The Washington Times - August 9, 2008, 12:03AM

By JAY LeBLANC
August 9, 2008

Thousands of baseball fans make the trek to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., each year to celebrate the game’s history and look back fondly on the careers of its greatest stars. But while it’s certainly worthwhile to peruse plaques, watch classic footage of Babe Ruth and check out old game-worn jerseys, it’s important to remember that there are quite a few baseball legends who have yet to call it a career.

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By my count, there are 20 active players who would more than likely someday be enshrined in Cooperstown even if their careers were to end tomorrow - nearly enough to fill out a big league roster. Some of them are on their last legs, while some still have plenty left in the tank, but all of them deserve your attention and your respect while they’re still applying their trade at stadiums throughout the country.

CATCHER

Ivan Rodriguez, New York Yankees

“Pudge,” the 1999 American League MVP, is arguably the best defensive backstop of all-time. He’s won a whopping 13 Gold Gloves - three more than Reds great Johnny Bench, who widely considered the best defensive catcher ever before Rodriguez came along. Even at 36, Rodriguez’ skills behind the dish haven’t eroded much, as evidenced by the fact that he’s won Gold Gloves the past two seasons. Rodriguez, who was recently acquired by the Yankees from the Tigers for the stretch run, is no slouch with the bat, either. He’s a .302 career hitter with seven Silver Slugger awards - second only to Mike Piazza among catchers - under his belt, and his 294 career home runs are the seventh-most ever for his position, behind six Hall of Famers and another pretty good player, eight-time All-Star Lance Parrish.

FIRST BASE

Jim Thome, Chicago White Sox

Okay, so Thome probably doesn’t even know where his first baseman’s mitt is at this point. First base was his home for about a decade after he moved over from the hot corner, but regardless, it’s his bat that has punched his ticket to Cooperstown. Thome currently ranks 16th all-time with 529 career home runs, and has the fourth best at bat-to-home run ratio ever, behind only Mark McGwire, Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds. The slugger’s at bats are often all-or-nothing affairs, however; in addition to his lofty home run totals, he’s also 15th all-time in walks and third in strikeouts. Thome will be 38 later this month, but the 22 longballs he’s hit so far this season show there’s definitely still some pop left in his bat.

Carlos Delgado, New York Mets

It’s possible Delgado wouldn’t get into Cooperstown if his career ended today, but he’s a borderline Hall of Famer now with enough left in the tank to eliminate “borderline” from the equation. He’s currently 32nd on the all-time home run list with 454 and at age 36, he has a very good shot at getting to 500, which would pretty much make him an automatic inductee. Delgado is more than just a slugger, however. His .279 career average is fairly high for someone with so many career homers and he hit .344 in 2000, and he’s 18th among active players with a .384 on-base percentage. Many were saying Delgado was finished after a down year in 2007, he’s showed he’s still got something left by hitting .264 with 23 home runs so far for the contending Mets.

SECOND BASE

Jeff Kent, Los Angeles Dodgers

You don’t hear Kent mentioned as a future Hall of Famer all that often, which is odd considering that his 375 career home runs are by far the most ever for a second baseman. The five-time All-Star, 2000 National League MVP and four-time Silver Slugger award winner isn’t known for his defense, but he’s been adequate in the field over the course of his career and his bat has more than made up for any deficiencies. Kent is 40 years old now and very much on the downside of his career, but he’s a gamer and can still play a major role for the Dodgers as they make a run at the N.L. West crown.

THIRD BASE

Chipper Jones, Atlanta Braves

Nagging injuries and advanced age have thus far failed to slow Jones down. Despite his injury woes, the 36-year-old Braves stalwart is leads the National League in batting average (.369) and on-base percentage (.466) and topped the 400-home run mark earlier this season. Jones got a World Series ring early in his career as a member of the 1995 Braves and was the National League MVP in 1999, when he slugged a career-high 45 home runs. He’s also a five-time All-Star and two-time Silver Slugger award winner at third base. Jones has a shot at 500 career home runs, provided his body doesn’t break down sooner rather than later.

Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees

It says something about Rodriguez’ greatness that he could retire today, at age 33, and still be a slam-dunk, first-ballot Hall of Famer. He already has three MVP awards to his credit and has climbed to 13th on the all-time home run list, with 542. He’s also a much better defender than people realize, having won a pair of Gold Glove awards at shortstop before making the switch to the hot corner upon joining the Yankees. Fortunately for A-Rod and his fans, he’s still right-smack in the middle of his prime and has Bonds’ all-time home run mark in his sights as long as he can stay healthy for a couple more years. The only thing he needs to do to join the ranks of the all-time greats is experience some postseason success.

SHORTSTOP

Derek Jeter, New York Yankees

Jeter, 34, is the only player of comparable age who comes close to matching Rodriguez’ Hall of Fame resume. The Yankees captain kicked off his career by winning the 1995 American League Rookie of the Year award and hasn’t slowed down since. He has eight All-Star appearances, two Gold Gloves and two Silver Slugger awards to his credit, and finished second in A.L. MVP voting in 2006 and third in 1998. That all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Well, here’s the best part: Jeter is a .309 career hitter in the postseason and has four World Series rings, and was the MVP of the 2000 World Series. He’s closing in on 2,500 career hits and since it appears he’s got at least a few good years left, he’s a good bet to join the 3,000 hit club on his way to Cooperstown.

Omar Vizquel, San Francisco Giants

Vizquel has never really gotten his due as one of the better shortstops of all-time, in part because his timing was off. He’s the closest thing to Ozzie Smith since Ozzie Smith, but Smith was still active for the first eight years of Vizquel’s career, stealing his thunder a bit. Vizquel also came along at a time when shortstop was evolving from a defense-oriented position to a position that featured offensive standouts like Cal Ripken, Rodriguez and Jeter. Vizquel isn’t a bad hitter himself - he’s accumulated 2,631 career hits to go along with a respectable .272 career average - but it’s his defense that will get him a plaque in Cooperstown. His 11 Gold Gloves rank second only to Smith at the shortstop position, and two ahead of Luis Aparicio, a strikingly similar player who is in the Hall of Fame. At age 41, Vizquel is truly on his last legs, hitting just .179 this season while being relegated to part-time duty, so enjoy his defensive wizardry while you still can.

OUTFIELD

Ken Griffey Jr., Chicago White Sox

“Junior” is truly one of the all-time greats. He topped the 600-home run mark earlier this season, and who knows what kind of power numbers he could have put up if he hadn’t been derailed by injuries the past several years? The 1999 American League Rookie of the Year, 1997 A.L. MVP, 13-time All-Star and seven-time Silver Slugger winner has topped 40 home runs in a season seven times and 50 twice, and unlike many other 1990s sluggers, nobody has ever claimed that his numbers were inflated by performance-enhancing drugs. Griffey was also one of the best defensive outfielders of his era, picking up 10 straight Gold Gloves from 1990 to 1999. He’s only appeared in three postseason series, but has made the most of them by hitting .305 with six home runs in 59 at bats. Perhaps he’ll get a shot to add a World Series ring to his resume now that he’s been traded to the contending White Sox.

Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners

Ichiro’s success has added a sense of legitimacy to the Japanese League, which will likely help him when his name appears on the Hall of Fame ballot. When you add his Japanese totals to his 1,700-plus major league hits, he’s already over 3,000 for his career at age 34. Even if you completely disregard his accomplishments in Japan, Ichiro would deserve consideration anyway. He’s never hit less than .303, stroked fewer than 206 hits, scored fewer than 101 runs, stolen fewer than 31 bases or failed to win a Gold Glove award in any of his seven big league seasons, and he’s on pace to match all of those totals once again in 2008. He’s also made the All-Star team every year and took both MVP and Rookie of the Year honors in 2001, joining Fred Lynn as the only players to win both awards in the same season. Ichiro definitely still has some good years left, but unfortunately his Mariners are headed in the wrong direction, so the one thing missing on his resume - a World Series ring - may elude him if he doesn’t change teams at some point.

Manny Ramirez, Los Angeles Dodgers

Manny’s not a huge fan of Beantown right now, but chances are he’ll someday look back on his Red Sox days fondly. After all, Manny punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame by slugging his way into the 500-home run club and winning a pair of World Series rings - and the 2004 World Series MVP award - in a Red Sox uniform. Of course, he was a superstar in Cleveland as well, winning the 1994 A.L. Rookie of the Year award, topping 40 home runs twice and knocking in more than 150 runs twice with the Tribe. Ramirez has never been much of a defender, but he’s had his share of highlight-film catches. He’s slowing down a bit at age 36, but chances are there’s enough mighty swings left in his bat to propel him into the ultra-exclusive 600-home run club.

