This is who I believe deserves to be on at least 75 percent of the ballots for the Hall of Fame Class of 2014. It's not all of them, of course -- we still want Curt Schilling, Alan Trammell, Jeff Kent, Larry Walker and a couple other guys at least hanging around on the ballot for another year. But the above represents, in my opinion, the 10 best candidates for whom a writer could vote, once merit, era, and the rules of the ballot itself are taken into consideration. And every single one would be a fine addition to the Hall of Fame -- this year's most pressing question isn't who to put on the ballot, but who to leave off. We'll take the 10 finalists in alphabetical order.
Jeff Bagwell played for "only" 15 years, which is rather short for a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate, but he made the most of his time in the big leagues: Whereas Mark McGwire, one of the final cuts from the ballot, managed only 7,660 plate appearances across a 16 year career, Bagwell crammed 9,431 PA into his decade and a half in Houston. Not only did he only have two years with fewer than 500 PA in his entire career -- 479 in 1994 and 123 in 2005, his final season in the majors -- he totaled more than 700 PA in a season six times. The only season he spent below a 110 OPS+ was that last hurrah in Houston in 2005, and he ended his career with .297/.408/.540 (.948 OPS) line while providing better first base defense and far better baserunning than his peers. Bagwell is arguably the best first baseman of the '90s and early '00s, and his only real competition for the title resides at the bottom of this very ballot.
Honestly, there's no reason Bagwell should even still be a candidate: Even accounting for the traditional sacredness given to first ballot selections, he should have gone into the Hall of Fame in 2012, his second year of eligibility. Instead, 2014 will be his fourth. Bagwell's mostly been kept out of the Hall so far thanks to a rumor and innuendo campaign based around suspicion of the same Houston clubhouse where Ken Caminiti and Roger Clemens had lockers and suspicion about the size of Bagwell's arms. Falling 51 homeruns shy of the 500 milestone and three points of average shy of a .300 career average didn't help him among milestone-oriented voters, either, but he played his most of his career at the Astrodome -- a cavernous park that was neutral for doubles hitters, helped triples hitters, but was absolute murder on homerun hitters like Bagwell. The move to Minute Maid Park in 2000 helped his counting numbers immensely: He managed 108 homeruns in 1,812 PA in the Astros' new stadium, as opposed to 126 homeruns in 2,832 PA in the old Astrodome. Assuming those same rates held, had Bagwell played his entire career with Minute Maid Park as his home field, he would have finished with around 492 homeruns -- and considering Bagwell was age 32 when he first got the benefit of the new field, it's likely he would have broken through to 500. His induction into the Hall of Fame is a year or two overdue.
In all likelihood, however, Craig Biggio is the only iconic Houston Astro getting into the Hall of Fame this year. Biggio deserves it: He doesn't have the MVP hardware Bagwell does, nor does he have the impressive counting stats or power numbers, but Biggio -- who played five seasons longer than Bagwell -- has the exact same number of sub-500 PA seasons (two, 1988 and 2000) and the exact same number of over-700 PA seasons (six). Over his prime he was a good defensive second baseman while providing some of the best offensive output from the position this side of Jeff Kent; his peak doesn't have the sheer slugging power that Kent's does, but it does have a guy consistently winning both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger at his position year in and year out and deserving the nods every time. Biggio was also a fantastic base runner, and equally fantastic at getting on base by any means necessary -- his 1160 career walks are good for 65th all-time, but his 285 hit-by-pitches is good for second.
The only real argument against Biggio -- and it's not a persuasive one -- is that he stayed around the game too long trying to reach his 3,000 hits milestone. One day the voting electorate will have to come face to face with their occasional double standard on "compilers," since longevity is the traditional backbone of almost every Hall of Fame case, but not this time around. Making Biggio wait until the second ballot should be more than enough for most doubters, considering he received 68.2 percent of the vote last year. One only wishes that he'd been inducted then, to free up a spot for another worthy candidate this time around.
Barry Bonds will only get a paragraph here, because one paragraph is all that he needs -- it's perhaps more than he needs. I've written extensively before about why I believe Bonds is the best player of all time, but his Hall of Fame resume should require no more padding than the simple acknowledgment of his seven MVP awards, as well as his holding the all-time career records in both homeruns and walks. The reasons not to vote for Barry Bonds have little to nothing to do with what actually transpired on the field during his career, and we'll deal with those questions down near the end. As a player, Bonds is inner circle Hall of Fame all the way. Denying him entry on the first ballot is the absolute extent to which the writers should punish him.
