How many active major leaguers are future Hall of Famers?
This is not a trick question. But it is a difficult question, one requiring thought and analysis, and maybe a crazy guess or two. Luckily, I'm here to provide some answers for you.
Warning: I've done this before and once nominated Hank Blalock as a future Hall of Famer. That looks silly now, but by the age of 23 he was a two-time All-Star and had seasons of 29 and 32 home runs with 10.7 career WAR. A string of injuries eventually derailed his career, however, and he played his last major league game in 2010 at age 29.
Point is: Good luck with this assignment.
The first task is to figure out how many Hall of Famers are active in any given year in order to create a baseline. Let's look at 10-year intervals:
As a point of comparison, let's go back to 1988. We already have 34 Hall of Famers who played that year. There were players at the end of the line, such as Steve Carlton, Don Sutton and Mike Schmidt; there were in-their-prime stars, such as Rickey Henderson, Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn; there were rookies, including John Smoltz, Randy Johnson and Craig Biggio. Smoltz went 2-7 with a 5.48 ERA; you certainly wouldn't have pegged him as a future Hall of Famer then.
So 34 Hall of Famers from 26 teams, a little more than one per team on average. Except remember that Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro all were active that year and would be Hall of Famers if not for PEDs. Curt Schilling started four games as a rookie that year and will eventually get in. Edgar Martinez got into a few games that year and he should get elected next year. That's 40 likely Hall of Famers if you include the PED guys, and that doesn't include other future possibilities such as Gary Sheffield, Lou Whitaker, Kevin Brown, Keith Hernandez, Dwight Evans and David Cone, who have numbers worthy of consideration.
But let's go with a list of 40 active Hall of Famers. That may seem like a lot, but that's a 1.33 ratio of Hall of Famers per team, lower than the historical rate.
ALREADY FULLY QUALIFIED (6)
Kershaw now has 11 seasons, so he's reached the 10-year minimum requirement for eligibility. While he has just 144 career wins, his level of performance has been so high with three Cy Young Awards and five ERA titles that I believe he's in even if he opts out of his contract after the season and retires to do charity work in Africa.
Cano might be the surprise name here, but he’s firmly established as a top-10 second baseman with more than 300 home runs and should surpass 2,500 hits by the end of the season.
IN AS SOON AS HE GETS 10 SEASONS (1)
He's already 13th among active players in career WAR, and by the end of the season will pass Hall of Famers Willie Stargell, Yogi Berra and Harmon Killebrew in that category. Trout will have constructed a fully justified Hall of Fame case before he turns 30.
KNOCKING ON THE DOOR (3)
Verlander is probably the leading candidate of this trio, as he has 189 career wins and has re-established himself as one of the top starters in the game. He is 35 but should have several good seasons left plus some hanging-on years to add to the win total.
Greinke is probably a step behind Verlander and I'm not as confident in his ability to pitch well into his late 30s, but he's 172-108 in his career with a Cy Young Award and another season with a 1.66 ERA. He should cross over 200 career wins with ease and is closing in on 60 career WAR as a pitcher (he's over 60 if you include his batting).
Votto could be an interesting candidate because he doesn't have the classic power numbers you associate with Hall of Fame first basemen, with just two 30-homer seasons and three 100-RBI campaigns. What he has is a career average well north of .300 and six seasons leading his league in on-base percentage. He has fared well in MVP voting. As Hall of Famer voters become more sophisticated, they should recognize and reward his value.
ON THE RIGHT TRACK (6)
Basically, these guys just have to keep doing what they've been doing -- in Stanton's case that means hitting home runs, not striking out five times in one game. Scherzer is the oldest of this group and thus has the most good stuff on his ledger, including three Cy Young Awards. He turns 33 this season and has 143 career victories, so he still has work to do.
Sale is on the short list of best pitchers never to win a Cy Young Award with six straight seasons in the top six of the voting. Stanton's MVP award certainly helps and if he averages 35 home runs through his age-37 season, he'll be sitting at 620. Bumgarner isn't yet 30, hasn't had an arm injury and has the legendary postseason run of 2014 (although postseason performance hasn’t helped Schilling get elected).
Altuve's career arc will be fascinating to watch. He has had three huge seasons of 6 WAR or more, including 7.7 and 8.3 the past two seasons, and has established a realistic shot at 3,000 hits since he reached the majors at such a young age. Despite his size, he has been remarkably durable.