Vladimir Guerrero, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Vlad is still only 32 years old, but he’s already managed to put up numbers that have him knocking on Cooperstown’s door. He’s slugged more than 30 home runs in a season eight times and more than 40 twice, and is up to 385 for his career with a good amount of gas apparently left in his tank. He won the 2004 A.L. MVP award and has finished in the top five on four other occasions, and he’s played in eight All-Star games and won seven Silver Slugger awards to boot. The only thing missing from Vlad’s resume is a World Series ring, and he hasn’t had much individual success in the postseason either, hitting .183 with a single home run in 60 at bats. Luckily for Guerrero, the Angels look like they’ll be in it to win it every year as long as Arte Moreno’s in charge.

STARTING PITCHERS

Greg Maddux, San Diego Padres

The results aren’t what they once were, but the 42-year-old Maddux still goes out there every fifth day and attacks hitters the same way he did during his prime, and he’s still getting the job done. The four-time Cy Young award winner, eight-time All-Star and 17-time Gold Glove winner’s unimposing, professor-like appearance belies his status as one of the all-time greats. He’s the active leader with 352 wins, which ranks ninth all-time, and given his pitching style - change speeds, hit spots - he could probably pitch for a few more years and make a win at 400 wins. Five years after he hangs them up, he’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee with one of the highest percentages of the vote ever.

Tom Glavine, Atlanta Braves

It’s ironic that Glavine and Maddux were teammates for so many years with the Braves, because Glavine is as close to a left-handed version of Maddux as you can get. Like Maddux, Glavine is 42 but still effective, as evidenced by the 30 wins he’s collected since turning 40. The two-time Cy Young award winner and 10-time All-Star joined the 300-win club last season, and again like Maddux, pitches in a way that could allow him to add to his career win total for a couple more seasons as long as he can stay healthy - which he’s had some trouble doing this year. After that, maybe he could have a career as an American League DH; his four Silver Slugger awards are the second-most ever for a pitcher.

Randy Johnson, Arizona Diamondbacks

As a 6’ 11” fireballer who has remained effective into his mid-40’s (he’ll turn 45 in September), the Big Unit is truly one of a kind. He’s also unique among Hall of Fame-caliber pitchers in that he was fairly average until his age-29 season, never posting more than more than 14 wins, fewer than 10 losses or an ERA below 3.65 in any full season beforehand. Since everything clicked for Johnson in 1993 - he went 19-8 with a 3.24 ERA and finished second in the A.L. Cy Young balloting that season - he’s been one of the most dominant pitchers in the history of the game, winning five Cy Young awards and finishing second three times. He’s up to second on the all-time strikeout list with 4,730 and is just seven wins shy of 300 in his illustrious career. Injuries have caught up to Johnson and he probably won’t be around too much longer, so as the title of this column suggests, catch him while you can.

Pedro Martinez, New York Mets

The Dodgers traded Martinez to the Expos prior to the 1994 season because they thought his small frame would cause him to break down, and they were right - it just took more than a decade for that to happen. From 1996, his first All-Star season, to 2005, the last season in which he managed to stay healthy, Martinez was arguably the most dominant pitcher in the game. He won three Cy Young awards, finished second twice, third once and fourth once, and was a key member of the 2004 Red Sox team that ended an 86-year drought by winning the World Series title. He peaked in 1999-2000, going 41-10 with a 1.90 ERA and 597 K’s in 430 1/3 innings en route to his second and third Cy Young awards. At age 36, however, Martinez has truly hit the wall, with just six wins under his belt since the beginning of the 2007 season.