Roger Clemens has a similar case as a pitcher, though things are a bit more complicated for him than they are for Bonds, mainly because Bonds didn't have to play and be judged right alongside his closest peers. Clemens, on the other hand, was possibly the best pitcher of all time pitching in the same era as three other guys who can lay some kind of claim to that mantle: Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson. All that does in my estimation, however, is make Clemens' seven Cy Young Awards (and one MVP) more impressive -- Bonds never had to pull off such a feat with Ted Williams and Babe Ruth hanging around. In addition to the hardware, Clemens finished his career with just shy of 5,000 innings pitched, his 4,672 strikeouts good for third all-time on the career list behind Randy Johnson and Nolan Ryan and his 3.12 career ERA better than either man's. It's also worth noting that over the course of his 24 year career, only three years of which -- his age 41, 42 and 43 seasons in Houston -- were spent in the National League, Baseball-Reference figures that Clemens was worth just shy of one win with his bat.
Tom Glavine fits more with Mike Mussina on this ballot than he does with Roger Clemens, but Glavine has two Cy Young Awards to his name with four other top-three finishes, threw over 4,000 innings in the big leagues over the course of his career for a respectable 3.54 ERA (118 ERA+), and most importantly has a legacy completely inseparable from that of his longtime teammate Greg Maddux. This is a situation where longevity such as Glavine's does outweigh the better rate stats of say, Curt Schilling, but voting for him this year is a tactical decision too: Getting Glavine in with Maddux means another free spot on the ballot next year when Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson and John Smoltz become eligible (Gary Sheffield, too, but I'm under very few illusions as to how warm a reception he'll get from the voters).
And Greg Maddux should go in without a hitch. He won't go unanimously, because no one goes unanimously, but Maddux is as close to the pitching version of Cal Ripken Jr., as you're going to get in the modern game. There is absolutely no controversy surrounding him, and absolutely no question whether or not a man with four consecutive National League Cy Young Awards, over 5,000 innings pitched, and a seven-year peak from 1992 through the end of 1998 that saw him pitch 1,675.1 innings of 2.15 ERA ball in the height of what's now called the Steroid Era (190 ERA+) should go into the Hall of Fame on his first ballot. If Greg Maddux is not inducted this year, take the vote away from the writers and shut down the Hall until a better system can be found. That's how much of a non-question the question of Greg Maddux is.
Which brings us to Mike Mussina -- from the most ironclad of candidates to a guy in legitimate danger of falling off the ballot his first time around, just like Kevin Brown did. Mussina doesn't have the postseason accolades that endear Curt Schilling to a number of voters who might otherwise lose him in the Maddux/Clemens/Glavine/Morris mess. Like Schilling, he never won the Cy Young -- Clemens and Pedro won the Cy in almost every year of Mussina's prime; the best chance Moose ever had was 1994, when he put up a 3.06 ERA in 176.1 IP and David Cone was simply better for Kansas City. But unlike Schilling, he also never won a World Series ring despite pitching well in the postseason (3.42 ERA in 139.2 IP). If it weren't for him finally getting a 20-win season his last year with the New York Yankees before retirement, I'd despair for him entirely.
During his career, Mussina was often heralded as a sort of Maddux the Lesser -- both men wore glasses, gained a reputation for being "cerebral" pitchers and "only" worked in the low to mid nineties for much of their careers in an age dominated by larger-than-life fireballers -- and that might help him on the ballot, as might his high-profile employment with the New York Yankees for the latter half of his career. Kevin Brown's biggest problem was doing his best work for the then-Florida Marlins and a millennial Los Angeles Dodgers team that was constantly getting shown up by the Arizona Diamondbacks with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling and the San Francisco Giants with Barry Bonds and ... Barry Bonds. Mussina doesn't -- or shouldn't -- have that problem. The bigger issue will be finding room for him on the ballot. In all honesty, the reason he's here on my list instead of Schilling is because last year Schilling showed he has a clear base of support that won't desert him. The goal with Mussina isn't to get him into the Hall this year, or even to get him most of the way there; it's to get him the five percent token support he needs to return to the ballot next time around.
Johnny Bench is probably the best catcher the game has ever seen, followed by Gary Carter and then Yogi Berra. But Mike Piazza is the best catcher the game has ever seen step up to the plate with a bat in his hand, and he's another case where idle chatter among the writers -- specifically whispers of PED use that have yet to be substantiated or expanded upon in any manner besides innuendo -- kept a first ballot Hall of Famer waiting a year while the backlog built up behind him. Piazza was a sound fundamental catcher who knew how to handle a staff, call a game, move behind the dish, and was a bit worse than league average at catching base runners over the course of his career. Oh, and he hit .300 for his career, tallied 427 home runs and ended up with a career OPS of .922. The biggest knock on Piazza -- outside of the PED "allegations" -- is that his body began to betray him in his early to mid-30s, robbing him of the longevity seen in a Hall of Fame catcher following the Bench or Carter or Berra mold. Piazza had raw production in his offensive game that none but maybe Carlton Fisk could match, however, and Piazza didn't play half his games in Fenway. He's another gimme that needs to be enshrined so the writers can move on to tougher decisions.