Arenado already has three 130-RBI seasons. Will voters care about RBIs in 18 years when he's on the ballot? Even if you're skeptical that his offense is Coors-inflated, he also may go down as the best defensive third baseman since Brooks Robinson, if not better than Robinson.
THE CATCHERS (3)
None of these guys are locks just yet and have varying degrees of positives and negatives.
Posey: Extremely high peak, catcher on three World Series champions, MVP award; on the other hand, he's already 31 with pretty low counting numbers so far and you never know how catchers will age.
Molina: Right up there with Johnny Bench and Ivan Rodriguez as the greatest defensive catchers ever, two-time World Series champ, intangibles that don't show up in the numbers; has only two big offensive seasons and low counting totals even for a catcher.
Mauer: Posey has averaged 5.5 WAR over the past six seasons; Mauer averaged 5.0 during an eight-year stretch behind the plate that included three batting titles, three Gold Gloves and an MVP award. Trouble is, Mauer spent just nine-plus seasons as a catcher before moving to first base, where he has been a roughly average player in value.
Posey is the most conventional candidate if he ages well. I think Molina gets in based on his tremendous defense, plus he feels like a central figure in the game over the past decade, even if his numbers don't scream Hall of Famer. Mauer will have a tougher road, and it might take a veterans committee that remembers how good he was at his peak.
THE 26-AND-YOUNGER CROWD (8)
Bryant is the oldest of these eight position players, having turned 26 in January. All seven clearly have displayed Hall of Fame abilities and production at a young age and the best indicator for a Hall of Famer is elite production at a young age, especially since Hall voters historically reward longevity over a short-but-dominant peak.
THAT'S A LOT OF WINS (1)
He has 237 wins, but is hardly a slam dunk. Mike Mussina has 270 wins and 82.9 WAR to Sabathia's 59.7 and has had trouble getting support. Part of being a Hall of Famer, however, is your imprint on the game, and Sabathia's has felt more impactful than Mussina's. I'd have given him no chance a couple of years ago, but he has rebounded since then and while he turns 38 in July, he could get up to 260 wins or so.
If you're counting, we're at 28 ... now it really gets difficult.
THE RELIEVERS (2)
I have zero idea how current relievers will be viewed down the road, with their light workload but astronomical strikeout rates. These two are both 30 and not even halfway to Trevor Hoffman's 601 saves, let alone Mariano Rivera's 652. Both have been better pitchers than Hoffman, however, so if they can keep racking up saves for another decade, you never know. I'd also note that of the five modern relievers elected, four were closers on World Series winners (Hoffman being the exception), a standard Kimbrel and Jansen have yet to meet.
THE FIRST BASEMEN (2)
I'm not confident about either one of these guys. Goldschmidt didn't have his first big season until he was 25, a late breakout for a Hall of Fame player, so he'll have to remain one of the best players in the league until his mid-30s. Rizzo is a couple of years younger, which helps, and has four straight 30-homer seasons and three straight 100-RBI seasons -- things Hall of Fame voters have valued. He's a popular player on a team that has become an October fixture. Still, he feels kind of like Fred McGriff or Carlos Delgado, and the Hall has been pretty tough on first basemen.
I know Braves fans will ask about Freddie Freeman. He's the same age as Rizzo and actually has a slight edge in career WAR (27.9 to 25.7). He seems to be getting better at the plate. He'll have to keep producing deep into his 30s and if you want to say Freeman is the better candidate, I won't argue.
THE CALL-UPS (2)
Ronald Acuna, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Too soon? Of course it’s too soon, but that's the way this works.
HEY, IT'S JUST A PREDICTION (2)
Judge, like Goldschmidt, would be a late bloomer for a Hall of Famer since last year was his age-25 season, but we've already seen his monster upside. He'll have to pack a lot of productivity into the next 10 seasons. Sanchez? Ignore the abysmal start this season; he has a chance to become one of the best-hitting catchers the game has ever seen.
THE LONG SHOTS (2)
Many Hall of Fame pitchers built their resumes in their 30s. Strasburg has the stuff to be one of those guys. He's in his age-29 season and has 85 career wins; he's also coming off his best season and you can dream of him pitching well for the next decade. Yelich is a sneaky 3,000-hit candidate, a guy who reached the majors at 21 and owns a .291 career average. Getting out of Miami could boost his offensive numbers.
DEFENSE MATTERS (1)
Hey, when Omar Vizquel gets elected in a few years, that will open the door for Simmons.
WHY NOT (1)
I'm writing this after he just had one of the greatest weeks we've seen. How can I leave him off this list?