Mike Mussina, New York Yankees

Mussina has never won a Cy Young award or 20 games in a single season, and he might have trouble getting into the Hall because some will argue that his was not a great career, merely a very good one that lasted a long time; this is backed up by his career 3.68 ERA, which would be among the highest for a Hall of Fame starting pitcher. However, 2008 marks the 17th consecutive season in which Mussina has reached double-digits in wins, and he’s up to 265 victories for his career. Like Maddux and Glavine, he isn’t overpowering but rather relies on hitting his spots and changing speeds, suggesting he could get to 300 wins and beyond as long as he stays healthy. Mussina will turn 40 in the offseason, but given his 15-7 record and 3.27 ERA this season, it’s clear he’s still got some gas left in the tank. A couple more above-average seasons could once and for all erase any questions about his Hall of Fame worthiness.

John Smoltz, Atlanta Braves

Smoltz’ career is reminiscent of Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley’s in that he has dominated hitters as both a starter and a closer. And while Eckersley’s 197 career wins helped push him over the closer hurdle and into the Hall, the 154 saves Smoltz notched from 2001 to 2004 will certainly help bolster the already-strong case for Cooperstown that his 210 wins, 3.26 career ERA, 1996 N.L. Cy Young award and four other top-10 finishes in the Cy Young voting provide. Smoltz will also be helped by his postseason dominance - he has a 2.65 career ERA in the playoffs - and the fact that he’s played his entire career with the Braves, winning a World Series title with them in 1995. Hopefully we haven’t seen the last of Smoltz; he’s yet to retire, but will miss the rest of this season with a shoulder injury, putting his career in jeopardy since he’s already 41.

RELIEF PITCHERS

Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees

Rivera is the most dominant closer in baseball history - end of story. His 471 saves rank third all-time, and with 28 saves in as many opportunities in 2008, he’s still just as automatic at age 38 as he’s ever been. He’s an eight-time All-Star and has finished in the top three in A.L. Cy Young voting four times, but what takes Rivera to another level altogether is his postseason success. In 76 career appearances, he’s posted an incredible 0.77 ERA while saving 34 games and winning eight others, and his Yankees teams have won four World Series with the Sandman anchoring their bullpen. The mild-mannered Panamanian makes closing games out look so easy, but all it takes is watching others try their hand at it to make you truly appreciate his greatness.

Trevor Hoffman, San Diego Padres

Hoffman made the conversion from shortstop to pitcher in the minor leagues, and almost 20 years later, it’s still looking like a sound career move. Hoffman has used a devastating changeup to amass more saves - 548 - than any other pitcher in the game’s history, and while he’s not as dominant at age 40 as he had been in his younger years, his 24 saves in 27 opportunities this season prove he can still get the job done. The six-time All-Star has finished in the top three in N.L. Cy Young voting three times during his illustrious career, including a pair of second-place finishes, and will be a slam-dunk, first-ballot Hall of Famer when he finally decides to hang ‘em up.

HONORABLE MENTION

Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals

This column was all about identifying players whose current accomplishments would likely put them in the Hall of Fame, and to date, no batter who has played just seven-plus big league seasons, no matter how dominant, has been enshrined in Cooperstown, excluding Negro League players who finished up their careers in the bigs (I believe Ichiro would make the cut if he were to retire today because of his accomplishments in Japan, but that’s beside the point). That said, very few players in the history of the game can match Pujols’ accomplishments during his first seven-plus years with the Cardinals. He already has a World Series title, an MVP award, five other top-five finishes in the MVP voting, six All-Star nods, a Gold Glove and three Silver Slugger awards to his credit at age 28. On top of that, he’s a .333 career hitter with 305 career home runs under his belt, and he’s never hit fewer than 32 home runs or knocked in fewer than 103 runs in any season. Two or three more “average” years by Pujols’ standards, and he’ll not only be knocking on Cooperstown’s door - he’ll be kicking it in.

Johan Santana, New York Mets

At age 29 and with only roughly five seasons as a starting pitcher under his belt, Santana has already put together a compelling case for Cooperstown. He’s won a pair of Cy Young awards, finished in the top five in the voting on two other occasions and compiled the 12th best winning percentage - .667 - in baseball history. But like Pujols, Santana needs to sustain his greatness for at least a couple more years before he can truly be considered Hall of Fame material. While the winning percentage is impressive, he still has just 102 career wins to his credit. Now that he’s playing for the big-market Mets, Santana should get good run support and some chances to shine in the postseason.

All photos by The Associated Press

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times and mayor of the National Pastime web community. He can be reached at jleblanc@washingtontimes.com.