Tim Raines is a guy who would've been consigned to the Alan Trammell pile of worthy but unrealistic candidates if recent years hadn't seen him tick up to 52.2 percent on the most recent ballot with a number of years remaining. Raines is a bit of a hard sell, and he'll only get harder -- he played in a different era from the leftfielders we eliminated earlier like Luis Gonzalez and Moises Alou; Raines was overshadowed not by Barry Bonds, but by Rickey Henderson. Their careers spanned almost the same exact length -- both debuted in 1979, and Raines retired in 2002 while Rickey finally hung up his cleats (his major league cleats, at least) the following year. Whatever Raines did, Rickey was just better at: He had a slightly better overall offensive profile (127 OPS+ to Raines's 123), walked a lot more (2,190 to Raines's 1,330), homered a lot more (297 to Raines's 170) and it goes without saying that he stole a lot more bases (1,406 to Raines's 808). It's hard establishing yourself as a premiere OBP-first, solid-hitting leftfielder who's great on the base paths when there's an inner circle Hall of Famer shadowing you your entire career, doing the exact same thing -- and doing it on teams like the Athletics and the Yankees while you're toiling away on the Montreal Expos.
What's not immediately obvious from the raw numbers is that over the course of both men's careers, 1979 to 2003, not only was Tim Raines' stolen base percentage better than Rickey's (84.7 percent to 80.8 percent), but it was the best in the majors of any player who played 1,000 games in that timeframe. If we drop our arbitrary barrier to entry to 500 games, only young Carlos Beltran and Pokey Reese do him better in success rate. Reese was so good at stealing bases that he managed to be +26 runs on the base paths despite a career OBP hovering around .300, and Beltran will likely be a Hall of Famer in his own right once his playing days are done. The sheer amount of Rickey's stolen bases far outweigh any difference that Raines's better decision-making might have lent him, but that's alright; Tim Raines wasn't a better player than Rickey Henderson, but he shouldn't have to be to make it into the Hall of Fame. Hopefully Raines is one neglected candidate who won't need to wait for the Veterans Committee for redress.
And the ballot ends where it began, at first base, with the Big Hurt. Altogether, I prefer Jeff Bagwell to Frank Thomas as the best first baseman of the '90s, but it's an extremely close thing, that race, and Thomas has an argument just as compelling as Bagwell does. He is the only man candidate on this ballot not named "Bonds" with back-to-back MVP awards, which he won in the American League in 1993 and 1994; Thomas had a 19 year career in the big leagues compared to Bagwell's 15 seasons, though he tallied onlu 600-some more plate appearances in the extra four years. Thomas actually was a career .300 hitter and actually did hit over 500 home runs, and both his raw line -- .301/.419/.555 (.974 OPS) -- and his OPS+ of 163 are better than Bagwell's respective offerings. Thomas, however, has many of the same problems Mark McGwire has: He wasn't adding value anytime he wasn't standing at the plate. He was a poor baserunner and a defensive liability, especially towards the end of his career, in ways that Jeff Bagwell never was. Luckily, Thomas played his entire career in the American League, giving his teams the option of hitting him as a DH; Bagwell, on the other hand, was in the field every game he started for all 15 seasons.
There is one reason Frank Thomas should be a red-dead mortal lock to make the Hall on his first ballot along with Greg Maddux, however: Back when he was a player, Thomas was a voice in the wilderness on the issue of performance-enhancing drugs. He was not only the first active player of note to speak publically on the subject, but the only person proposing testing and punishment back in the heady days of homerun chases, and offering himself and his team up as guinea pigs for the program.
My view of PEDs, baseball and the current slate of candidates is that there are two ways to approach the last 15 years of baseball, and they're both equally valid so long as they're properly justified: Either one accepts the numbers as they are, and considers proven anabolic steroid and HGH use as just another factor in a player's candidacy … or one consistently rejects every proven user on moral grounds, without exceptions, and without trying to work back how this or that player "should" have played without the drugs. You can't put Barry Bonds in "because he would have been a Hall of Famer anyway" but insist that without the needle, Mark McGwire wouldn't have been Big Mac. No one has the certainty to do that, least of all from 15 years down the line.
But just as important: You can't torpedo guys because you feel they might have done steroids, or because, well, just look at those arms. Because if you're going put it out there that you think a guy was using, and you don't have any proof, but you make a bunch of noise about "body type" -- change the names and you could be talking about Frank Thomas. If Frank Thomas' name fits just as glibly into your source-of-a-source rumor paired with your picture of a muscular upper body, then you've got less than decade-old innuendo; you've got nothing worth listening to at all.
So that's that: A full 10 on the ballot, with five or six more waiting in the wings and another half-dozen on the horizon. The best possible outcome this year is a crop of five to six non-Jack Morris inductees (not because of my lack of support for Morris's case for the Hall, but because looking forward it really doesn't matter if he makes it in this year or if his eligibility expires; he's off the ballot regardless). The worst realistic possible outcome is just Maddux.
Cooperstown needs more than just one or two of these men. If Greg Maddux stands alone on that stage come summer time, next winter might be the most painful the Hall has ever faced.