An International Influx Is Headed To The Hall
A two-way threat, Adrian Beltre hasn’t slowed down near the end of his Hall of Fame career (Diamond Images)[/caption]
It’s a no-brainer that Ichiro Suzuki will go into the Hall of Fame the first time he’s on the ballot. Ichiro jumped from Japan to Major League Baseball when he was 27 and became an instant star, winning the American League MVP as a rookie in 2001 and going on to collect his 3,000th hit this year.
Japanese players typically spend their early- to mid-20s playing in Nippon Professional Baseball, so Ichiro’s ability to compile a Hall of Fame résumé even before considering his NPB accomplishments is remarkable. And as more international players make their way to the major leagues—mostly from Latin America—the Hall of Fame will eventually see an uptick in international players as well.
Mariano Rivera, Ivan Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, Andruw Jones, Manny Ramirez, Bobby Abreu and Johan Santana are all recently retired, international-born players who will merit strong Hall of Fame consideration in upcoming years.
But which active international players are on the path to Cooperstown?
While Canada and Puerto Rico get their own teams in the World Baseball Classic, we’re going to limit this look to players who were born in countries where they wouldn’t be subject to the draft (though some Dominican-born players have entered pro ball through the draft, such as Albert Pujols and Jose Bautista).
Bautista, Victor Martinez, Carlos Gonzalez, Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, Edwin Encarnacion, Nelson Cruz, Bartolo Colon, and Johnny Cueto are all players in their 30s who have had great careers, but it’s unlikely any of them will finish with Hall credentials.
Younger players still in their 20s who could end up Hall of Famers, though there’s a lot more uncertainty in projecting which of them will maintain the longevity to get to Cooperstown. Players below are listed with their career wins above replacement (WAR), according to Baseball-Reference.com.
Albert Pujols, 100 WAR
Pujols could have retired after his 20s and still been a Hall of Famer. A three-time MVP, Pujols in his prime was the ultimate combination of pure hitting ability, plate discipline and power. He had nine seasons with an OBP of at least .400 and 13 seasons with at least 30 home runs, with a good chance he breaks into the 600 home-run club next season. He’s been a dangerous postseason hitter as well, batting .323/.431/.599 in 77 playoff games.
Pujols is one of 32 players in MLB history with at least 100 WAR, a combination of obviously tremendous offensive ability as well as his outstanding defensive skill. He’s a surehanded first baseman who saved his infielders errors and had above-average range for the position. While Pujols didn’t sign as an international free agent—he was a 13th-round pick in 1999 out of Maple Woods (Mo.) CC—he will retire as the best Dominican-born player in major league history.
Adrian Beltre, 88 WAR
While Pujols has slowed down in his mid-30s, Beltre at 37 shows few signs of decline. If you classify Alex Rodriguez as a third baseman, Beltre ranks sixth all-time among third basemen in career WAR, and he could surpass George Brett (88.4) and Wade Boggs (91.1) next year, with only Eddie Matthews (96.4) and Mike Schmidt (106.5) ahead of him.
Beltre doesn’t have the flashy counting numbers of other surefire Hall of Famers, but few players have provided as much value on both sides of the ball. Power drives Beltre’s offensive game. He hit 432 home runs despite spending the first half of his career in pitcher-friendly parks in Los Angeles and Seattle.
If Beltre had been an average defender, he would still be a Hall of Famer, but his defense is what makes it such an easy decision. Beltre remains a superlative fielder and one of the best defensive third basemen of all time. According to Baseball-Reference’s fielding runs, Beltre ranks second to Brooks Robinson among third basemen and fourth among all infielders behind Robinson, Mark Belanger and Ozzie Smith, with the visual evidence supporting the data that Beltre is a magician at third.
Miguel Cabrera, 69 WAR
Cabrera has managed to not just live up to but exceed expectations scouts had for him when he signed with the Marlins for $1.9 million out of Venezuela when he was 16.
With a picture-perfect swing, Cabrera combined tremendous plate coverage, strike-zone discipline and power, the rare player who was an 80 hitter with 80 power on the 20-80 scouting scale at his peak. After his rookie season, Cabrera’s worst year by WAR (2.7) was 2008, when he hit .292/.349/.537 and led the American League with 37 home runs, a testament to his talent, consistency and durability.
A two-time MVP who led the AL in OBP four times, Cabrera is already the greatest Venezuelan player ever, though he still has a ways to go to catch Pujols as best player ever born in Latin America.
Robinson Cano, 60 WAR
Cano is right on the cusp of being a Hall of Famer right now, a candidacy he should easily solidify with a normal aging pattern given his 2016 performance. Cano has one of the prettiest lefty swings in the game, with explosive hands, a compact stroke and an incredible combination of bat control and power. He also worked to transform his defense—one of his biggest knocks as a young player—into a strength, winning two Gold Glove awards.
Cano is already the best middle infielder ever from the Dominican Republic. Depending how Cano ages, he could end up one of the top 10 second basemen in MLB history.
David Ortiz, 54 WAR
On pure regular season performance, Ortiz is a borderline Hall of Famer. His career WAR is right around the same mark as Fred McGriff, Mark Teixeira, Jeff Kent, Robin Ventura and Johnny Damon. While Ortiz waited until age 27 to have his breakout season, his outstanding 30s (he led the AL with 54 home runs in 2006 and with a .445 OBP in 2007) made him one of the most dangerous power hitters in MLB history, with his 530 career home runs ranked No. 19 all-time.
While Ortiz backs up the power with outstanding plate patience (three seasons of at least 100 walks) and pure hitting ability, the limited value he provided in his early-to-mid 20s and his limitation to DH are what keep his career value right at the HOF borderline.
What puts Ortiz over the top is his playoff performance. He is a .295/.409/.553 hitter in 82 postseason games, with a 1.372 OPS that ranks fourth best all time. Ortiz has hit .455/.576/.795 in 14 World Series games and claimed the 2013 Series MVP award.
Between his regular season performance, playoff dominance and being one of the most important players of his era, Ortiz belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Felix Hernandez, 52 WAR
An ace pitcher needs to have an array of plus to double-plus pitches to miss bats. Hernandez had that, starting with a fastball that once sat in the mid-90s with wicked sink that he could blow by hitters or use to generate weak contact on the ground. He backed it with a double-plus slider he used as a putaway pitch early in his career and, later on, he developed one of the best changeups in the game.
An ace needs the command to hit his location, something Hernandez did with just 2.6 walks per nine innings for his career and only one season with more than 3.0 per nine. Then there’s durability. After making his MLB debut as a 19-year-old, Hernandez has made at least 30 starts and pitched at least 190 innings in 10 straight seasons, though that streak will end this year.
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While Hernandez will need at least a few more seasons to solidify his HOF caser, he’s on track to get there. After nearly 2,500 dominant major league innings, let’s hope Hernandez gets the opportunity to pitch in a playoff game at some point before he gets to Cooperstown.