking at his apex. His case for induction is the combination of doing a lot of things very well. He is fourth all time in stolen base percentage, won three gold gloves, and made nine all star teams. He already has 2,500 hits and has the third most home runs ever for a switch hitter.
Beltran's best selling point is that he is one of just five players to ever record 400 homers and 300 steals, joining Bonds, A-Rod, Willie Mays and Andrew Dawson. Two of those players are Hall of Famers and the other two are obviously deserving. Voters who are still torn on Beltran's induction will look to his ridiculous playoff resume where in 52 games he hit 16 homers while slashing an insane .332/.441/.674 line with a 1.115 OPS. Incredibly he never won a World Series with those stats. Ultimately his career numbers put him in line with the likes of Dawson who was elected on his ninth ballot, which seems like a reasonable amount of time Beltran will have to wait.